Graph depicting import/export data of US, 1960-2017

Peak Synthetic Fiber Use in 2020? [2022 Update]

2022 Update:  Did We Reach a Peak for Synthetic Fiber Use?

Here we are, back and looking at the data released up through 2021. During the last update of this post, we did not have data for linen and silk included. Their inclusion in the data shows an interesting trend, that being a later date for the tipping point of more synthetic imports and exports (vs natural fibers), than what I'd previously reported. The new tipping point occurred in 2020, and then swiftly recoved back to natural fibers in 2021. One wonders how much of this is attributable to the myriad versions of synthetic fiber facemasks being produced during the height of the pandemic, and given the recovery, if attitudes are at all changing regarding the general use of synthetic fibers. I'm looking forward to seeing what the 2022 data reveal regarding the swing in 2021. 

Natural Fiber Surplus vs Synthetic (per 1,000)

Looking deeper into the the import and export trend lines, we see another notable trend, that being the slow rise of linen imports in 2021, a trend which began in 2019. US Textile Imports - 1989 to 2021


US Textile Exports - 1989 to 2021


I was curious about the total volume of natural fiber textiles produced globally vs. synthetic fiber textiles. Unfortunately, this information seems harder to find that I initially expected, so I scaled down my ambition to start by just looking textiles imported and exported in the United States. While this doesn't tell overall consumption, it's a reasonable proxy.

2015:  The Tipping Point for Synthetics

As you might imagine, the US imports far more textiles than it exports. Looking at the data for imports, it turns out that in 2015 total synthetic fiber use surpassed cotton and wool textiles combined (synthetic imports and exports were higher than the total of both cotton and wool imports and exports). This is bad news for those concerned about the spread of microplastics in our local environment, but looking at the trend, it appears that synthetic momentum is going to continue: 

 US Textile Import/Export 1999-2019 Chart

(Source: Compiled from reports by the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau, as of 11/23/20)

What about linen and what are the raw numbers?

You'd be right to assume that flax linen also makes up a notable portion of natural fiber textile use, and fortunately data for linen is also available. Here's the break down for data for 2017, where linen helps edge out total synthetic fiber use:

Fiber 2017 Imports and Exports (in 1000 lbs)
Cotton 10,326,504
Wool 562,316
Linen (ramie, jute, and hemp) 822,185
Silk 175,771
Total Natural Fiber 11,886,776
Total Synthetic 11,347,255

What else is in the data?

US population growth during this data period, from 1960-2018, generally averages about a 1.15% increase every year. But we see from the graph that beginning in the early 80's, there's a marked increase in textile production, and the trend only accelerates in the mid 90's. This correlates to the shorter life span of American apparel these days. 

Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually — 80 pounds for each man, woman, and child.


Similarly, this graph from the US EPA shows the increase in textile waste from 1960 - 2015:

This is a graph on textile waste management, spanning the years 1960 to 2015. This graph is measured in tons, and shows how much waste was recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery, and landfilled.

What can I do?

Just as we have to watch what we eat and exercise to take care of our individual wellness, we have to watch what we buy and how we use it, to be mindful of our environmental wellness. 

  • Choose apparel and home textiles that you'll use for a long time
  • Check the materials of textiles you buy, avoid buying items made from synthetic fibers that don't easily biodegrade
  • Spend on quality items - synthetic apparel and home goods are cheaper to make than those made of natural fibers
Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.