Fashion’s Virgin Plastic Problem

Fashion needs to not only stop making so much new stuff but also ditch its reliance on virgin-plastic materials like polyester altogether in order to meet the industry’s climate goals, according to a new report by sustainable materials-focused trade group Textile Exchange.

The sector’s emissions need to more-or-less halve by the end of the decade to stay in line with internationally agreed ambitions to keep a cap on global heating. But that won’t happen unless the industry slows down and stops using new volumes of the fossil fuel-based textiles that have helped propel its growth for decades, the report said.

That would be a drastic change to fashion’s dominant business model. Cheap and versatile polyester is the world’s most used material, accounting for more than half of global production in 2022, according to Textile Exchange. Throw in other synthetics, like nylon and acrylic, and plastic’s market share rises to nearly two thirds of the textiles produced each year. Even in products made from natural fabrics like wool and cotton, there’s often plastic in the form of elastane to provide stretch or hidden in threading, trims and coatings.

It all comes at a heavy environmental cost. To feed demand from the apparel, footwear and home textile industries, polyester producers spewed 125 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2022, according to Textile Exchange, the equivalent of nearly 30 million cars and more than any other material. Microplastics that shed off synthetic clothes in the wash are in our blood, lungs and brains. Discarded polyester garments are filling landfills and leaching toxins into the environment.

To counter these ills, fashion needs to dramatically accelerate efforts to bring textile-to-textile recycling to market, explore new innovations like biomaterials and materials made from captured carbon and ultimately reduce how much new stuff it puts on the market altogether, the report said.

“We will continue not to hit targets as an industry unless we really double down on this,” said Beth Jensen, senior director of climate and nature impact at Textile Exchange. “We have to get virgin fossil fuel-based polyester out of supply chains, while also thinking about more thoughtful production.”

Not everyone agrees plastic materials should have any place in fashion’s future.

Last year, a coalition of environmental groups launched a campaign calling on fashion brands to commit to completely phase out fossil fuel-based materials by the end of the decade.

That’s a challenge, but not completely unrealistic, according to some companies. Outdoor brand Icebreaker has almost completely rid its merino wool-based activewear of synthetics. Hugo Boss has set a goal to eliminate polyester and nylon from its collections by 2030, though it’s not yet clear how the brand will deliver on that.

But Textile Exchange (which represents a wide grouping of industry stakeholders, including sports and outerwear brands who heavily rely on synthetic fibres for a variety of technical and performance properties) argues the industry requires a more nuanced approach.

Huge volumes of polyester, nylon and elastane-laced products already exist — potential feedstock for recycled material that shouldn’t go to waste. Moreover, at current production rates, simply displacing fossil fuel-based textiles with natural alternatives risks putting more strain on already stretched land and water resources, the Textile Exchange report said. Even brands like Icebreaker have yet to figure out how to completely eliminate plastic from things like waterproof coatings and stretch waistbands.

Nonetheless, the industry is moving too slowly to tackle its use of virgin plastic. Though recycled polyester accounted for 14 percent of global production in 2022, that was down 1 percent from a year earlier, according to Textile Exchange. Most of the supply came from repurposed plastic bottles, an increasingly controversial practice because it doesn’t directly address the issue of fashion waste and turns once recyclable products into items with no end-of-life solution.

Shifting the fashion industry away from virgin polyester depends on new and emerging technologies that are not yet operating at scale and are proving tricky to bring to market.

Textile-to-textile recycling innovations are only just beginning to industrialise, with early movers facing significant structural challenges. Swedish recycler Renewcell filed for bankruptcy in February amid lagging sales. The high-profile failure has spurred new investments and new commitments from brands and financiers, but more funding and more collaboration is needed to really scale textile-to-textile recycling technologies and the collection and sorting infrastructure needed to supply them with feedstock, Textile Exchange said.

More nascent innovations like bio-based plastics or materials made from captured carbon also hold potential promise, but will require significant investment and further work to ensure they actually deliver on ambitions to reduce the industry’s environmental impact, Textile Exchange said.

Regulation can help. The European Union is considering setting requirements for brands to incorporate recycled content into products, which would boost demand to bring new technologies to market. A bill introduced in the US senate last month could put $14 billion in incentives on the table for businesses involved in the circular fashion space.

But even a drastic acceleration in bringing new innovations to market doesn’t let fashion off the hook from confronting a central tension: making more and more new products is incompatible with the industry’s climate goals.

“If we just replace [virgin] materials, but stay on the same growth trajectory … that will not be enough to meet targets by 2030,” said Jensen.

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