I wear a lot of fleece. I am not a fashionista these days, and fleece is comfortable and functional in my life as a mom. Recently it occurred to me that fleece is not a natural material. Of course I started wondering, is this a good thing? Add it to the list for research!
I contacted Patagonia, one of the companies which makes a fleece jacket I wear often. I was very excited to hear about their fleece. I cannot speak for other fleece companies at this time, but think Patagonia is doing some stellar things as an example.
For one, they have one line of fleece, called Synchilla, which uses recycled bottles to make the fleece. Patagonia says, "For one Men's Medium Patagonia Synchilla Marsupial, switching from 100% virgin polyester to 85% recycled from polyester garments saves 19MJ (mega-joules) of energy consumption and 2.3 pounds of CO2 pollution into the air. That's for only one fleece pullover! If Patagonia sell 1,000 Marsupials, we could save 19,000MJ of energy and 2,300 pounds - over a ton - of CO2 pollution. If we sell 10,000 then we could save 190,000MJ and 23,000 pounds. That's enough energy to supply six households for one year."
In addition, they are collaborating with Polartec to develop products containing partially recycled polyester. They have one product in this line now and more to come in the fall.
They also have an innovative garment recycling program. They accept Capilene (polyester base layers,) all of their fleece, and all of their cotton t-shirts are 100% recyclable. The used products can be brought or mailed back at the end of the garment's lifespan. Not only does Patagonia accept their own brand of Polartec fleece for recycling, they will take any make of Polartec fleece for recycling!
Now, I know everyone is still thinking that fleece is made from petroleum products, and that just can't be good. Patagonia did an environmental study of the 4 fibers that they were using most in their line back in the early 90's. They say, "At the conclusion of he study, we found that conventionally grown cotton was the most damaging to the environment than polyester, nylon, and wool. This is due mainly to the energy/pesticide/herbicide/and insecticide use. This is when we decided to switch all of our cotton products to 100% organically grown cotton. We have been using 100% organic cotton in our cotton garments for 11 years now. Statistically, a virgin polyester fleece sweatshirt is better choice for the environment than a conventionally grown cotton sweatshirt. And when you add the recycled/recyclable components, there no comparison."
Like many issues, things get complex when you consider the complete lifecycle of an item. Of course it seems strange that a natural item wouldn't be safer or better, but I guess if it is full of synthetic pesticides, perhaps it isn't.
Whether or not fleece is the best option for clothing, I think it is great when companies invest in research and programs which do the green thing.