When you reach into your closet for warm clothes, you might choose clothes made of fleece fabric on chilly days. And, why not? The lightweight material feels soft yet thick enough to keep you warm. Or perhaps your fleece is your perfect accompaniment to colder outdoor adventures or sports. Yet, you might not have stopped to question - what is fleece?
But that's not the only question we'll answer; this article probes into how sustainable fleece is.
Fleece material has a distinct texture that reminds you of sheep's wool because of the pile on the surface. The resemblance is deceitful, however, because fleece is a synthetic material.
Note: the word fleece also refers to the coats of domestic sheep, which is where the fabric gets its name. For the purpose of this article, we're exploring the man-made variety of fleece fabric.
It is a vegan alternative to wool, suitable for making clothes that preserve body heat in cold weather. They make winter jackets, athletic garments, coats, hats, and ear warmers from fleece fabric. Even blankets, pillows, gloves, toys, and even underwear for astronauts are made using fleece.
People primarily value fleece for the warmth it provides, but the fabric has many desirable qualities apart from insulation. It is durable and will survive extreme weather conditions and many washes.
Fleece fabrics repel moisture and dry out quickly, making fleece a go-to fabric for many winter sports. The pile surface traps air pockets that allow breathability while trapping heat, helping make fleece comfortable and versatile during the winter months. Fleece fabrics repel moisture and dry out quickly, making fleece a go-to fabric for many winter sports.
There are varieties of fleece fabric, and each type has some unique qualities and purposes. We look at a few below.
The most commonly used type of fleece fabric. It is a soft fabric that helps to add a layer of warmth to cold-weather outfits. Sometimes, polar fleece is treated with chemicals or mixed with other fibers to enhance its wind resistance.
Sherpa fleece fabric is super fluffy and puffy. You'll find it as a lining in winter coats, cardigans, and sweatshirts. The material is also called high-pile fleece.
Microfleece is one of the most coveted types of fleece. The lightweight fleece typically weighs 200 grams per square meter or less. You can find it in light bathrobes, shirts, and throw blankets.
This fabric has a different look than other types of fleece. It lacks the fluff but instead has a woven texture. It is lightweight and only a little bit thicker than a T-shirt. They make French terry fleece from a blend of rayon and polyester or polyester and spandex.
Like most synthetic fabrics, manufacturers make fleece from polyester. Although, there is a tiny percentage of fleece available today made from cotton or other natural fibers. The primary ingredient for the most popular kind of fleece is polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
Manufacturers first spin fine polyester fibers from a thick syrup to form threads to make fleece fabric. They weave the synthetic fibers into a light fabric, and then the fabric is brushed out until it turns into a thick fabric. Polyester fleece fibers are sometimes woven with other natural fibers like wool, organic cotton, or hemp to create unique textures.
In 1981, engineers at Malden Mills, known as Polartec, invented a dense polyester fabric called polar fleece. Before that, the Mill was known for producing garments from faux fur and wool. The millers sought an alternative to wool, as having to depend on sheep for it was challenging. Also, wet wool gets heavy.
The factory had begun experimenting with polyester years earlier, in the 1970s, but it wasn't until 1981 that they had their first fleece fabric. It became a top choice for warm clothes within the decade. In 1985, Malden Mills collaborated with outdoor gear brand Patagonia to create Synchilla fleece. They used the fabric to make the famous Patagonia Snap-T pullover.
In 1993, Polartec created the first-ever polyester fleece from recycled plastic bottles. They continue to engineer sustainable fabrics and, in 2019, committed to 100% recycled and biodegradable materials.
Fleece is typically inexpensive; many consider it a low-cost substitute for wool and other warm natural materials. The fabric stays warm even when wet and is easy to care for. The quality of the yarn has improved over the years, and many of its manufacturers claim to use recycled PET plastic bottles rather than virgin petrochemicals. They refer to this recycled fleece as eco fleece.
Is fleece fabric eco-friendly? We answer this question by looking at the life cycle of fleece, from raw material to end of life.
Fleece is plastic-based, which ultimately means that fleece uses non-renewable fossil fuels as its primary raw material. The extraction and processing of fossil fuels into clothing is highly polluting. Polyester was responsible for about 706 billion kg of greenhouse gasses in 20152.
On the positive side, more and more manufacturers are turning to recycled plastics for polyester fleece. That way, they keep millions of plastic water bottles out of the environment (landfills and oceans). Also, recycling reduces the need for mining virgin petroleum. However, recycled plastics or not, polyester fibers are non-biodegradable and constitute an environmental hazard.
When in the market for a new fleece garment, also consider your own contribution to recycling by picking up a second-hand fleece at online thrift stores to prevent the need for more new materials in the first place.
Like other synthetic fibers, manufacturers treat fleece with chemicals to give it the properties it is so valued for. These chemicals add features like water resistance and added strength to withstand strong winds. But they cause damage to humans and the environment.
Further, a prevailing level of unfair labor still exists across the fashion industry. Workers who produce the fabric may be exposed to critically life-endangering substances. Plastic products usually contain bisphenol-A (BPA). Research has linked BPA to several reproductive disorders and other illnesses5.
The environment is at risk, too. People who wear fleece can get treatment chemicals on their skin in amounts that may be harmful if they are allergic. These chemicals can seep into waterways and the soil during production and usage. They pollute the water supply and endanger wildlife.
When we wash clothes, tiny particles break free and get into the environment through the sewer or some other way. Microfibers are not great for the environment, especially when shed from plastic-based materials like fleece. One study found that a fleece jacket sheds about 1.7 grams of microfibres each wash1, and older jackets shed twice as much as new ones.
Plastic microfibers are a magnet for toxins. Fish swallow microplastics, then animals and humans consume such fish. Microplastics even end up in our water supply system; research has found microplastics in tap water3. You can reduce the number of microfibers released from washes with a wash bag like Guppy Friend.
Fast fashion is a term used to describe an attitude towards the production and use of clothing that moves very fast. It has seen the lifespan of clothing go from years or decades to 6 to 12 months. About 85% of textiles end up in landfills every year.
Fast fashion fleece is not built to last, and it begins to show signs of wear and tear after a few machine wash cycles. Around 70 million barrels of oil are used to make polyester fibers like fleece every single year4. And considering the amount of clothing that ends up in landfills yearly, that is such a waste.
Fleece fibers will remain in the soil for a very long time, just like all types of plastic. It could take hundreds of years before it breaks off into bits and pieces. That means fleece clothing will remain in our landfills for many years, just taking up space.
Landfill space is not unlimited, so we depend on shrinking and decomposing waste to create space. If non-biodegradable materials like fleece keep ending up in landfills, they'll soon fill up. And once landfills have reached maximum capacity, waste will encroach on land meant for other purposes.
Wrinkle-resistant: Fleece never seems to wrinkle. This is one of the reasons the material is so easy to maintain.
Quick-drying: fleece dries out quickly, making it great for insulation under wet conditions and perfect for warmth in garments like fleece jackets. If you find yourself soaking wet with rain on a hike or camping trip, you can wring out your fleece coat and put it back on.
Prone to pilling: The fabric eventually pills after a while. But how quickly your fleece fabric starts to pill depends on the production quality and how you clean it.
Highly flammable: fleece is an oil-based product that will burn fast if exposed to fire and not otherwise treated to resist fire.
Fleece is durable unless you wash your fleece garments incorrectly. It's best to wash your fleece fabrics with cold water because of their vulnerability to high temperatures. That implies that machine drying is not ideal for fleece; air dry your fleece garments as much as possible. Refrain from ironing fleece; it might just melt.
Fleece is easy to wash by hand, but if you would instead use a washer, make sure it's on the delicate cycle. Also, avoid fabric softeners and bleach; use natural fabric treatment methods instead. Lastly, use a microplastic-catching wash bag to keep your wash environmentally friendly.
This popular sustainable outerwear brand has been working with the inventors of fleece since the 1980s. They have an extensive array of exceptionally warm fleece clothing and sustainable winter garments for men and women.
United by Blue creates sustainable outdoor apparel and accessories. They also source sustainable fabrics that leave no toxic impact on the environment. The brand makes durable clothing that will stand the test of time.
Both fabrics appear sort of similar, but they originate from entirely different sources. They make flannel from cotton, which is more of an ideal material for people with sensitive skin. When it comes to wicking moisture, flannel wins, but fleece is a lot warmer. However, flannel is prone to shrinking, while fleece doesn't shrink so much, if at all.
Compared to wool, fleece is lighter, and it isn't scratchy. Also, they obtain wool from sheep and don't harvest all wool ethically; some wool farms treat sheep poorly. Fleece, the so-called vegan alternative to wool, is a petrochemical product. It won't biodegrade but break into microplastics that hurt the environment.
Fleece has become such an important fabric in the fashion industry because of its many qualities. However, it is a synthetic fiber that has many environmental consequences. To mitigate some of these consequences, we should buy only recycled fleece or fleece-like materials made from natural fibers. You could also help the environment when you purchase pre-loved fleece garments.
|Microfiber Masses Recovered from Conventional Machine Washing of New or Aged Garments. Niko L. Hartline, Nicholas J. Bruce, Stephanie N. Karba, Elizabeth O. Ruff, Shreya U. Sonar, and Patricia A. Holden. Environmental Science & Technology 2016 50 (21), 11532-11538. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.6b03045|
Kirchain, R., Olivetti, E., Reed Miller, T. & Greene, S. Sustainable Apparel Materials (PDF, Materials Systems Laboratory, 2015). MIT.
Inga V. Kirstein, Alessio Gomiero, Jes Vollertsen, Microplastic pollution in drinking water, Current Opinion in Toxicology, Volume 28, 2021, Pages 70-75, ISSN 2468-2020, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cotox.2021.09.003
Subramanian Senthilkannan Muthu (2019) Environmental Footprints of Recycled Polyester. Technology & Engineering.
Konieczna A, Rutkowska A, Rachoń D. Health risk of exposure to Bisphenol A (BPA). Rocz Panstw Zakl Hig. 2015;66(1):5-11. PMID: 25813067.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.