As we celebrate and hopefully participate in the Plastic Free July challenge, I decided to ask myself this question: “Can fashion ever be plastic-free?” The answer is not that simple, as the role and the environmental impact of synthetic fabrics is a very complex subject for the fashion industry. The Plastic Free July movement, launched in 2017 with the aim of fighting plastic pollution by avoiding single-use plastics, is supported by 250 million people today. Perhaps, in the fashion industry, we can also learn about ways and technologies that can help reduce plastic pollution coming from our clothes.
Almost two-thirds of textile fibers produced today are synthetics (such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, and elastane). Essentially, these are plastics. Producing synthetic fiber requires a chemical process to transform single-molecule units called monomers into polymers, using primarily non-renewable resources (oil). This process is both energy-intensive and significantly contributes to CO2 emissions and climate change. It requires large amounts of water for cooling, and factories without water treatment systems release potentially dangerous chemicals into the environment.
Being man-made chemically produced structures, synthetics are incompatible with natural living systems; they are not biodegradable and can stay in landfills for hundreds of years. Furthermore, the recently discovered issue of microplastics entering our oceans only amplified the concerns over the negative impacts of synthetic fabrics. It has been estimated that around half a million tonnes of plastic microfibers (an equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles!) are shed through the washing of plastic-based textiles such as polyester, nylon, or acrylic, and end up in the ocean every year(2).
The most common synthetic fiber, polyester, makes up around 51% of global fiber production1. Since the 1980’s, polyester production increased 10 folds from about 5.2 million tonnes annually to 53 million in 2017 and is expected to grow further as global demand for textile continues to rise. Being relatively inexpensive, polyester and synthetic fibers contributed to the birth and rapid growth of “fast fashion”, which in turn accelerated the environmental impact. But we should also understand why these fibers were created in the first place, what positive aspects synthetic fabrics offer us, and what the fashion industry is doing today to reduce their negative impact.
Since the early- to mid-20th century when nylon and polyester were developed, scientists have constantly been trying to create fabrics that would surpass properties of natural, plant and animal-based fibers. Synthetics are more durable and stronger than their natural counterparts, they dry faster and can be waterproof, windproof and sweat-permeable, or wrinkle and shrinkage resistant. They offer elasticity, warmth, and lightness. They are also are easier to wash and some are completely stain resistant.
The role of synthetics in the outdoor wear sector if extremely important and certain products like high-performance wear, outdoor gear, professional athlete clothing, and running shoes just can’t be replaced by natural fibers (for the most part). Many of the world’s biggest sporting brands such as Patagonia, Adidas, Puma, Nike, Timberland, and Volcom, together with major fiber manufacturers, recycling companies and organizations, have long been working on R&D projects to find ways to reduce the environmental impact of synthetic textiles and increase the use of recycled polyester and nylon in their product lines.
There is also a misconception that synthetic fabrics are only used to make “cheap” fashion, in reality many great mid-tier brands and luxury designers use synthetics in their collections as they simply can’t achieve the same properties and aesthetics if they use natural fabrics. Some designers, such as Stella McCartney for example, work with synthetics for animal welfare reasons, to avoid using real leather and fur.
When I started my career in fashion, I worked as a sales assistant at an Issey Miyake boutique in New York. I quickly noticed that most of the fabrics he used were synthetics, specifically polyester, to create his signature pleated garments. In fact, if it wasn’t for polyester, his entire line PLEATSPLEASE wouldn’t even exist, and we would have never witnessed the genius of his incredibly beautiful and innovative designs. In 2010 the company introduced a new line of pleated garments called “132 5 ISSEY MIYAKE” all made from recycled PET (*the 1st collection was made of recycled plastic, however, materials used today could not be confirmed by the Issey Miyake Company). The designer collaborated with Teijin Ltd - a Japanese company behind the “Eco.Circle” recycling system - a closed-loop system for used polyester products and the world’s first chemical recycling technology(5).
Japan and other Asian countries, in fact, have a large number of leading manufacturers of high-performance synthetic fabrics, and are known for their advanced recycling technologies. I spoke with another Good Brand Guru member, Prisciliano Gamez, a European consultant to a Japanese textile producer: Yoshida Sangyo. They collaborate with manufacturers of unique natural and synthetics fibers in Asia, such as Asahi Kasei (Japan), Komatsumatere (Japan), and a leading polyester supplier from Taiwan.
“All across the textile production chain, environmental conscience is driving a massive change in the way we produce and consume textile materials”
When asked about some of their most innovative and sustainable products, Prisciliano mentioned such great examples as a special antibacterial and anti-odor fabric made with recycled PET for Goldwin sportswear brand, a “heat rub” thermal fabric that retains body heat specially designed for Zerofit sportswear collection, and a very special circular knitted fabric made for one of the Issey Miyake collections, using manila hemp. “All this drives the Yoshida Sangyo Company to look for new ways to create clean and less harmful processes in the production of their fabrics” added Prisciliano.
Indeed, there are many already developed and new emerging technologies, innovative solutions and international multi-stakeholders organizations that are working towards more sustainable production and the use of synthetic materials.
Here are some examples of the most important developments and key players in this area
It has been estimated that substituting one metric ton of virgin polyester with its recyclable counterpart can reduce toxic substances by up to 90%, energy consumption by 60% and emissions by up to 40%3. From 2007 to 2017, the use of recycled polyester almost doubled - from 8% to 14% of global polyester production1. It is mainly made from PET bottles and other post-consumer waste and garments. Recycled nylon is mainly produced from discarded fishing nets. Recycling can be done either mechanically (plastics are shredded, ground, melted, and then re-spun into new yarn) or chemically (fibers undergo chemical depolymerization to break down PET into their raw materials on a molecular level and are then converted back into new polymers).
Recycling initiatives by companies like Unifi (Repreve fabric), Thread (Ground for Good), Santanderina (Seaqual fabric), Aquafil (Econyl fabric), Ecoalf, Parley for the Oceans and Plastics for Change, not only help clean up plastic waste around the world to be re-used in the fashion industry, but also provide opportunities for people in many disadvantaged parts of the world to earn fair wages. They aim to make transparent and traceable supply chains. Some of the biggest brands committed to using more recycled synthetics include Adidas (aims to use recycled polyester in 100% of their product by 2024!), Eileen Fisher, Esprit, H&M, Target, Puma, Outerknown, Volcom, Timberland, Volcom, and Nike.
An emerging science of bio-based synthetic fibers offers an alternative to oil-based production. Such fibers consist of polymers wholly or partly made from renewable resources such as sugars, starches, corn, and plant oils. There are also new technologies underway to produce feedstock from algae, fungi, and bacteria4. These are still in their infancy (less than 1% of all synthetic fiber) and not all types are, by definition, “bio-degradable”. Bio-based PLA and PHA plastics can biodegrade but only under certain circumstances. Some of the innovations here include: LYCRA® T400® EcoMade fiber which is mostly (>65%) made from recycled plastic and plant-based resources like corn, DuPont Sorona® fiber partly bio-based polyester polymer derived from renewably sourced corn sugar, and EVO® by Fulgar – a 100% bio-based nylon yarn made from castor oil.
Textile Exchange launched a dedicated website Aboutbiosynthetics.org and a multi-stakeholder initiative, the TE Biosynthetic Working Group, with the objective to support the knowledge, understanding, and development of biosynthetics for the textile industry.
It is estimated that an additional 22 million tonnes of microfibers will end up in the oceans between 2015 and 2050 if no action is taken2. Fortunately, players in the industry are increasingly taking action to combat the issue. International organizations, such as Greenpeace, are carrying out research to better understand the effects of microfibers in nature. The European Outdoor Group launched a project to compare the impacts of recycled- versus virgin polyester and nylon, on microfiber pollution. It also formed a Microfibers Consortium to form an industry collaborative approach to address this issue1. Furthermore, innovative companies are developing new solutions to stop microfibers from reaching water streams, such as the Guppyfriend laundry bag or Xeros’ filtration innovation system XFiltra, compatible with any home washing machine.
4. CIRCULAR ECONOMY
The vision of the much-spoken about 'circular economy, led by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, is particularly applicable to plastics. As a non-renewable resource, it should ideally be recycled over and over again without losing quality or value. To achieve better circularity, still a lot needs to change in the industry. Design processes should include circular thinking from the start. Better industry-wide clothing collecting infrastructures are needed, as well as local and international regulations governing recycling factories and collectors. Innovation is needed to increase fiber-to-fiber chemical recycling processes and to use more renewable energy in production. The role of consumers is also critical here, they need to be educated on specific material recycling and have access to infrastructures and services allowing for better return of products.
So can fashion ever be plastic free? The answer, I think, is “no”. But can we collectively, as companies, governments, organisations, and consumers, use less “plastic” in fashion, and make it cleaner, more sustainable, and eventually circular – yes absolutely! We already have some good tools, technologies, and practices in place. Further technological progress and innovations, mixed with the will to bring about change, will certainly help us get there.
Tatsiana Shanina is a fashion retail professional with 15+ years of experience in buying, product development, and strategy management of designer brands. Visit her member profile