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Polyester has been a wardrobe staple for over half a century. It’s the most widely used fibre in the apparel industry, accounting for around 50 percent of the total fibre market. In an increasingly transparent apparel industry, the negative impacts of these plastic fibres in our clothes are gaining attention through digitally-enabled customers. Sustainable apparel brands are now looking to prioritise the production of environmentally friendly fabrics.
Plastic microfibers from synthetic clothes, such as polyester, lycra, rayon and nylon are washed down drains and into the ocean at a rate of half a million tons each year. If left unaddressed, these microfibres will remain as pollutants in our global ecosystems for more than 200 years. Microfibers are the most abundant micro plastic found worldwide and are not only a threat to global ecosystems, but to human health, making their way into and up the food chain through the fish and shellfish we eat. Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium recently calculated that shellfish lovers are eating up to 11,000 plastic fragments in their seafood each year. We absorb fewer than 1%, but they will still accumulate in the body over time.
Cleaning up our act
Progressive regions are beginning to take note of the implications of microplastics and are addressing the issue through legislation. A bill submitted earlier this year, which calls to reduce the amount of microfiber pollution entering our oceans is currently under consideration by the Californian State Assembly. If passed, by January 2020 all new clothing composed of more than 50% synthetic material is required to carry the statement “This garment sheds plastic microfibers when washed, which contributes to marine plastic pollution.” Such labelling brings to light the issue of plastics on a larger scale, educating the consumer and placing pressure on brands to reconsider their usage of synthetic fabrics.
In addition to concerns over marine pollution, most synthetic materials are made from chemicals sourced almost entirely from fossil fuels, hence plastic production has a high environmental impact. Despite growing concern and attention to this issue, demand for synthetics remains high. China, for example, continues to heavily invest in new production facilities. China’s heavy investments in new plastic production facilities are a sign that demand for virgin plastics remains high. The apparel industry plays a role in the demand for this plastic considering that 60% of all clothing on earth is made from energy intensive, (figure 2) synthetic materials. For an industry producing more CO2 than aviation and maritime shipping combined , finding low carbon alternatives is a necessity for the industry to improve upon current unsustainable practices.
A sustainable fabric mix
Instead of perpetuating virgin plastic production, brands such as Patagonia, Adidas, Mara Hoffman and Eileen Fisher see the business opportunity for addressing the plastic waste problem and are prioritising natural, recycled, and renewable fabrics. Such brands are using a mixture of less energy intensive organic virgin fabrics, such as cotton and linen (see figure 2), and technologically advanced fibres, such as regenerated polyester fibres and TencelTM, which are comparable to virgin synthetic materials nylon and polyester respectively, but use less non-renewable energy during production.
Debate exists towards whether plastic fibres should be used at all in garments, as microplastic pollution will continue to leach into rivers, oceans and water sources via recycled plastic fibres too. The optimum solution being to move away from plastic fibres and on to natural, organic fibres. Until the fashion system can transition to this stage, the industry can reduce excess energy consumption and negative environmental implications associated with virgin plastic production by using recycled plastics in apparel and footwear.
Finding sustainable alternatives to current synthetic fabrics is key to systemic change in the fashion industry. Adidas, through Adidas x Parley shoes, are showcasing the profitability that upcycled ocean plastic can bring to brands reputation and bottom line. Parley for the Oceans technology continues to spread through Adidas' line, with a new apparel line as well as the announcement of the 2018 Manchester United Football kit made from recycled ocean plastics, which is the third kit of its kind.
Patagonia also adopts a sustainable mix of fabrics, including recycled materials, which are showcased in their Recollection. Patagonia is progressing towards reducing their carbon footprint as well as creating closed-loop recycling systems within fashion supply chains. The most popular eco-innovations in fabrics being incorporated into both large and small-scale apparel and footwear design processes, include:
- Econyl made from 100 percent regenerated nylon fibre upcycled from pre- and post-consumer waste, like fishing nets, industrial plastic waste and fabric scraps
- Repreve made predominantly of post-consumer plastic bottles, already repurposing over 10 billion plastic bottles into fabric
- TencelTM (also referred to as Lyocell) is made with wood pulp from sustainable tree farms, Tencel textiles are created through the use of nanotechnology in an award-winning closed-loop process that recovers or decomposes all solvents and emissions
- PLA fabrica bio-degradable fabric made from fermented food waste
- Pinatex an artificial vegan leather made from pineapple
Following on from fabrics
UN Global Compact participants rank supply chain practices as the biggest challenge when addressing improvements in overall business sustainability. Sourcing and fabric selection are often the first protocol for brands who wish to develop more sustainable supply chains. The following steps are important corresponding actions to be taken alongside a materials review. They aim to improve brands’ sustainability performance and set the stage for long-term success:
- Manufacturing processes: Aim to find factories, which align with your goals as a brand. Ensure that environmental and social audits carried out also include important measurements of pollutant discharge and hazardous and non-hazardous waste generated from materials. Ensure that any non-compliance is addressed and rectified, through a corrective action plan (CAP).
- Collaborate with peers: The Higg Index developed by Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) is a tool which empowers brands, retailers and manufacturers to identify and measure their environmental, social and labour impacts at every stage of product lifecycle. The Higg MSI tool is dedicated to assessing the environmental impacts of materials and computing a sustainability score. A database offers brands a clear window into the what causes a material’s environmental impact and which production processes will reduce it.
- Transparency: Investing in suppliers is a key way to make improvements along apparel supply chains. Sustainable fashion designer Eileen Fisher’s Vision 2020 uses Sourcemap technology to map “from fibre to finished fabric or yarn”. Where sustainable brand Reformation aim to have 100 percent supply chain traceability of all products by the end of 2018.
There are many opportunities within apparel and footwear supply chains to enhance social and environmental value whilst increasing the competitiveness of the value chain of a company. Auditing, addressing and changing the sourcing of materials are essential steps that brands can take to improve environmental and social practices. The private sector has a key role in creating positive environmental and social impact through addressing environmental issues, shaping markets and facilitating new opportunities.
Recommended reading and sources
- Textile Exchange. (2016). Preferred Fiber Market Report. Available online at: http://textileexchange.org/
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2017). A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future. [pdf] Available online at: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2016). The new plastics economy: Rethinking the future of plastics. [pdf] Available online at: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org
- OLAS Sustainability: Recycled Fibres: https://www.olasoceantribe.com/pages/sustainability
 International Energy Agency, Energy, Climate Change & Environment: 2016 insights (2016), p.113