More than half of all textiles produced each year include plastic. Now the urgent search is on for a more sustainable way to clothe the world
single-use plastic is an oil derived menace to marine life but how many paused to look down at the elastic in their waistbands, the polyester in their T-shirts and the nylon in their shoes?
Plastic is in everything what we wear may be less visible than it is in bottles or straws, but it is still toxic.
Yet somehow we have woven it so tightly into our throwaway society that we barely notice it, even when it is on our own backs.
Now people are changing at the top and bottom supply chain to do something about it.
What Industry Thinks?
Kimberley Smith, head of production at a US clothing company Everlane said
“When I started doing this five years ago, suppliers wouldn’t even show me their recycled fabrics or they wouldn’t even have them in their bag,”
Since her company committed to eradicating all non-recycled, or virgin, plastic from its supply chain, stores and offices by 2021, her job has become a mission to demand more of them. “Now, recycled is the first thing they show us,” she adds.
But that mission is also about fighting the ignorance among shoppers. “There’s a lot more pressure now to be more educated about issues like water and air pollution, but I think people aren’t as clear that, ‘Oh, by the way, your know your fleece or your Puffa jacket is made of virgin oil?’ I don’t think people understand,” says Smith, worked at Gap and Levis clothing.
Perhaps the development of synthetic fibres as a way to mimic natural fabrics – and add clever functionality – helped obscure the plastic in so much of what we now wear.
How Plastic Is Made
A process called polymerisation gives us plastics with innumerable potential uses, from hose pipes to dental floss. Melted down, plastic chips could be spun into a strong, light, fast-drying plastic yarn.
When it was launched in stockings in a storm of publicity, nylon was more expensive than silk. New technology made nylon costly on that time.
War swiftly diverted production to parachutes and tents, and synthetic stockings, or “nylons”, became a currency in the black markets of European continent, but mass production geared up thereafter and synthetic fibres wove their way across the world.
Well Plastic Is Everywhere!
Plastic goods of all kinds were celebrated for their utility and diminishing cost – but also their very disposability. “Throwaway Living” ,“no housewife need bother”, the magazine said. “They are all meant to be thrown away after use.” all these lines were advertised in old times.
Throwaway culture might not be as celebrated today, but the same globalising trends on commerce and trade means it has spread into clothing.
A return to using cotton would alleviate the plastics problem, but no fast fashion is truly green.
it can take up to 22,500 litres of water to grow a kilo of cotton in parts of India that are already water-deprived.
Moreover, there are things that cotton can’t do, such as keep the rain out or repel sweat.
The Change From Plastic To Sustainability
The basic technology needed to dress a growing global population more sustainably has existed for decades.
“We launched our first recycled polyester fleece in 1993,” says Matt Dwyer, director of materials innovation at the US-based outdoor-clothing giant Patagonia.
“I’ve handled it and it’s a bit crispy now and the quality wasn’t quite there, but that’s not the story now,” Dwyer adds. More than 80% of the synthetic material Patagonia uses is now recycled and that proportion should hit 90% in the next year.
By sorting and processing old plastic into shreds and then turning them into chips, recycled-fibre producers such as the US-based Unifi, which makes Repreve, a recycled fibre, can spin the chips back into yarn.
Unifi alone has processed more than 16bn bottles since 2008, and hopes to hit 30bn by 2022.
The company supplies Patagonia as well as brands including Ford, for which it makes seat coverings.
Risks and Solutions
But is there not a risk of greenwashing when brands whose business models rely on cheap fashion position themselves as environmental crusaders?
“You’ve got to make a big statement and put it out there,” says Smith at Everlane. “Saying, ‘We’re going to start a little baby eco line,’ is better than nothing but by setting a real target and telling everyone about it, you’re like: ‘OK, now we’ve really got to do it.’”
Beyond recycled ranges, campaigners are asking whether fast fashion can ever be green. “The big issue I struggle with is that, yes, we can push for brands to become more sustainable, but as long as they’re churning out millions of garments a year, we’re not going to change anything,” says Tolmeia Gregory, a 19-year-old sustainable-fashion blogger and environmental activist. She has changed the way she dresses to include more secondhand clothes and sustainable brands, and is spending more on higher quality items that last longer.
Legislation may be part of the solution, but the government was accused of complacency last month after rejecting recommendations from MPs to improve fashion’s wider impact on the environment.
In its report, Fixing Fashion, published in February, the Environmental Audit Committee said a 1p levy on each garment would raise £35m a year to improve infrastructure for the collection and sorting of clothes that otherwise go to landfill.
It proposed a VAT cut on clothing repair and better rewards and penalties. The committee also recommended mandatory environmental targets for bigger retailers.
In the meantime, brands with an eye on the clock are making inroads. Those that rely less on synthetic materials are using new technology to recycle cotton.
Sometimes it’s the little details that pose the biggest challenges for those trying to eliminate virgin plastic.
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