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I was wondering whether fleece clothing is a good, cheap and above all sustainable alternative to conventional cotton, which uses a lot of pesticides and takes a lot of water to grow.

The other sustainable alternatives, ranging from organic cotton to hemp, are all significantly more expensive and often fairly hard to find.

Fleece clothing is often advertised as 'recycled' or 'upcycled' from plastic trash, but to what extent is this true and how well does it do in other respects? I suspect that, since it's a synthetic material that's been recycled, it doesn't use any pesticides, but are there any other pollutants being produced? What about water usage? Other forms of pollution?

Of course, the fact that the clothing is often still produced in Southeast Asia makes transportation a factor in practice, but this isn't inherent to fleece clothing.

Any other insights into this matter would be highly appreciated as well.

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    Excellent question! Two other factors to consider might be whether fleece clothing can be recycled at the end of its life, and what upstream effects there may be - does use of recycled plastic for clothing mean that new plastic must be made for other products?
    – LShaver
    Dec 22, 2016 at 23:56
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    @LShaver I think the production of plastic is so cheap that it's rarely -- although it is improving -- recycled because it's simply not profitable. Taking away some plastic to make clothes is thus unlikely to have much of an effect on the production of new plastics, but it does take away some plastic that might otherwise end up as trash.
    – Ben
    Dec 23, 2016 at 0:34
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    A big problem of fleece and other plastic-based clothing is that it releases thousands of tiny threads when it's washed in a washing machine. These micro-plastics are not filtered out of the waste water and end up in the environment. Sadly there has been little research how harmful the effects are, which makes it difficult to make a good assessment of the pros and cons. More information in How bad are nylon and polyester clothing for the environment?
    – THelper
    Dec 23, 2016 at 8:14
  • @THelper is right, but on the other hand fleece can often be washed gently and infrequently compared to cotton, reducing detergent pollution and energy consumption. This is because water-based dirt sits on the surface rather than soaking in to the fibres.
    – Chris H
    Dec 23, 2016 at 8:33
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    I'm not sure the uses are directly comparable. Fleece is for warm layers, and while I have had cotton jumpers they're not common. You couldn't make a T shirt or shirt out of fleece for warm conditions.
    – Chris H
    Dec 23, 2016 at 8:34

6 Answers 6

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Polar fleece cloth is Polyethylene terephthalate (C10H8O4) sometimes brand named Dacron. It is the same synthetic organic used to make plastic soda bottles, but it isn't generally recycled in its textile form.

If that is the kind of fleece you mean, then cotton probably more naturally fits into the original cycles of the earth's biosphere. Cotton may require water, but the water is reclaimed by evaporation during harvesting cycles and returns to the ground or atmosphere.

The pesticides are a concern of course, but read up on how PET is produced and you may dismiss those concerns when you think about the barrage of chemical reactions and various waste products created by the synthetic textile industry.

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Is fleece an alternative to cotton (sustainable or otherwise) -- the answer is mostly no due to the vastly different properties of cotton fabric and fleece fabric. An alternative is only an alternative if it can serve the same (or a very similar) purpose.

Cotton is a cellulosic fiber that is hydrophilic, breathable and doesn't have a lot of warming power due to low air retention. Cotton is also quite sturdy and very abrasion resistant when woven. Most cotton fabric is smooth and rather thin.

Fleece on the other hand is rather hydrophobic, very warming and doesn't have a good breathability. Fleece is not very abrasion resistant and prone to pilling. Also, fleece is always knitted, and thus structurally less sturdy than a woven cotton fabric. Fleece is also thick and and fluffy.

If you think about areas where cotton is used a lot: bedding, towels, jeans, t-shirts or shirts/blouses, in almost none of these application areas would a fleece fabric make any sense at all. So substituting the one with the other would not be feasible and thus the question if the substitution would be more sustainable is futile.

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Fleece if you mean synthetic fleece and not the fleece of a sheep,is not a good or sustainable alternative to cotton. Synthetic clothing is essentially a plastic, made from oil, and it does not break down in the environment for thousands, and as micro-particles'- perhaps millions of years. Moreover not much research has been done on the effects of breathing in synthetic particles from clothing, and the softer the clothing the more likely it is to be releasing particles. It is always better for the planet to use clothes made from traditional natural fibres like cotton linen and wool.

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  • This answer does not address the point in the question if the fleece clothing is made from otherwise discarded plastic.
    – user2451
    Aug 2, 2019 at 14:35
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The main problem of fleece is microplastics.

If you never wash your fleece clothing, then it could be argued to be reasonably good. Fleece doesn't require lot of water to make unlike cotton (it only requires oil and only so little of it that wood or other biomass can replace oil in the future when manufacturing fleece). Manufacturing fleece doesn't release methane unlike wool (sheep are a major source of methane).

In theory, it's possible that mere usage of fleece clothing in sports could release small microplastic particles into environment. However, this is likely less than what is released when washing fleece.

The main problem of fleece is that when washing it, it releases microplastics into wastewater. The washing machine doesn't filter those away. Neither does the sewage treatment plant. So those will directly go to oceans.

What we would need is biodegradable fleece. Wool would be such a material, but sheep release massive amounts of methane. If we can ever manufacture wool synthetically without requiring sheep, that would be the material of choice.

Another solution to the microplastics problem could be implemented either in washing machine or sewage treatment plant, if we could somehow filter those microplastics away and burn them later.

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Yes...namely fleece clothing is made fro recycled plastic bottle....billions of which exist and hold promise without need for new manufacture.

Fleece is wollen sheep nair.. "polar" flece is made from polyester.

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The short answer is no. Almost nothing made of any plastic is, at the moment, sustainable. I don't know what it is like in the States, but in Britain all the different kinds of plastic are so mixed up in every product, that it is impossible to separate them and something like ninety percent is either dumped in landfill, which is usually conveniently near the sea, or is shipped to foreign landfills, also on the coast. Good and equally green alternatives to cotton are wool or linen.

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  • You are not answering the question about fleece
    – user2451
    Aug 1, 2019 at 7:52

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