May 31, 2019

Is clothing made from plastic the solution we’ve been waiting for?

Words by Cat Butterfield

In the last few years, there has been a significant cultural shift around our attitudes towards single-use plastic. A new gap in the market has emerged: for the first time, consumers are demanding products that are reusable, biodegradable or made out of recycled materials. In fact, according to Global Web Index, 61% of millennials stated last year that they would pay more for eco-friendly products. This has seen a rise in ‘eco-packaging’; compostables, metal straws and reusable bottles.

The new kid on the block is the impact of fast-fashion on the environment, an issue that has been relatively under the radar until recently. However, it’s one that needs to be talked about.

Eco-Business estimated this year that one lorry-load of clothing is sent to landfill every second, and Greenpeace adds that nearly all of the world’s clothing will be made by polyester by 2030, which is itself made from PET plastic. Yes, that’s right: clothing made from plastic. Put these two figures together and the outcome is a massive amount of plastic production ending in landfill due to the fashion industry.

In a similar vein to biodegradable and compostable packaging companies positioning themselves as the solution to the plastic package dilemma, there are new products positioning themselves to be the solution to this growing issue of fast-fashion.

Recycled polyester, rPET, is one solution that is gaining a lot of traction. Larger players in the industry including Ralph Lauren have already developed clothes made out of recycled plastic bottles. Although on the surface this may seem the solution to our plastic woes, the sustainable fashion community have highlighted some cause for concern.

Adhering to our old friend the Waste Hierarchy (reduce, reuse, recycle), wouldn’t it make sense for us to focus on the first two solutions, reducing and reusing? There is a worry that marketing recycled clothing in this way isn’t conducive to changing people’s attitudes towards the most effective solution: consuming less.

Another important consideration is that recycled polyester still contributes to microplastics. Every washing machine cycle releases around 700,000 micro fibres, according to a study from Plymouth University, and rPET is no exception. So, whilst brands may be able to say they’re saving the odd plastic bottle from the ocean, consumers are meanwhile releasing millions of microplastics directly into our waterways by washing their so-called eco-friendly rPET garments. Suddenly, these clothes made out of recycled plastic don’t seem all that green anymore.

Further, even if the textile production is from recycled plastic, there is still a huge difference in the energy required. Although recycled polyester takes 59% less energy to produce than virgin PET, it is still more damaging to produce than cotton, hemp and wool.

So, before you spend inflated prices for clothing made from plastic as a guilt-free fashion fix, take a second to think of the other more effective solutions that are available such as more sustainable materials and buying second-hand. Charity shops are great if you’ve got the patience, as are vintage shops and Ebay.

As an environmental company, First Mile does a lot to encourage employees to have an eco-friendly attitude to fashion. We have our very own ‘Swap Shop’ wardrobe in the office and we also run ‘fashion fix’ sessions whereby a seamstress helps staff mend clothes in need of some love. And, being a recycling company, we also have coat hanger and textile recycling bins for those items that are beyond repair. Sometimes the simple solutions are the best ones.

By Cat Butterfield

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