Polyester is the general term for a variety of fabrics or textiles, but did you know that the overall carbon footprint of polyester is largely detrimental to the environment?
Polyester fabric is manufactured from petroleum, and the processing relies on high amounts of energy, especially in countries where electricity is generally generated by burning even more fossil fuels.
Understanding the carbon footprint of polyester is a great way to start controlling your fashion carbon footprint.
This complete guide explains how to calculate not only polyesters carbon footprint, but also the carbon footprint of cotton, leather, and other popular fabrics.
Carbon Footprint of Polyester
The carbon footprint of polyester can be explained as follows. Two square meters of polyester is equal to:
- 6.4kg carbon emissions
- 32.5km (distance driven by gas-powered car)
- 164.9m3 of CO2 gas
Two square meters of material can make adult size dresses, child outfits, t-shirts, slacks and a number of items.
When calculating the carbon footprint of polyester, simply multiply the number of garments by 6.4. The result is the emissions produced to create that fabric.
However, that does not include the fashion process, which can contribute additional emissions into the atmosphere. You can measure those emissions by adding in shipping and laundry calculations:
One of the best ways to combat it is to use a fashion forward hero carbon offset, that plants trees to erase the emissions produced by the clothes you wear.
Positive Impacts of Polyester
Polyester does have some positive attributes as well. The positive impacts of polyester include:
- Pure polyethylene terephthalate is not toxic to humans. (When mixed with chemicals, it becomes hazardous).
- Polyester manufacturing isn’t generally more hazardous or polluting than the variety of other fibers worldwide
- Polyester lasts for a long time, especially when blended with natural fiber to make garments.
- Some types of polyester textiles hardly shed microfibers.
Negative Impacts of Polyester
The negative impacts of polyester outweigh the positive, however:
- The creation of polyester requires 70 million barrels of oil every year.
- Polyester can take around 200 years to finally decompose
- Polyester sheds microfibers that build up in bodies of water and contributes to 31% of the plastic pollution found in the ocean.25 One wash can release up to 4,000 microfibers (per gram of polyester fabric).
- Strong chemicals and dyes used during polyester production are released into water supplies and can cause adverse reactions to human health.
How Is Polyester Made?
It is well known that polyester is a synthetic fabric, but exactly how is polyester made?
- Monomer Creation – reaction of ethylene glycol with dimethyl terephthalate at a high temperature, which creates a monomer.
- Polymer Creation – the created monomer reacts with dimethyl terephthalate, which creates a polymer.
- Extrusion – the polymer is then extruded in long segments, which are left cool down and become dry before they are broken into smaller segments.
- Spinning – the small pieces are then melted into a substance with the consistency of honey and then extruded with the use of a spinneret. This process creates fibers.
- Finishing – the filaments resulting from the entire process are then cut or reacted with different types of chemicals to achieve the desired result.1
The most commonly manufactured form of polyester is ethylene polyester (PET). The main component of ethylene polyester is petroleum-obtained ethylene.
During the polyester fiber creation process, ethylene acts as the polymer that reacts with different chemicals to create a fibrous compound that is solid and stable.
Four different processes may be used to create ethylene polyester fiber:
- Filament Process – for the production of smoother fabrics
- Staple Process – for the production of yarn fabrics
- Tow Process – for the production of loosely arranged filament fabrics
- Fiberfill Process – for the production of voluminous fabrics
These different types of fibers are dependent on reacting with the required chemicals to achieve the desired result.
Polyester fabric is mainly used for the following applications:
- Clothing such as shirts, jackets, and a variety of underwear.
- Homeware such as towels, pillows, curtains, and carpets.
- Industrial ware such as film, tarps, and LCDs.
China is the biggest exporter of polyester, but the material was first created in North America.
Today polyester fabric is produced in the following countries:
Demand for polyester fabric has increased over the years, contributing to a rise in the carbon footprint of polyester.
The below table indicates the increased demand for polyester between 2017-2023:
|Year||Demand Per Year (in million metric tons)|
|2023||Predicted demand in million metric tons: 63|
|2022||Demand in million metric tons: 60|
|2021||Demand in million metric tons: 57|
|2020||Demand in million metric tons: 53|
|2019||Demand in million metric tons: 58|
|2018||Demand in million metric tons: 55|
|2017||Demand in million metric tons: 52|
Is Polyester Eco Friendly?
Polyester is made from non-renewable resources, including crude oil. Considering that more than 52% of all fibers consist of polyester, this is a highly unsustainable figure.
Furthermore, polyester is manufactured at a rate of 57 million tons per year and the figure is predicted to double by the year 2030.
Therefore, polyester is not eco-friendly and the process of manufacturing and producing polyester contributes to high amounts of carbon emissions.
In addition to this, polyester results in huge amounts of microfibers and plastic waste.2
Is Polyester Biodegradable?
The question is often asked, is polyester biodegradable since the carbon footprint of polyester is already at such a high level?
The bad news continues, however, because along with its deep carbon footprint, polyester is not biodegradable.
Because polyester is a plastic fiber made from crude oils, it has the potential to hang around in landfills for many, many, many decades.3
What Is the Equivalent of Polyester Carbon Footprint?
Since 2 square meters of polyester has a carbon footprint of about 6.4kg, you can find equivalents using this plastic carbon footprint calculator:
Polyester Production Environmental Impact
Polyester fabric is hardy, and lasts for a long time, which is why it is so popular. In addition to this, polyester is readily available and cheaper than most textiles.
However, the polyester production environmental impact is harsh:
- More than 55 million metric tons of polyester are produced every year, worldwide.23 This fabric has been blamed for the overproduction of clothing since its discovery in the 1940s and by 2002 the demand for polyester has surpassed the demand for cotton for the first time.
- Polyester production relies on fossil fuels, which raises the carbon footprint of polyester.
- Polyester is not biodegradable and cannot truly be recycled.
- Polyester is known to shed microfibers that are toxic to humans and aquatic life.4
Is Polyester Good for the Environment?
Therefore, when the question arises – is polyester good for the environment, it is easy to see why it is not.
Polyester is part of the top 10 worst fabrics for the environment.
Fabrics That Are Devastating to the Environment
|Worst Fabric for the Environment||Impact on the Environment|
|Cotton||Massive impact on soil fertility and biodiversity. Extremely polluting and a hazard to human health, unless produced sustainably.|
|Polyester||A large contributor to plastic waste on a global scale, including microfiber pollution poses a risk to human health, wildlife, aquatic life, and entire ecosystems.|
|Nylon24||A large contributor to plastic waste is in landfills, oceans, and air. Risk to the entire food chain because of pollution.|
|Acrylic||Acrylic may lead to certain types of cancer because of the inherent polyacrylonitrile polymers.|
|Viscose||The production process is reliant on chemicals that are hazardous to the environment and human health.|
|Bamboo Viscose||The production process when performed sustainably is very eco friendly, and bamboo is both sustainable and fast growing.|
|Acetate||Reliance on hazardous chemicals and the production process also leads to huge amounts of pollution. Toxic chemicals often leak into water sources, polluting them.|
|Wool||Wool is one of the most environmentally unfriendly fabrics in the world, because of the sheer amount of chemicals needed for wool processing. Toxic chemicals are found in highly polluting wastewater.|
|Leather||Leather is immensely popular, but the leather tanning process is highly destructive to the environment and human health. Chromium waste is one of the biggest problems resulting from leather tanning.|
|Fur||In addition to being a very questionable practice and considered to be unethical, the fur industry is reliant on harsh chemicals and fur factories are known to cause high levels of pollution.5|
Cotton vs Polyester Environmental Impact
While cotton is a natural fiber, cotton production methods are almost as unsustainable as polyester. The cotton vs polyester environmental impact is highlighted in the below table:
|Criteria of environmental impact||Polyester||Cotton|
|Origin of fiber||Crude oil (synthetic)||Plant (natural)|
|Renewable||Polyester is not produced with the use of renewable sources||Cotton is produced with the use of renewable sources|
|Biodegradable||Polyester is not biodegradable||Cotton is biodegradable|
|Microplastics||Polyester produces microplastics||Cotton does not produce microplastics|
|Land Degradation||Polyester is not a cause of land degradation||Cotton is one of the causes of land degradation|
|Biodiversity||Polyester does not affect biodiversity||Cotton affects biodiversity|
|Estimated Global Warming (CO2-eq/1kg)||10.2 kg CO2||9.3 kg CO2|
|Energy Usage (MJ-eq/1kg)||184 MJ||98 MJ2|
Related Reading: 8 Sustainable Dresses & Eco-friendly Dresses (2022 Fashion Guide)
Organic Cotton Carbon Footprint
Organic cotton is produced using natural seeds, and there are no pesticides or chemicals present.
The organic cotton carbon footprint highlights the following:
- Organic cotton emits 78% fewer CO2 emissions when compared with polyester
- Organic cotton emits 91% fewer CO2 emissions when compared with nylon.
- Organic fiber decomposes in six months, compared to synthetic fibers that last for hundreds of years.6
Carbon Footprint of Cotton
The carbon footprint of cotton (non-organic) is 2-4 tons of CO2 emissions per hectare.
Carbon Footprint of a Cotton T-Shirt
Calculating the carbon footprint of a cotton T-shirt relies on the following factors:
- The growth process of the cotton used to make the T-shirt
- The processing of the cotton into different textiles
- The manufacturing process of the T-shirt
- Transport process
- Retail process
- Lifespan usage
- Disposal and the end of the T-shirt’s lifespan7
The carbon footprint of a T-shirt differs depending on the material used:
|Material Used||Carbon Emitted|
Carbon Footprint of a Jacket
The carbon footprint of a jacket depends mainly on the type of fabric used, the manufacturing process, the shipping process, the lifespan, and the disposal method.
For instance, a denim jacket’s carbon footprint can exceed 1000 kg CO2 during the cutting, sewing, and finishing process.
The highest emissions are generated during the sewing process (twice as high as during the cutting process).
This is not even considering shipping, lifespan, and disposal.
The below chart indicates the carbon footprint data of the carbon footprint of jacket:
- Type of energy used (electric, water, steam, material)
- Chemical and packaging materials
- Crafting, finish, packaging
- Scrapping, wastewater9
What Is a Fashion Carbon Footprint Calculator? Carbon Footprint Clothing Calculator
A fashion carbon footprint calculator calculates the carbon footprint of an average closet filled with clothes, based on the following calculations:
- How regularly new or used clothing is purchased
- How many items of clothing are purchased every year
- Whether clothing is purchased online or in-store
- How many clothing items are returned after purchase
- How many clothing purchases are second-hand clothing items
- How many items are purchased from sustainable brands
- How many items are rented per year
- How many loads of laundry are done per month
- Whether laundry is done using hot or cold water and using air drying or machine drying methods
- How many items are dry-cleaned each month
- How many clothing items are repaired every year
- How old clothing is disposed of (recycled or thrown out)
To measure the full fashion carbon footprint, the variables impact the emissions amounts.
For example, by recycling garments and reusing them for other projects, you can reduce the emissions.10
Carbon Footprint Wool vs Cotton
Carbon footprint comparisons do not only occur between cotton and polyester, but also between several other types of fabric. When it comes to comparing the carbon footprint of cotton and wool, there are several factors to consider.
The carbon footprint wool vs cotton debate includes the following main considerations:
- Wool is renewable, but the sheep covered in it contribute up to 30 liters of methane each day, which is detrimental to Earth’s climate.
- Cotton can be grown organically without toxic chemicals, but when grown the popular conventional way, the impact of the chemicals is overwhelming.28
When taking these factors into account, organically produced cotton produces less than half of the CO2 emissions that wool production does.11
Environmental Impact of Wool
The environmental impact of wool is detrimental in more ways than just CO2 emissions:
- Animal cruelty
- Excessive greenhouse emissions
- Land and water pollution
Carbon Footprint of Wool
A single sheep is responsible for 30 liters of methane each day, and a woolen garment emits more than 27 times the CO2 emissions of a cotton garment.
The carbon footprint of wool has landed the fabric in third place on the list of fabrics that are detrimental to the environment, with Alpaca and Silk in the second and first place, respectively.
What Is a Carbon Footprint Sweater?
Sweaters are usually made of wool. Therefore, the carbon footprint of a wool sweater is indicated as follows:
- 2 square meters of wool is equal to:
- 13.89kg of carbon emissions
- 70.5km driven in a gas-powered car
- 357.9m3 of carbon emissions gas
Merino Wool Environmental Impact
Merino wool, on the other hand, has several positive environmental impacts.
Merino wool’s environmental impact includes the following:
- Renewable wool growing
- Biodegradable (in four months)
- Merino wool contains organic carbon in higher quantities than cotton
- Less washing required
What Are the Harmful Effects of Wool Industry?
When discussing the effects of merino wool on the environment, the question must also be asked; what are the harmful effects of the wool industry?
- Excessive livestock emissions
- Overgrazing, because of excessive demand
- More processing and extra dye usage
- Leftover waste12
Wool Sustainability Issues
Wool has been used since 10,000 BC for clothing, shoes, and other applications. But wool sustainability issues are still being debated in modern times.
However, because wool production includes harsh dyes and chemicals, wool isn’t truly as sustainable as it seems to be. Wool production also causes CO2 emissions and animal farming opens the door to deforestation.
Furthermore, sheep shearing can become incredibly inhumane and forms part of animal abuse practices around the world.13
Nylon Carbon Footprint
The nylon carbon footprint is of great importance because the nylon manufacturing process creates nitrous oxide, which is 310 times more potent than CO2.
Two square meters of nylon is equal to:
- 7.31kg of CO2 emissions
- 37.1km traveled in a gas-powered car
- 188.3 m3 of CO2 gas
Carbon Footprint of Nylon Per Kg
The carbon footprint of nylon per kg is as follows:
It is estimated that recycled nylon is responsible for 0.201kg CO2eq per kg.
Virgin nylon is estimated to produce 6.52kg CO2eq per kg.14
Carbon Footprint of Leather
The carbon footprint of leather is detailed as follows:
17.0kg of CO2 emissions per square meter of leather.
Artificial leather’s impact is 15.8kg of CO2 emissions per square meter (complete supply chain).
Emissions emitted by sending hides to landfill (unprocessed) – kg of CO2e / m2 of hide = total amount of emissions emitted by converting hides into the leather (processing of leather and landfill emissions) = 94.152kg of CO2e / m2 of hides in landfill (unprocessed).
Therefore, the total emissions emitted by converting hides into leather are approximately 110kg of CO2e / m2
The difference in emissions between converting hides into leather and sending hides to a landfill is calculated as follows:
Total amount of emissions from hides to leather conversion – Total emissions from unprocessed hides in a landfill = 11 – 94.152= 15.848kg of CO2e/m2
Leather processing CO2 emissions are as follows:
17kg of CO2e/m2
Landfill CO2 emissions are as follows:
= CO2e per m2 of hide x methane-carbon mass ratio
= CO2e per ton of hide – hides per ton x hide per m2 x methane-carbon mass ratio
= 1.152kg of CO2e/m2
CO2 emissions per ton of hide found in landfill: Putrefied hides emit 624kg of CO2 per ton.
A single cow’s hide can weigh as much as 6.1kg.
1000/6.1 = 163.93 hides (per ton)
Hides per m2 = The average cow’s hide is around 47.5 square feet or 4.41 m2.
Therefore:1 hide per 4.41 m2 The methane-carbon mass ratio (used for calculations) Methane – 16 (in atomic mass) Carbon – 12 (in atomic mass)15
Fleece Carbon Footprint
While fleece is mostly recycled, it still comes from newly produced polyester which causes microfiber pollution.
The chemicals used to treat fleece are known to pollute water and the air and are also a hazard to workers (in factories).31 Possibly the worst part of the fleece carbon footprint is that fleece never biodegrades.
Linen Carbon Footprint
The linen carbon footprint is detailed as follows:
Two m2 of linen is equal to:
- 4.5kg CO2 emissions
- Driving 22.8km in a gas-powered car
- 116m3 of CO2 gas
Spandex Carbon Footprint
The spandex carbon footprint is approximately 397g of CO2 per 1 ounce of spandex material
Hemp Carbon Footprint
The hemp carbon footprint on the other hand is positive.
Hemp is known for capturing carbon twice as effectively as trees, and industrial hemp can absorb at least 22 tons of carbon per single hectare.
Carbon Footprint of Polyester
The below table compares the carbon footprint of polyester with that of other types of fabric:16
|Type of Fabric||Biodegradable||Carbon Footprint|
|Lyocell||Yes||124.7g of CO2 per ounce of lyocell|
|Linen||Yes||201.0g of CO2 per ounce of linen|
|Conventional Cotton||Yes||289.0g of CO2 per ounce of conventional cotton|
|Recycled Polyester||No||260.8g of CO2 per ounce of recycled polyester|
|Organic Cotton||Yes||289.0g of CO2 per ounce of organic cotton|
|Bamboo||Yes||360.0g of CO2 per ounce of bamboo|
|Spandex||No||396.8g of CO2 per ounce of spandex|
|Nylon||Yes||450.7g of CO2 per ounce of nylon|
Textile Carbon Footprint
The global textile carbon footprint is at 1.7 billion tons of CO2 emissions every year.
Textile Industry Emissions
The textile industry emissions have increased with the number of fiber volumes per year since 2000. Between 2000 and 2021 fiber volumes increased by 117% globally.
The textile industry as a whole is responsible for up to 10% of all GHG emissions.32 This figure has increased exponentially since 2000 because in 2022 clothing is sold at a 60% higher rate than 22 years ago.
The textile industry emissions can be grouped as follows:17
Textile Industry Environmental Impact
The global textile industry’s environmental impact can be summed up as follows:
- It is responsible for 20% of potable water pollution mainly due to the dyes and finishing products used during the manufacturing process.
- Furthermore, washing synthetic fabrics release more than 0.5 million tons of microfibers into the oceans around the world.
- 10% of GHG emissions are caused by clothing and shoe manufacturing. This means that the textile industry is responsible for more emissions than all international flights as well as maritime shipping combined.18
Carbon Footprint Calculator for Textile Industry
To calculate the carbon footprint of the global textile industry, an online carbon footprint calculator is used. A carbon footprint calculator for textile industry needs two main inputs:
- Primary carbon footprint – fossil fuel energy consumption
- Secondary carbon footprint – lifespan and sustainability.
Consider the following:
- 1.074 billion kWh of electricity or 32 million MT of coal, as well as 6-9 tn liters of water.
- The thermal energy needed per single meter of fabric is between 4,500 and 5,500 Kcal.
- The electrical energy needed per single meter of fabric is 0.45-0.55 kWh.
The carbon footprint of fabric or textiles is calculated based on the embodied energy of the material, which consists of all the energy used during every step of the manufacturing process.
Calculating the estimated embodied energy inside the material requires the addition of all the manufacturing steps.19
The following figures apply (keeping in mind that the energy required, and carbon emitted to manufacture 1 ton of spun fiber is a lot more intensive for synthetic material than for cotton):
|Textile||Kg Carbon Emissions/Ton|
|Polyester||9.52kg carbon emissions/ton|
|Conventional cotton||5.89kg carbon emissions/ton|
|Cotton||3.75kg carbon emissions/ton|
Embodied energy used during the manufacturing of different textiles:
|Textile||Energy in MJ / Kilogram|
|Cotton||55 energy in MJ/kilogram|
|Wool||63 energy in MJ/kilogram|
|Viscose||100 energy in MJ/kilogram|
|Polypropylene||115 energy in MJ/kilogram|
|Polyester||125 energy in MJ/kilogram|
Industrial Carbon Footprint Calculator
An industrial carbon footprint calculator functions around the following calculation:
The calculations are put together in the following manner:
- Energy (fuel) consumption is entered in short tons or MMbtu’s.
- For instance: Anthracite Coal in short tons or MMbtu’s equals emissions in metric tons which calculates the carbon fee.34
- Natural gas consumption is entered in one thousand cubic feet or MMBtu.
- For instance: Natural Gas Mcf or MMbtu’s equals emissions in metric tons which calculates the carbon fee.
- Petroleum consumption is entered in barrels or MMbtu’s.
- For instance: Residual Fuel Oil bbl. or MMbtu’s equals emissions in metric tons which calculates the carbon fee.
- Mobile fuel consumption is entered in gallons or MMbtu’s.
- For instance: Diesel Fuel gal or MMbtu’s equals emissions in metric tons which calculates the carbon fee.20
How To Reduce Fashion Footprint
When considering the carbon footprint of polyester and the textile industry as a whole, it is glaringly obvious that more needs to be done when considering how to reduce fashion footprint.
How To Reduce Carbon Footprint Clothing
- Wearing all clothing items until they reach the end of their lifespan
- Using the air-drying method
- Washing laundry in cold water
- Not washing too often
- Using sustainable disposal methods when disposing of old clothes
- Buying less clothing is polyester eco friendly
- Buying second-hand clothing
- Choosing organic brands and material
- Buying local
How To Reduce Carbon Footprint in Textile Industry
Reducing the carbon footprint in the textile industry requires a more concerted effort. When considering how to reduce carbon footprint in the textile industry, the following measures should be implemented:
- Switching to clean energy resources –has the potential to reduce textile CO2 emissions by 1.1 billion CO2eq a year.
- Utilizing recycled polyester instead of virgin polyester – the manufacturing process of recycled polyester releases at least 37% fewer emissions than the manufacturing of virgin polyester.
- Using leather alternatives including making use of sawdust-grown mushrooms and modified yeast cells.
- Adopting dry processing manufacturing processes to cut down on water usage and water pollution.18
By implementing these measures, the carbon footprint of polyester as well as the carbon footprint of the textile industry as a whole could be greatly reduced.
Frequently Asked Questions About Carbon Footprint of Polyester
What Is the Carbon Footprint of Polyester?
The carbon footprint of polyester (virgin) is 119.59kg CO2/100 kilograms while the carbon footprint of waste polyester (when recycling) is 1154.15 kgCO2/100 kilograms.
What Is the Carbon Footprint of Polyethylene?
Polyethylene’s carbon footprint is estimated to be 6kg of carbon emissions per kilogram of plastic.
Can Polyester Be Recycled?
While polyester cannot truly be recycled, recycled polyester is made from recycled plastic.
How Many Percentage Is a Carbon in Wool?
Carbon makes up 50% of wool weight, compared to the 40% carbon that makes up the weight of cotton, and the 24% carbon that makes up the weight of cellulose.
What Is the Carbon Footprint of a Cotton Shirt?
The lifespan of a cotton T-shirt produces 8.771kg CO2eq.
What Is the Carbon Footprint of a Pair of Jeans?
Should one pair of jeans be worn weekly over four years, its carbon footprint would be 915 pounds of CO2.
Which Fabric Has Lower Carbon Footprint?
Organic cotton is the most popular sustainable fabric with a low carbon footprint. Should farmers only choose to grow organic cotton, they could save a total of 218 billion liters of water and 92.5 million kg of CO2.
What Is the Carbon Footprint of a Shirt?
The average cotton shirt has a carbon footprint of 7kg of CO2. It must be noted that half of the carbon footprint comes from wet treatment.
What Is the Carbon Footprint of Textiles?
The textile industry is responsible for up to 10% of global carbon emissions.
What is the Carbon Footprint of Cotton Per Kg?
The carbon footprint of cotton (lint cotton) per kg is 6.5kg CO2eq per kg.
Read More About Carbon Footprint of Polyester
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