Since the World War II, one of the greatest advances in materials has been nylon, a chemical-based material which revolutionized clothing. There are now vast numbers of these man-made fibers, such as polyester. These have overtaken natural fibers, like cotton, as the main component of modern clothing, but although these materials have numerous advantages, there are some serious drawbacks too.
The most obvious benefit to producer and consumer is the comparatively low cost of producing man-made fibers. The basis of polyester is crude oil, which is extracted out of the ground for fuel anyway. It is the byproducts of this process which are used to make man-made fibers and other thermoplastics. The processing to turn them into fibers is relatively inexpensive and making them into clothing is far easier than weaving with cotton.
Growing natural fibers takes up a lot of space. Thinking back to images before the Civil War, landspace in the agricultural heartland of the South was dominated by cotton production. Hundreds of thousands of acres were cultivated with a single crop which was used primarily to cloth people. This land can now be used for other purposes, be it to grow other crops, process raw products, like corn into ethanol, or for housing. This could also be seen as a disadvantage as man-made fibers have had a serious effect on the farming industry as growing cotton is no longer economically viable for many farmers.
The reason why nylon was such a revolution was the fact it could be dyed easily. Clothing could be multicolored, have slogans printed on them and still be washed in the same way. Previously man-made fibers were dull colors and, if dyed, had to be washed separately as the colors would run. This directly led to the colorful clothing commonly associated with 1960s counterculture.
Materials like nylon and polyester are also a lot stronger than natural fibers. The clothing not only lasts longer, but is also more durable than cotton. Trips and falls no longer mean ripped clothes and stain removal from man-made fibers is considerably easier as the thread do not absorb foreign substances. The clothes also do not became waterlogged in the rain.
A major problem with man-made fibers is the fact that they do not biodegrade. If a pure cotton shirt is left outside, it will eventually decompose to nothing. A polyester shirt will remain in the same state for hundreds of years. As these fibers are petroleum-based, if left outside the chemicals in them can seep into the soil and damage local ecosystems. Some other plastics, such as polyethylene terephthalate which is used in plastic bottles, are recycled to make clothing.
Man-made fabric has an even longer-lasting environmental impact than just not biodegrading. The extraction of the crude oil to manufacture them is environmentally damaging and the chemicals used also create toxic byproducts which are damaging to the local environment.