Is recycled polyester the answer to fashion’s waste problems?

The year 2019 was a big one for the sustainable fashion movement. The rising threat and impact of climate change and pressure put on brands by movements such as Fashion Revolution saw brands respond with big commitments to address their environmental impact.

In Australia, The Iconic brought out its Considered collection, allowing shoppers to “shop by the values that mean the most” to them.

We saw H&M release its Conscious Collection – a more sustainable choice for shoppers that features recycled polyester, Tencel and organic cotton.

Zara announced that by 2025 that it would switch to 100% recycled, sustainable and organic materials. The internet liked that.

But a lot of people saw through it for a number of reasons. For one, commitments in the global fashion industry mostly go unaccounted for.

Just look at H&M. In its “Roadmap towards a fair living wage” H&M promised 850,000 workers a living wage by 2018. H&M happily took the credit for that commitment in 2013, but today not a single worker is actually being paid a living wage (as specified by the Global Living Wage Coalition).

No one’s checking in to make sure brands actually meet these targets. It’s an easy PR win on the announcement with close to zero ramifications if they fail to meet the deadlines.

But the deeper issue is whether or not these “commitments” are even viable solutions to fashion’s problems, whether they reach them or not, or are they simply greenwashing tactics to keep people consuming their products?

One common thread across a lot of the commitments being made in the fashion industry at the moment is a switch to recycled synthetic fibres, ie. polyester and nylon.

This isn’t a new innovation, but it’s recently been taken up by big players such as Zara and H&M, leading to extensive positive press coverage suggesting the fast fashion powerhouses are changing their stripes. Zara even went as far as saying the brand is the “opposite of a fast fashion company.”

But as Clare Press wrote for Raconteur: “Switching in a bit of recycled polyester doesn’t equate to saving the planet – not at single-use prices.”

But recycling is good, right?

Recycled polyester and nylon is a fantastic innovation that’s allowing the fashion industry to reduce its environmental footprint in a number of ways.

Primarily, it allows fabric manufacturers to reduce the amount of energy and oil used to create virgin synthetic textiles. As Good on You explains: Polyester is created through an energy-intensive heating process, requiring large quantities of water for cooling. What’s more, the textile is, in part, derived from petroleum and the oil manufacturing industry is the world’s largest pollutant.

Recycled nylon manufacturer Aquafil says that of every 10,000 tonnes of Econyl raw material it creates, it’s able to save 70,000 barrels of crude oil and avoid 57,100 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions – reducing the global warming impact of its nylon by up to 80% compared with the material from oil.

As a bonus, this method of manufacturing is also helping to reduce virgin plastics from entering landfill, as fabric manufacturers salvage everything from discarded fishing nets to water bottles and even carpet to create their regenerated nylon products.

Early adopters of the innovative textile include the likes of Patagonia and Prada, suggesting this isn’t just a fad nor an inferior fabric option.

But of course, this is only one piece of the puzzle. Recycled or not, synthetic fibres are still wreaking havoc on the planet during their use and at the end of their life.

And while it’s great that these garments are being made from recycled plastics, they in themselves aren’t able to be recycled easily due to the difficulty in collecting and sorting of garments and the huge variation in textile makeup and blended fibres. And like all plastics, there’s a limit to the number of times it can be recycled.

If these garments end up in landfill, it can take anywhere between 40 and 200 years for nylon or polyester to break apart, in the meantime leeching greenhouse gases. And we’re not even sure plastic can break down.  

Further to that is the microfibres leached from garments during their lifetime. Each time you wash a polyester t-shirt about 1900 plastic microfibres are released and end up in your water waste. Again, we’re not sure on the effects of this on our oceans and our health, but we know it’s not good.

It’s safe to say that at this stage, while recycled polyester and nylon are helping to reduce fashion’s environmental footprint, they’re an incomplete solution at best. Fashion brands should be considering not only the impact of the creation of their garments, but their disposal as well.

 

Image credit: ReSwim Club

About Author

Brittanie Dreghorn

Brittanie Dreghorn is the founder and editor of Britt's List, and an advocate for sustainable and Australian fashion.

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