Plastic makes up more than half of all textiles made each year. The urgent search for a more sustainable way of clothing the world is underway.
This was the first time that a 93 year-old had stolen the show at Glastonbury Pyramid’s Pyramid stage. Sir David Attenborough had a few important things to say when he opened up for Kylie Minogue last year. Blue Planet 2, the series about wildlife, was shown. Attenborough thanked festival-goers and organizers for banning single use water bottles. He exclaimed, “This festival is plastic-free. Thank you!”
Kylie’s crowd had every right to feel proud – single-use plastics are a threat to marine life. But how many people stopped to examine the elastic on their waistbands, their T-shirts and their shoes for the nylon? Although plastic in our clothes may not be as visible as it is in straws or bottles, it is still very toxic. We have somehow woven it into our throwaway society so tightly that we barely notice it even though it is on our backs. There are steps that can be taken – at both the top and bottom, of a complicated global supply chain – to change it.
Kimberley Smith, the head of production at Everlane, a US clothing company, says that five years ago suppliers would not even show me their recycled fabrics. Her company has committed to eliminating all non-recycled or virgin plastics from its supply chain and offices by 2021. This has made her job more demanding. She adds, “Now, recycled are the first things they show us.”
However, this mission also aims to combat ignorance and apathy among shoppers. Smith, who previously worked for Gap and Levi’s, says, “There’s more pressure now to educate ourselves about issues like water pollution and air pollution. But I think people don’t know that.”
Maybe synthetic fibres were created to imitate natural fabrics and provide clever functionality. For example, you don’t need to look at the label on a water bottle to find out what it is made of. The evolution of textiles was slow. The first was plant-derived synthetic fibers like rayon which were made from wood pulp. DuPont, an American chemical giant that also created rayon, introduced nylons as synthetic fibres in the 1930s. Polyester was developed in Britain in the 1940s.
Polymerization has given plastics countless uses, including dental floss and hosepipes. Plastic chips can be melted to make a light, strong, and durable plastic yarn. Nylon was more expensive than silk when it was first introduced to the public in stockings. The premium for new technology was high. Production was quickly diverted to parachutes, tents, and synthetic stockings or “nylons” became a currency in Europe’s black market. However, mass production ramped up and synthetic fibres made their way around the globe.
All kinds of plastic goods were loved for their versatility and decreasing cost, but also because they could be recycled. A 1955 Life magazine issue featured a family that threw dozens of household items into the air. The headline was “Throwaway Living”. According to the magazine, the objects in the photo would take 40 hours to clean. However, no housewife should bother. They are meant to be thrown out after each use.
Although throwaway culture isn’t as popular today, the same globalizing forces that influenced commerce and trade have allowed it to spread to clothing. What number of times do you actually wear a Tshirt that you bought for PS4? What do you do with the T-shirt once it’s lost its shape? While it would be a good idea to use more cotton, fast fashion is not truly sustainable. It can take as much as 22,500 litres to grow one kilo in areas of India where there is already a shortage of water. Cotton can’t keep the rain out and repel sweat.
According to data collected by the Textile Exchange (a US non-profit industry body), polyester production has increased 10 times since 1980 to reach 53.7 million tonnes in 2017. Polyester now accounts to 51% of all fibre production. This is twice the amount of cotton. This is a lot of energy, oil and miles. We throw away 48 million tonnes of clothing each year. 75% of this ends up in landfills or is incinerated. In 2017, less than 1% of clothing was made into new clothes.
Plastic clothing can be extremely toxic even after being recycled or while in use. A 2016 study by the University of California at Santa Barbara revealed that polyester fleece jackets emit 1.7 grams of microfibres every time they are washed. Older jackets shed less and only half of the barely visible fibres made their way through water treatment plants to rivers and seas. The UK banned microbeads last year. However, microfibres could be just as destructive and widespread. A study by the University of Plymouth found that one load of synthetic laundry, six-kilo, could release 700,000. Their toxic effects have been observed concentrating as they pass up the food chain, devastating marine life and, in an unappetising case of unwanted recycling, ending up on our dinner plates.
For decades, the basic technology required to dress a growing population sustainably has been available. Matt Dwyer is the director of materials innovation at Patagonia, a US-based outdoor-clothing giant. “We launched our first recycled Polyester fleece in 1993.” The fleece is now in the archives of the company and is still a faded green. It was made from discarded plastic bottles, before clear and green bottles were separated. Dwyer says that the fleece is still in good condition. “It’s a little crispy and the quality wasn’t there when I handled it, but that’s not what’s the problem now.” Patagonia’s synthetic material is more than 80% recycled. This percentage should reach 90% by the end of next year.
Recycled-fibre producers like the US-based Unifi can turn old plastic into chips by shredding it and turning it into chips. Repreve, a repurposed fibre, is made by spinning the chips into yarn. Unifi has processed over 16bn bottles in 2008 alone, and plans to reach 30bn by 2022. It supplies Patagonia and brands like Ford.
Dwyer states that myths about recycled materials are often excuses. It is often assumed that there isn’t enough. Dwyer says that any business of reasonable size could buy enough recycled material to offset costs. Dwyer adds that there hasn’t been any sense of bottom-up demand for recycled material. “That’s another big excuse: My customer doesn’t care, so why should I?”
Patagonia has become an industry icon for sustainable fashion. Dwyer is regularly contacted by other companies who are starting from zero. All of them ask the same question: Where do we begin? Dwyer tells them to first ask their suppliers where their products come from. Dwyer adds, “The other thing that I tell them is that making supply chain traceable and using recycled material is future-proofing because at some point your customers will care or worse – it’ll get legislated and will have to change.”
With varying levels of commitment, companies are awakening to this future. Stella McCartney plans to eliminate virgin nylon by 2020, and polyester by 2025. Adidas has pledged to use recycled polyester in all possible applications by 2024 for the mass market. Boohoo and Asos, both brands associated with fast fashion excesses, have also set up their stalls. Since its inception in 2010, Asos’ Eco Edit has seen a significant increase in sales. Clothing must contain at least half “sustainable” fibers and some recycled plastics to qualify. Boohoo’s first ever recycled collection, For the Future, was launched last month by the brand. We are totally here .”
Is there a danger of greenwashing when fashion brands that rely on low-quality clothing position themselves as environmental crusaders, or is this just another form of greenwashing? Smith from Everlane says, “You have to make a big announcement and put it out there.” “Saying that we are going to start a baby eco-line is better than nothing, but setting a target and telling everyone about the goal will make you feel like, “OK, now it’s really time to do it.”
Boohoo’s homepage shows that the link to the recycled range (which includes a T shirt for PS5.40) is a bit below the “50% off absolutely anything” banner. It links to the summer and swimwear collection with the slogan “catch flight not feelings”, and next to a link for non-recycled swimsuits for sale for PS5. Asos’s homepage does not indicate that it offers an eco-friendly range (now known as the Responsible Edit). I will have to click through to see it. Boohoo claims that its new range was prominently featured on Asos’s site at launch. It is just one of a series of initiatives to help customers do the right thing. Asos claims it promotes its ethical range via multiple channels other than its homepage. Instead of limiting the clothing to one page, it has added “responsible filters” to all ranges.
Campaigners question whether fast fashion can be made greener beyond recycled products. “The biggest issue I struggle with, is that we can push brands to be more sustainable, however, as long as they’re producing millions of garments per year, we’re going to not change anything,” states Tolmeia Gregory (a 19-year old sustainable-fashion blogger and activist for the environment). She has changed her style to incorporate more sustainable brands and secondhand clothing. Additionally, she is now spending more on quality products that last longer.
Although legislation may be part the solution, the government was accused last month of complacency after it rejected recommendations from MPs to reduce fashion’s impact on the environment. The Environmental Audit Committee published Fixing Fashion in February. It stated that a 1p tax on every garment would raise PS35m annually to improve infrastructure to collect and sort clothes that otherwise end up in landfills. It suggested a VAT reduction on clothing repair, as well as better rewards and sanctions. It also recommended that retailers with larger sales volumes meet mandatory environmental targets.
Mary Creagh, chair of the committee, says that there is a wide range of engagement in the sector, including those who only lip service to the new landscape. “We need regulation to create a level playing ground.” Creagh compares the government’s response on the report to the ban on plastic straws and stirrers, with Creagh’s. She tells me that although Straws was EU regulation, Michael Gove made it his own as a Brexiter. “The government loves to talk green, but it’s not very good about walking the walk.” The government’s response was that it recognized the importance of combating fast fashion, and stated it was already taking steps, but did not accept any of the recommendations of the committee.
Brands that are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to grow their business are making progress. For example, those that are less dependent on synthetic materials are using new technology for recycling cotton. Rapanui offers customers on the Isle of Wight PS5 credit for returning clothing to Rapanui for recycling instead of throwing it away. Mart Drake-Knight is the co-founder and CEO of the company. He says that it has prospered due to its investment in sustainability. “We are not hippies… We’re doubling our size every year – the economy rewards us for this.”
It’s sometimes the smallest details that present the greatest challenges to those who are trying to eliminate virgin polyethylene. Patagonia spent years trying to find a supplier that would make its logo labels from recycled plastic. Smith is fed up with plastic buttons and zips at Everlane. She adds, “The next big challenge will be elastic.” “Everyone wants stretch right now, but that’s all made of virgin petroleum. There isn’t really any recycled elastane yet.” She hopes that a solution will soon emerge. Innovating suppliers also hear the cry from loudly self-imposed targets. She adds, “There are more people doing really cool stuff we didn’t know about.” “The more people who do it, and the more influence that we have, the better we can all work together to make change happen.”