How Much Would You Pay For Polyester?

By Emma Gleason
Collage / Julia Gessler

Everyone from Saint Laurent to Shein is using this synthetic. Why is polyester taking over and what does it say about us?

“That’s too expensive for polyester!” A statement we’ve all likely heard, perhaps uttered, and the one that planted the seed for this story.

A material of the future

An increasing proportion of new garments are made from the fibre. In 2021, more than 52 per cent of the apparel market was polyester, though percentages obscure the number of units, with fashion production skyrocketing.

Commonly associated with high volume, low-cost fast-fashion retailers, these aren’t the only brands that use polyester; contemporary brands and luxury labels do too.

How did we get here?

Invented in the 1920s, polyester was launched to the public by chemical conglomerate DuPont in the 1950s. Touted as a “miracle” fabric, it liberated people — particularly women — from garment care, and popularity surged in the 1970s.

A synthetic fibre derived from non-renewable petroleum, as a thermoplastic (a material that can be melted and reformed) it can be recycled into a new fibre, offering a circular solution to textile waste, and requiring 30 per cent less energy to produce. With technology improving, recycled polyester is an increasingly popular alternative for designers, although according to a 2020 report, 99 per cent of that was made from PET, plastic bottles, which takes the material out of the standard recycling chain. Polyester doesn’t biodegrade, and there is currently no standardised textile recycling system in New Zealand.

As a plastic, polyester is strong: less likely to rip and wear; resistant to elements like water and wind, and stains; and quick drying. When blended with natural fibres like cotton, it makes them stronger and less prone to shrinking. Unless specified otherwise, any garment you buy is likely sewn together with polyester thread, which is stronger than cotton.

It’s also cheaper to produce than cotton, not requiring planting, harvesting, processing or as much human labour.

These properties make it appealing for designers and manufacturers looking for resilient, versatile textiles.

It’s common among high-performance and sports brands. Patagonia, the values-led outdoor brand buoyed by the recent Gorpcore trend, uses recycled polyester for its popular fleece jackets ($350) and waterproof garments.

So does Prada’s Linea Rossa line (inspired by and used for competitive sailing), which includes a hoodie made from post-consumer recycled polyester and a water-repellent jacket (both $3600).

The textile is a signature of Issey Miyake’s famous Pleats Please range, defined by its pleating — a process that requires synthetic fabric, which can hold a crease permanently — giving the simple garments a sculptural effect and sympathetic fit.

Pleats Please by Issey Miyake. Photo / @Pleatspleaseisseymiyake
Pleats Please by Issey Miyake. Photo / @Pleatspleaseisseymiyake

The materiality and unique surface effects offered by polyester-based fabrics are an advantage to designers (and customers) seeking a sleek, contemporary sensibility.

The figure-hugging bonded stretch fabric used by Paris Georgia — a blend of triacetate and polyester — provides the requisite cling and structure required for the shapely silhouettes beloved by Kendall Jenner, like the sweetheart-necked dresses ($790) and tops ($490). They look great on Instagram, clutching the curves of the body (the algorithm loves bodies). While a more fluid look, the softly sculptural Raina dress ($840) is made from 100 per cent recycled polyester.

“Like many designers across the board, finding good-quality fabrics at an affordable margin can be challenging. In a single collection alone you’ll discover everything from Japanese cotton to double crepe satin, vegan leather and polyester blend fabrics,” writes Viva creative director Dan Ahwa, of the Paris Georgia’s business.

It’s not the only local label to include the fibre in its assortment. Polyester fabric provides the sheen and structure of a voluminous Kate Sylvester top ($429) and trousers ($469) set this season, while the fibre also supports the blend of merino and lurex in a cable knit cardigan ($469). Karen Walker’s fashionable take on the classic puffer ($355) has a weather-resistant outer and padded fill, instead of down, both made from recycled polyester. Likewise its trench coat, designed to be “showerproof”, is 100 per cent polyester. Trelise Cooper uses polyester to achieve the high shine and vibrant botanical print of its dress ($899) and matching jacket ($699). Pants ($399) by Stolen Girlfriends Club utilise the technical chops of polyester to pay homage to motocross.

Karen Walker's Quilted Getaway jacket, made of 100 per cent recycled polyester. Photo / Karen Walker
Karen Walker's Quilted Getaway jacket, made of 100 per cent recycled polyester. Photo / Karen Walker

With aspirational brands, you’re not just paying for polyester. “The narrative that surrounds products is more valuable than products themselves,” writes The Sociology of Business’ Ana Andjelic.

The value of a garment, and thereby what we’re willing to pay for it, comes from more than fabric alone: quality of manufacturing, desirability, exclusivity and cultural status all play a role. Want to look avant-garde in a Pleats Please coat ($705) or show you’ve invested in wellbeing with an Adidas by Stella McCartney top ($180)?

A visual communication tool, buying into an object facilitates social signalling. A Maggie Marilyn woman might recognise another Maggie Marilyn woman and know that rainjacket is made with recycled polyester and costs $1495 — the brand’s committed to only recycled or deadstock polyester — and infer taste, values and class accordingly, or notice a floaty gingham top ($450) delicate enough to require cold hand-washing.

Such particular garment care might seem incongruous, with polyester considered more resilient than cotton, wool or silk. Do these assumptions track? Not necessarily. Some polyester fabrics feature complex or delicate detail. The “burnout” effect fabric of a Wynn Hamlyn jacket ($525) is made from polyester with rayon flocking, requires dry cleaning and “will wear with time”. A sexy Saint Laurent dress ($11,745) made from polyester tulle must be stored in its box and can’t be hung.

Adidas by Stella McCartney long-sleeve top, made of 79 per cent recycled polyester and 21 per cent recycled elastane interlock. Photo / Adidas
Adidas by Stella McCartney long-sleeve top, made of 79 per cent recycled polyester and 21 per cent recycled elastane interlock. Photo / Adidas

Designer uptake suggests several factors are at play, beyond advancement in fabric design. Locally, as manufacturing becomes more expensive and fewer garment houses serve the industry, designers may use fabric costs to keep prices within reach of customers.

The way we consume fashion has changed too. Touching a fabric isn’t usually part of the online path to purchase. Durable polyester can hold up to warehousing and shipping, and when it reaches your wardrobe, should last a long time, be less likely to shrink and can withstand machine washers and dryers (requiring less water and heat).

It does, however, shed microplastics when washed (using Guppy bags can minimise this). These tiny particles are in our oceans, and now our bodies too. And that’s not the only emission. “In 2015, polyester produced for clothing emitted 282 billion kilograms of CO2 — nearly three times more than for cotton,” says the CFDA.

Like the fashion industry’s many environmental and social impacts, polyester’s effects aren’t evenly distributed. “Synthetic textiles are more common in developing nations, which often don’t have robust wastewater treatment facilities to filter them out,” writes Brian Resnick. Fellow Vox journalist Terry Nguyen reports “production of polyester textiles alone emitted about 706 billion kilograms of greenhouse gases in 2015,” in an insightful and depressing Shein investigation.

Shein's green silhouettes to mix and match. Photo / @Sheinofficial
Shein's green silhouettes to mix and match. Photo / @Sheinofficial

A brand representative of our age, Shein sells garments for as little as $3.50. One thousand new items are added to its site weekly, and its sales eclipsed H&M and Zara after only three years. By 2022 it boasted 50 per cent of US market share, twice what it did in 2020, and doubled global revenue in the same timeframe, making US$24 billion in 2022.

It’s companies like this that the European Union is hoping to regulate with proposed restrictions around production and consumption, as it looks to stem the tide of these brands, and their surging popularity. Meanwhile, the United Nations Environment Programme is drafting a treaty to regulate plastics production, aiming for a reduction of 80 per cent by 2040.

There is public support for this change. However, many people who wear polyester don’t have the power of choice, with the most affordable option often their only one, leaving them disproportionately affected by everything from skin irritation to bioaccumulative forever chemicals.

Less breathable than cotton, polyester garments can make you feel sweaty, and while some iterations are designed to wick moisture, trapping perspiration can encourage bacteria build-up, exacerbating body odours. Polyester is also highly flammable.

Plus-sized shoppers express frustration at the abundance of polyester in this segment, which may be a compromise from brands looking to balance fabric costs.

How much would you pay for polyester? Being able to ask that question is a privilege. And as we’ve seen, the cost goes beyond the wholesale margin and the price tag, with many factors paying for its existence.

Should polyester be cheap, and should cheap clothes be polyester?

Unlock this article and all our Viva Premium content by subscribing to 

Share this article: