WThe oven in your clothes is a substance that takes many disguises. It may have the texture of wool, the lightness of linen, or the softness of silk. It’s two-thirds of our clothes – yet most of us don’t even know it’s there. It’s plastic, which is a big problem.
Today, about 69% of clothing is made of synthetic fibres, including elastane, nylon, and acrylic. Polyester is the most common, making up 52% of the total fiber production. Plastic’s unique durability and versatility have made it indispensable to the fashion industry.
“It’s in the waistband of your jeans, in your shoes, in practically everything you wear, because plastic is a miracle substance,” said George Harding Rolls, campaign consultant at Changing Markets, an organization that investigates corporate practices.
But there is a climate cost: the raw material for these fibers is fossil fuels. Textile production consumes 1.35% of global oil production, more oil than Spain uses in a year, and a major contributor to the fashion industry’s massive climate impact. Synthetics also continue to have an effect long after production, shedding microplastics into the environment when clothes are washed.
In response, a growing number of Brands are turning to recycled versions of synthetic fibers like polyester, often touting these garments as a “more sustainable” or “conscious” choice.
This sounds like an environmental win. But as brands weave more of these recycled yarns into their clothing, some experts are questioning whether they are just restoring the environmental damage to fashion. “We’ve been led to believe that recycling and sustainability are synonymous, when they are anything else,” said Maxine Bedat, executive director of the New Standard Institute, a nonprofit that pursues a sustainable fashion industry.
A popular recycled alternative to virgin synthetics is polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, the most common type of plastic bottles, produced by the billions each year. A survey of nearly 50 fashion brands conducted by Changing Markets revealed that 85% of them aim to source recycled polyester from plastic bottles. It is estimated that recycled polyester can reduce emissions by up to 32% compared to virgin polyester.
Demand for recycled synthetics from industries including fashion is expected to accelerate. Shaina Hanna, Nike’s vice president of sustainable innovation, said Nike uses “some recycled materials” in 60% of its products. Recycled polyester is a central focus: “Nike is the highest industrial user of recycled poly, and we divert an average of more than 1 billion plastic bottles annually from landfills,” Hannah says.
Many big brands set goals. H&M, Madewell, J Crew, and Gap Inc are among more than 70 brands that have committed to increasing the share of recycled polyester to 45% by 2025 as part of the Recycled Polyester Challenge put together by Textile Exchange, a non-profit organization working to increase the absorption of low fiber Impact across the textile industry.
Synthetics make up the second largest share of fibers after cotton for Gap Inc., said Alice Hartley, the company’s director of product sustainability and circularity. All four of its brands — Banana Republic, Old Navy, Athleta and Gap — have committed to the 2025 Challenge, with Old Navy choosing to increase recycled polyester to 60%.
The company says recycled synthetics are not a magic bullet. “We’re really trying to get away from the term ‘sustainable clothing,’ because that means we’ve got to the destination. We haven’t really done that, it’s an ongoing journey,” Hartley said.
However, this exact message may not reach consumers, especially since many other brands describe recycled fabrics as sustainable. Experts worry that people may think their purchases are devoid of effect – when that is far from the truth.
“If you’re recycling synthetics, it doesn’t get you out of the microplastics problem,” Harding Rolls said. The fibers continue to fall off from recycled plastic threads just as much from virgin threads, he said.
PET bottles are also part of a closed-loop recycling system, where they can be recycled efficiently at least 10 times. The apparel industry “takes from this closed loop and turns it into this linear system” because most of that clothing will not be recycled, Bedat said. Turning plastic from bottles into clothing can speed its path to landfill, especially for low-quality, fast-fashion clothing that often gets thrown away after only a few uses.
“One of the hallmarks of greenwashing is taking one piece of the puzzle and extrapolating the broad benefits from that,” said Ashley Gill, senior director of standards and stakeholder engagement for the Textile Exchange. “Sustainability in the apparel industry is a really complex issue.”
There are moves to use recycled textiles as a feedstock for new clothing – less than 1% of clothing is currently recycled into new fibres – particularly as expectations from some markets are that demand across the industry for recycled bottles will soon outpace supply. But most clothing is made from a blend of fibers, and technology on a commercial scale does not yet exist to untangle these fibers. “An entire supply chain needs to be built to really reach the commercial volumes we need, to see more of fiber-to-fiber recycled textiles,” Hartley said.
Amplifying the low-emissions impact of recycled yarns distracts from fashion’s largest emissions source: textile mills, which process fibers into yarns to make fabric as well as dyeing and finishing, an energy-intensive process that consumes about 76% of garment lifecycle emissions, Bidet said. “Brands are focusing on the magical materials they can make, rather than doing less compelling work to improve the energy efficiency of textile mills,” Beidat said. “I don’t want to understand progress, but we really have to start prioritizing where we’ll be able to move the needle the most.”
Some innovators believe that the solution is to find viable alternatives to synthetics derived from fossil fuels that have the same performance attributes. Material science company Kintra Fibers has developed a bio-fiber made from corn and wheat designed to be fully compostable in nature. “This addresses the problem of microfibers, and provides another pathway for fabric rotation as well,” said Alissa Bayer-Lentz, co-founder of the company.
The fibers can also be returned to their basic components through chemical recycling and used as a feedstock for the production of circular filaments, Bayer Lintz said. “We just have to get [recycling] system in place, and working with industry partners to make it happen.” In 2020, Kintra has partnered with garment brand Pangaia to expand production of compostable yarns; the company will launch the first garments made from Kintra fibers in 2022.
But there is no single innovation that will solve the fashion industry’s complex plastic problem. Some believe that the real answer is to move the industry away from a model of excessive production and consumption. Brands produce dozens of clothing collections annually, and in 2014, people bought 60% more clothes than in 2000, but kept them for half the term. Gill said the textile exchange will focus some of the industry’s future challenges on “slowing the growth rate” of apparel production.
Legislation would be needed to drive real and systemic change, Harding Rolls said:[The apparel industry] It is one of the most regulated industries in the world. What we need now are mandatory measures. We see she’s in the plastics business, and it’s time for the fashion sector to follow.”
There’s a role for us too, Badat said, and that includes people seeing themselves as citizens who can make moral and political choices. “We have been trained to see ourselves primarily as consumers…and that the way we solve these problems is by purchasing, which is the antithesis of the real solution.”