A familiar feature on the labels of our tights, yoga gear and swimwear, nylon is a useful and inexpensive fabric, but one with an environmental impact worth considering in an age of increasing environmental awareness. Roughly 1 billion clothing garments are produced each year by the industry as a result of consumer demand and fast fashion, so sustainability is a hot topic and lifestyle choice to implement not only for the customers, but the companies too.
Sustainable fashion can be measured by its propensity to take into account social, economic and environmental impacts, with a look to minimising damaging or harmful effects indirectly or directly caused by its manufacture or disposal. Some of the quantifiable measures include: ability or ease of recycling garments, amount of waste, working conditions and pay, overall damage to the environment and eco-friendliness of the inputs.
Originally, nylon was invented as a cheaper and more accessible alternative to silk, and at the turn of the 1940s became widely available across the US, predominantly in hosiery and toothbrushes. In fact, famously during the Second World War, women were implored to recycle nylon hosiery to aid the production of military equipment like parachutes due to the material’s lightweight and durable nature. Tights and stockings aren’t typically the kind of garment you would want to buy second hand but as a form of plastic, nylon can be melted down and repurposed for a new life – a sustainable win!
Nylon is the umbrella term given to a family of “polyamides”, synthetic materials made from organic chemicals that can be found in naturally occurring oil or coal, both of which are rapidly depleting energy sources. The increasing concern surrounding our supplies means we are forced to look at alternatives to nylon. Its production is arduous and uses a great quantity of natural resources. The reaction churns out harmful nitrous gases, degrading the ozone layer, and requires high volumes of water for cooling.
Nylon is a fantastically versatile material. It does not shrink, wear easily and is water resistant. It is also less costly to manufacture than other synthetics and physically as a material, has few downsides.
However, it is not biodegradable, and it is safe to say that our beloved hosiery will long outlive us. There is no real effective or totally safe way to dispose of it entirely, as burning it releases particles into the atmosphere, and the nature of its makeup means it is liable to shed tiny plastic pieces when it is worn or washed, which enter the water ways and eventually pollute our oceans and sources of drinking water. Ingestion of microfibres, as well as inhalation when nylon is incinerated, can be toxic to the human body.
There is a strong case for its usage but also a strong case for considering less harmful and more sustainable materials. Although it does not pose much of a threat currently, it is by no means sufficiently sustainable to carry on with mass manufacture.