Does recycled polyester move the needle for a fashion industry known as a global polluter?
Questioning whether an outfit is sustainable has become an increasingly important reason for deciding on the day’s look.
From using ethically sourced materials to countering fast fashion practices, crafting a wardrobe that doesn’t harm the environment — and looks good, too — has sprung to the top of consumer consciousness.
“The consumer is not just looking for a perfect blouse, but a company that is actually contributing to a better world. It’s part of a brand identity and a story they will tell,” John Thorbeck, chairman of consultancy Chainge Capital and a former industry executive, told CNBC in 2020.
An area where designers and manufacturers are increasingly focused is the materials that go into the clothing items themselves, particularly the fibers used to create them.
One technique which has grown in popularity is using what is known as recycled polyester, which is created from recycled plastic waste.
Recycled polyester is created by breaking down plastic into tiny pieces which can then be turned into yarn and spun into polyester products.
The idea behind using recycled polyester is the reduction of plastic waste and the amount of virgin polyester which goes into a product.
At first glance, substituting recycled polyester in clothing certainly seems like a great way to support sustainable practices. However, the method is not without its share of concerns.
Pros and Cons
One downside to recycled polyester is that it is a permanent end to the recycling process for the plastic used. In other words, the garment it becomes is destined to be its final state.
The problem with this is that it is therefore destined to eventually end up in a landfill, in a sense negating the purpose it was created for to begin with.
Another issue with recycled polyester is that it can often be harder to dye, meaning the process has to be done multiple times, using more water, chemicals, and energy to produce a desired tone.
In general, the manufacturing process is the largest contributor to negative climate impact.
“In almost every industrial sector, the heavy environmental impacts lie in manufacturing the materials,” Linda Greer, an environmental scientist, told Fashionista in 2019. “In textile mills, the carbon impact happens because of these massive vats where hot water and steam and chemicals are being used to process the fibers into fabric and then to dye and finish the fabric into the color and feel that we’re looking for.”
Recycled polyester also sheds the same amount of microplastics as regular polyester when it is washed, causing no less harm to our bodies, water supply, and marine life.
On the other hand, recycled polyester is still a more environmentally friendly alternative than simply using virgin polyester.
Being able to repurpose plastic waste which would otherwise have headed to a landfill is inherently good for the environment, even if it is only a temporary solution.
Recycled polyester also takes fewer resources and requires less energy to create, so, while it isn’t without its flaws, it still does its part.
The fashion industry is one of the first to tout its efforts to create a more sustainable future and help lower individual carbon footprints.
Products ranging across all styles are promoted and marketed as being vegan, organic, carbon positive, and the like.
In reality, however, the fashion industry remains a large detriment to the planet’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions and curb the spread of global warming.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), nearly three quarters of shirts and shoes produced end up getting buried or burned up in landfills.
“Fashion is on par to become a quarter of the global footprint of carbon. That’s astounding,” Michael Stanley-Jones, co-secretary of the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, told CNBC. “The industry isn’t headed in the right direction.”
Time spent wearing new clothing before it is thrown away has also reduced by 40%, and around 12% of what is actually recycled will simply be shredded up and used to create items like cleaning cloths, insulation, or mattress stuffing, according to the WEF.
No one individual or corporation can be signaled out for the lack-of-sustainability issue, rather the problem is a combination of massive growth combined with consumers demand for fast, cheap fashion.
“Consumers might think they are getting something for nearly nothing — clothing designed to become garbage — but they should ask, what are the real costs of the product?” Stanley-Jones told CNBC. “The real cost of production of these products involves pollution that affects your health and costs the national health system.”
Making an Attempt
Even with obstacles to sustainability inherent to the industry, brands are still attempting to do right by the environment — and their customers.
Outerknown is one clothing brand doing its part, sourcing 90% of its fibers from organic, recycled, or regenerated materials, while 100% of its trunks are made from either renewable or recycled fibers.
Everlane, meanwhile, is a sustainable fashion brand which lets its customers in on its inner workings as part of its commitment to transparency.
The brand sources 97% of the materials in its polyester and nylon products from certified recycled fibers and has virgin plastic shipping bags that are made entirely from either FSC-certified paper or recycled plastic.
Everlane’s jeans are also sustainable, produced in a factory that is LEED-certified, and recycles 98% of the water it uses.
Speaking of jeans, Nudie Jeans is a brand which only uses fair trade, organic, or recycled cotton — which accounts for nearly 94% of all the fibers it uses.
Nudie Jeans is also intentional about the organic cotton it uses, ensuring it is certified by either the GOTS, US Department of Agriculture, or Organic Content Standard 100.
Patagonia, meanwhile, is one of the most recognizable brands that is dedicated to sustainability. The company only uses Fair Trade Certified factories to produce its clothing and sources the majority of its fabrics from materials that are sustainably produced.
The company is also part of an alliance of businesses which contribute 1% of their sales to grassroots environmental groups, which the company calls a self-imposed “Earth tax.”
“Patagonia’s self-imposed Earth tax, 1% for the Planet, provides support to environmental nonprofits working to defend our air, land and water around the globe,” the company says on its website.
Urge to Sell
Despite the best efforts of some, in order to keep up with raging consumer demand, trade liberalization, globalization, and other cost pressures, many brands are forced to outsource their final production, putting their assets in the hands of upstream factories.
“There are still very, very few brands who know where their stuff comes from in the supply chain, and even fewer of them have entered into active relationships with those suppliers to reduce their carbon footprint,” Greer told Fashionista.
The uncertainty and lack of transparency is likely a contributing factor to why the fashion industry sits at 4% for its global carbon impact range, according to McKinsey and the Global Fashion Agenda, and 10% for overall carbon emissions, according to the U.N.
Overproduction is another issue plaguing the industry, with long lead times, global supply chains, and increasing price drops leading the way as to “why.”
“The urge to sell more and more, produce more and get consumers to buy more is still the DNA of the industry. Clothes have a short life span and end up in a garbage dump,” Stanley-Jones told CNBC. “That has to change.”