The smell of progress

It’s a hot day, and you’re feeling fabulous walking down the street in your new and soon to be favorite shirt; or so you think.

Perhaps the most common of the synthetic fabrics, polyester is ubiquitous in outdoor and winter wear. It's also water-repellant, which means that rather than absorbing sweat, it allows perspiration to build up inside the garment.

Perhaps the most common of the synthetic fabrics, polyester is ubiquitous in outdoor and winter wear. It’s also water-repellant, which means that rather than absorbing sweat, it allows perspiration to build up inside the garment.

As the sweat drips down you sense a slightly pungent smell radiating from your fresh purchase, no big deal, you reapply some deodorant and carry on with the rest of your day. You get home and change into some more lounge appropriate attire, and you throw your new shirt in the wash. However, the following day as you inspect your recent purchase, you realize that the unpleasant aroma still lingers despite a thorough wash. Instinctively you gather that the chemical compounds of your shirt must be the culprit in this unfortunate happenstance. Alright, so maybe your mind doesn’t arrive at that conclusion, but if this sounds at all familiar then you may be the victim of a polyester purchase.
Polyester first entered the mainstream clothing industry in the 1950’s, gaining appeal through its cheap manufacturing process, and similarly inexpensive market value. It has garnered attention for being both a durable fabric and having a wrinkle-free, quick dry nature. However, there are downsides to this synthetic, petroleum-based material. As previously mentioned, polyester is often accompanied by an odor that arrives whenever sweat accumulates on the material. This phenomenon can be attributed to a bacteria called Micrococcus which is responsible for creating the cringeworthy scent that we all try to avoid. In a study conducted at the University of Ghent in Belgium, scientists uncovered that this type of bacteria was only found on polyester clothing and did not appear on a cotton counterpart when examined under the same conditions. Why this one particular material is effected and not the other is still a mystery.

The wonders of Dacron polyester advertisement, from Sears & Roebuck, 1954

The wonders of Dacron polyester advertisement, from Sears & Roebuck, 1954

But perhaps this doesn’t matter to you. After all your polyester gear is just for working out and being smelly in a place where the goal is to sweat seems unavoidable anyway. Unfortunately, this stench runs deeper than the fiber’s of your shirt, and this smell is the only truly renewable resource that polyester has to offer.
With a world growing more conscious of environmental crises there will need to be a shift towards a greener alternative to polyester, especially since our clothing consumption habits hit a 2.5 trillion dollar high as of 2014. Experts estimate that there has been a 40% increase in clothing waste filling our landfills in just the past five years alone. Despite polyester being a recyclable material, to a finite degree, there is nothing renewable about the raw material that is used in the manufacturing process. Damaging fossil fuels and their accompanied pollutants are a staple of the polyester industry, and with no sign of our appetite for fast fashion dwindling, we must consider alternative shopping habits even on a personal scale.
So, do you need a polyester jacket for hiking in the Himalayas? Yes. But consider going second hand either at a clothing swap or at a thrift store (and no need is too niche for the power of Ebay or Kijiji). Additionally, where it is possible, consider more environmentally sustainable fabrics like organic cotton in the summer and merino wool in the winter. The organic cotton industry provides farmers in developing countries with sustainable jobs and does use the many harmful pesticides the rest of the cotton industry uses. Currently only 5 billion of our 2.5 trillion-dollar clothing budget is spent towards organic cotton—a statistic that can afford to grow exponentially.
Now, I’m not advocating completely scrubbing our wardrobes lest they be second-hand or organic, but we should at least be aware of the problems our purchases create, whether it be a smell or an environmental impact. Mindfulness of our purchasing power is the first step toward change.

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Author Taylor

About the Author

Taylor is a recent graduate from the University of Waterloo with an interest in pursuing a career in international law and human rights. Specifically, he would like to combat the growing industry of human trafficking as it relates to any and all forms of forced labour.  He sees writing as a fundamental launching point for both the development of awareness and the ideally the action that will follow. When he is not studying or writing he can be found bingeing podcast series and playing volleyball.

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