Is Acrylic Clothing Sustainable? How It's Made & Environmental Impacts

Is acrylic clothing more sustainable than wool clothing?

Gray two tone wool scarf background texture
Mariia Demchenko / Getty Images

Acrylic, with its bulky fibers and wool-like texture, is considered a wool substitute and perfect for cooler temperatures. Made from a common chemical called acrylonitrile, acrylics are often blended with other materials, including wool. Acrylic fibers add to wool's stability and washability, which allows it to be featured in a variety of applications.

As a synthetic fabric, acrylic's sustainability is called into question. Here, we explore the environmental impacts of acrylic clothing, its impact on communities, and alternatives to acrylic fabric.

How Is Acrylic Clothing Made?

The process of making acrylic clothing begins with a solution of acrylonitrile. The solution is mixed with other chemicals in a process called polymerization. This mixture is combined with a solvent to dissolve the polymerized ingredients and either wet or dry spun to produce fibers. With wet spinning, the fibers solidify through the use of a solvent. In dry spinning, heat will produce similar results.

The resulting fibers are then treated, crimped, cut and spun into spools to prepare the fabric for weaving.

Environmental Impacts

As with many synthetic fibers, the production, use, and degradation of acrylics can have a significant impact on people and the environment.

Acrylic clothing is one of the main sources of microplastics in the ocean, even higher than polyester and polyester blends. The journey to aquatic environments begins with a simple washing in a washing machine where about 730,000 individual fibers are released per wash.

Microplastics continue to harm marine life and absorb pollution, which accumulates as it travels up the food choice—eventually making its way to those animals that play essential ecological roles.

The production of acrylics is also energy- and water-intensive. Regulations from the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) have been in place since 2007 to set standards for ventilation, storage, processing, and maintenance of wastewater. On top of these environmental concerns, acrylic fibers are not biodegradable, nor are they easily recyclable.

An Environmental Justice Issue

In addition to its environmental impacts, acrylonitrile is "harmful to the eyes, skin, lungs, and nervous system" when in contact with humans, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While the CDC states that people don't have to worry about exposure unless they live near a factory or a toxic waste site where acrylonitriles are dumped, it is worth recognizing the communities that do have the worry.

Acrylonitriles are largely produced in the United States. INEOS Nitriles is one of the main producers, with its plant in the United States producing 35% of the world's acrylonitriles. This plant is located in Green Lake, Texas, while its other plant is in Lima, Peru.

Similar to the environments of many factories and waste dumps, Green Lake is a town where the median income is 7% less than the state's average and the median home value is 38% below the state's average. Likewise, the poverty rate in Lime, Peru, is about 13%; this highly industrious city is home to one-third of Peru's population.

Therefore, those impacted by acrylonitrile exposure are likely to be of lower economic class. This reality is consistent with other environmental justice problems around the world.

Acrylic vs. Wool

Woman Holding Stack Of Warm Sweaters
Isabel Pavia / Getty Images

Acrylic and wool are similar materials with comparable uses. In fact, acrylic is often processed in a way that resembles natural wool fibers. However, there are differences, primarily their originating sources.


Acrylics' progenitor, acrylonitrile, is made by combining propylene, ammonia, and air. Acrylics are not only blended with wool but are also used alone as a substitute for wool.

Acrylic fabric is able to provide the same warming properties without the bulk of wool. It is also more easily accessible and much less expensive. Since it is a synthetic fabric created without the use of animal materials, acrylic can be considered vegan.


While much of acrylics' impact comes from its production and use, wool's primary environmental impact is in the farming of livestock.

Much of wool's impact is determined by where and how the sheep are raised. Less energy is used in climates where housing isn't required in winter months, though this typically means grazing effects are increased. There is also the factor of greenhouse gas emissions, which can increase with mixed livestock situations, where multiple animals are raised together.

Wool is also a controversial fabric among those fighting against animal cruelty. While experts continue to state the necessity of shearing wool from sheep, vegan groups have voiced concerns about the abuses that accompany the practice.

Alternatives to Acrylic

Vegan wool may seem like an oxymoron but companies like Faborg are making it a thing. Faborg's Weganool is made from the stems and pods of the calotropis plant. The fiber is extracted and then blended with 70% organic rain-fed cotton in a process that is completely chemical-free. The company also claims the new technique saves water, uses natural dyes and is 100% biodegradable.