Woven in your clothes is a material that takes many disguises. It can have the texture of wool, the lightness of linen, or the finesse of silk. It’s in two-thirds of our clothes – and yet most of us don’t even know it’s there. It’s plastic, and it’s a big deal.
Today, approximately 69% of clothes are made of synthetic fibers, including elastane, nylon and acrylic. Polyester is the most common, constituting 52% of all fiber production. The unique durability and versatility of plastic has made it indispensable to the fashion industry.
“It’s in the waistband of your jeans, your shoes, in pretty much anything you wear, because plastic is that miracle material,” said George Harding-Rolls, campaign advisor at the Changing Markets Foundation, an organization that survey of business practices.
But there is a climatic cost: the raw material for these fibers is fossil fuel. Textile production consumes 1.35% of world oil production, more oil than Spain consumes in a year, and contributes significantly to the enormous climate footprint of the fashion industry. Synthetics also continue to have an impact long after production, plastic microfibers in the environment when clothes are washed.
It seems like an environmental victory. But as brands weave more of these recycled yarns into their clothes, some experts are wondering if they are just repairing the environmental damage of fashion. “We have been led to believe that recycled and sustainable are synonymous, when they are anything but,” said Maxine BÃ©dat, executive director of the New Standard Institute, a nonprofit that campaigns for a sustainable fashion industry. .
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, the most common type of plastic bottle, which are produced in the billions every year, are the commonly recycled substitutes for virgin synthetics. A survey of nearly 50 fashion brands by the Changing Markets Foundation found that 85% of them aimed to source recycled polyester from plastic bottles. Estimates Show Recycled Polyester Could Reduce Emissions up to 32% compared to virgin polyester.
The demand for recycled synthetics from industries such as fashion is should accelerate. Nike uses “recycled materials” in 60% of its products, said Seana Hannah, vice president of sustainable innovation at Nike. Recycled polyester is at the heart of our concerns: âNike is the industry’s largest user of recycled poly and on average we divert over a billion plastic bottles a year from landfills,â said Hannah .
Many big brands set goals. H&M, Madewell, J Crew and Gap Inc are part more than 70 brands who have committed to increasing the share of recycled polyester to 45% by 2025 as part of a recycled polyester challenge established by the Textile Exchange, a nonprofit that works to increase the use of low impact fibers in the textile industry.
Synthetics are the second-largest fiber after cotton for Gap Inc, said Alice Hartley, director of product sustainability and circularity for the company. Its four brands – Banana Republic, Old Navy, Athleta and Gap – have committed to the 2025 challenge, with Old Navy choosing to increase their recycled polyester to 60%.
The company says recycled synthetics are not a quick fix. âWe really try to stay away from the term ‘sustainable clothing’ because it implies that we have reached the destination. We really didn’t, it’s a continuous journey, âHartley said.
Yet that nuanced message may not reach consumers, especially as many other brands describe recycled fabrics as sustainable. Experts fear that people think their purchases have no impact when this is far from true.
âIf you recycle synthetics, that doesn’t solve the microplastics problem,â Harding-Rolls said. The fibers continue to come off recycled plastic yarns just as much as virgin yarns, he said.
PET bottles are also part of a well-established closed-loop recycling system, where they can be recycled efficiently. at least 10 times. The clothing industry “takes this closed loop and moves it into this linear system” because most of this clothing will not be recycled, BÃ©dat said. Converting plastic from bottles to clothing can actually speed its way to landfill, especially for shoddy and fashionable clothing that is often discarded after only a few uses.
âOne of the hallmarks of greenwashing is that it takes a piece of the puzzle and extrapolates broad benefits from it,â said Ashley Gill, Senior Director of Standards and Stakeholder Engagement Textile Exchange. âSustainability in the clothing industry is a really complex issue. “
There are movements to use recycled textiles as a raw material for new clothing – less than 1% of clothing is currently recycled into new fibers – especially as projections from some markets suggest that the inter-industry demand for recycled bottles will soon exceed supply. But most clothes are made from a blend of fibers, and there is no commercial-scale technology to untangle them yet. âA whole supply chain has to be built to really hit the trade volumes that we need, to see more textiles being recycled from fiber to fiber,â Hartley said.
According to Mr. BÃ©dat, touting the lower impact on emissions of recycled yarns distracts attention from the biggest source of fashion emissions: textile factories, which transform fibers into yarns to make fabrics as well. than dyeing and finishing, an energy-intensive process that represents about 76% emissions from the life cycle of a garment. âBrands are focusing on the magical material they can create, rather than doing the less sexy work of improving energy efficiency in textile factories,â BÃ©dat said. “I don’t want to poop progress, but we really need to start prioritizing where we can move the needle the most.”
Some innovators believe the solution is to find viable alternatives to synthetics derived from fossil fuels that have the same performance characteristics. Materials science company Kintra fibers has developed bio-based fibers made from corn and wheat designed to be fully composted in nature. “This solves the problem of microfibers and also provides another avenue for textile circularity,” said Alissa Baier-Lentz, co-founder of the company.
The fiber can also be returned to its basic components through chemical recycling and used as a raw material for the production of circular yarns, Baier-Lentz said. “It’s just up to us to get the [recycling] system in place and working with industry partners to make it happen, âshe said. In 2020, Kintra partnered with clothing brand Pangaia increase the production of compostable yarn; the company will launch the first garments made with Kintra fibers in 2022.
But no single innovation will solve the complex plastics problem in the fashion industry on its own. Some believe that the real answer is to move industry away from a model of excessive production and consumption. Brands multiply dozens of clothing collections per year and in 2014 people bought 60% more clothes than in 2000, but kept it half as long. Textile Exchange will focus some of its future industrial challenges on âslowing the rate of growthâ of clothing production, said Gill.
Legislation will be needed to bring about real systemic change, said Harding-Rolls: â[The apparel industry] is one of the least regulated industries in the world. What we need now are mandatory measures. We see it working in the plastics business, and it’s time for the fashion industry to follow suit.
There is a role for us too, said BÃ©dat, and that implies that people see themselves as citizens who can make ethical and political choices. “We were trained to think of ourselves primarily as consumersâ¦ that the way we solve these problems is to buy, which is the antithesis of the real solution.”