Impact of plastic in fashion on the environment

Paulina Kulczycki

It's no secret that the fashion industry ranks high among the biggest environmental offenders of our time. A primary culprit? Plastic. From synthetic fibres to mountains of packaging waste, plastic in fashion is still being used universally. But what’s the real impact of plastic in fashion on the environment? Here at SANVT, we're laying out the cold, hard facts, figures, and stats, and shedding light on sustainable alternatives that might soon make plastic a relic of the past.

Life in Plastic, Not So Fantastic. In just a century, plastic has morphed from a revolutionary material to our planet's biggest nightmare. Plastic in fashion isn’t just resource-intensive and climate-wrecking during production, it’s also not as easy to recycle as you might think and takes centuries to decompose. On top of that, microplastic particles released during washing synthetic clothes pollute our waters and endanger both human and animal health. But where does all this plastic come from, and how much are we actually dealing with here? 

Packaging Waste

One major reason the fashion industry guzzles so much plastic is the demand for packaging. And we’re not just talking about the plastic bags that ferry your new threads from shop to home but the plastic packaging used to transport fabrics and garments from factory to factory and eventually to retailers. Plastic packaging shields clothes from mould, dirt, moths, and tears, during transit but at a steep cost: an estimated 180 billion (!) polybags are used annually for clothing packaging. That’s about 60,000 tons of plastic packaging waste each year in fashion alone. Thus, it’s crucial to replace plastic packaging with biodegradable alternatives: bio plastics made from algae or sugarcane, and even styrofoam made from mushrooms, which is a natural, odourless material, can cut down on plastic use in packaging.

Read more about the relevance of sustainable innovations and alternatives to plastic here.

Impact of plastic in fashion on the environment

Synthetic Fabric Production

Plastic in fashion isn’t just confined to packaging but also the fabrics themselves. The first fully synthetic fibre, Nylon, was developed by Wallace Carothers at DuPont in 1935 and hit the market in 1939. Nylon revolutionized the textile industry with its use in stockings and other garments and is still used today in many blends. But there’s another synthetic fabric that’s even more pervasive: polyester. Polyester is the most widely used fibre in the fashion industry, making up a whopping 52% of the global fibre market! Producing polyester consumes over 70 million tons of oil annually. Plus, both polyester and nylon are derived from petrochemical raw materials, leaving a significant carbon footprint.

Decomposition Time

Ironically, our discarded synthetic fibre clothing eventually turns into plastic waste itself. With an estimated 92 million tons of textile waste produced annually, a significant portion is made of polyester, nylon, and other synthetic materials. Since synthetic fibres take hundreds of years to decompose, they significantly exacerbate the plastic waste problem. A typical polyester garment for instance can take up to 200 years to fully break down. But what about recycling, you ask?


Many brands try to greenwash their synthetic garments and plastic packaging use with recycled or recyclable plastic. Yet, despite the high volumes of plastic used, the rates of textile recycling remain low. Less than 15% of total textile waste is recycled, and only a small fraction of that becomes new clothing. Most recycled plastics in fashion are downcycled into lower-quality products. And since many garments are made from mixed fibres, recycling becomes even more challenging. Hence, the recycling argument often ends up as an empty promise, a green washing tactic for fast fashion brands to soothe the conscience of their customers. 

Find out here, how recycling in the fashion industry really looks like.

SANVT Impact of plastic in fashion on the environment

Microplastics in Fashion

Beyond the plastic waste from packaging and synthetic clothing, there’s another plastic issue in fashion: microplastics. Synthetic fibres like polyester shed microplastics with every wash. It’s estimated that a single load of laundry can release over 700,000 microplastic fibres into the water system. These microplastics aren’t filtered out by sewage treatment plants and end up in oceans, rivers, and lakes, contributing to global microplastic pollution.

Read more about microplastics here.

Impact of Microplastics on the Environment

Microplastics in the ocean are inevitably ingested by marine organisms, from tiny plankton to large fish, disrupting the entire food chain. Ingested plastic can cause physical harm, reproductive issues, and even death in marine animals. Land animals can also be affected, either by consuming plastic waste directly or by eating prey that has ingested microplastics. This also applies to us humans by the way, as the microplastics in the ocean are first consumed by fish and eventually end up grilled on our plates, making their way into our bodies.

Health Risks of Microplastics

Studies have found microplastics in various human organs, including the lungs and intestines. Although the long-term health impacts and risks are still being researched, there are serious concerns that microplastics can cause inflammation in the body and release harmful chemicals.

Impact of plastic in fashion on the environment SANVT journal

Innovations and Alternatives

Given the severe ecological and health impacts associated with plastic use in fashion, it’s crucial to promote sustainable alternatives and support brands with natural fibres to protect our environment. Fortunately, growing awareness has spurred on-going efforts to reduce the fashion industry’s plastic use, including developing biodegradable materials, closed water systems, and increased use of natural fabrics.

Plastic-Free approach at SANVT

At SANVT, we aim to make the fashion world a bit gentler. Gentler on the environment, on people, and on the climate. That’s why we develop our collections almost entirely with long-lasting premium fabrics made from biodegradable fibres (from organic cotton to Lyocell and recycled wool). Our dyeing process is chemical-free and uses closed water systems to recycle wastewater and protect the oceans. Plus, our packaging is 100% plastic-free too and our production is ClimatePartner certified.

Plastic in Fashion: The Bottom Line

As you can see, plastic in fashion is a far bigger issue than just the plastic bags you bring your clothes home in. From packaging waste to synthetic fabrics and microplastics, it’s not just about the climate, the environment, marine and land animals, but also about our own health. So, what can you, as a consumer, do to change the fashion industry sustainably and minimise plastic?

Wash the synthetic clothes you already own in wash bags to filter out microplastics and dispose of your clothes at trusted recycling centres. When shopping in the future, look for natural, biodegradable materials and support brands that transparently document their clothing's composition throughout the entire production chain.

Learn more about our eco-friendly efforts at SANVT in our Impact Report.

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