A substance is woven into your clothes that can take on many different identities. Wool’s texture, linen’s lightness, and silk’s slickness are all possibilities. It’s in two-thirds of our clothing, but most of us aren’t aware of its presence. It’s plastic, and it’s a significant issue. Currently, synthetic fibers such as elastane, nylon, and acrylic make up around 69 percent of clothing.
Polyester is the most widely used fiber, accounting for 52 percent of total fiber production. The fashion industry relies on plastic because of its exceptional resilience and versatility. “It’s in the waistband of your jeans, in your shoes, in nearly everything you wear,” said George Harding-Rolls, a campaign consultant at the Changing Markets Foundation, which monitors business policies.
However, there is a cost to pay for climate change: fossil fuels are the raw material for these fibers. Textile production accounts for 1.35 percent of world oil production, or more than Spain consumes in a year and adds significantly to the fashion industry’s massive carbon footprint. Synthetics influence long after they are manufactured, as they shed plastic microfibers into the environment when clothes are laundered.
It appears to be a triumph for the environment. However, as more recycled yarns are woven into clothing, some experts wonder if they are patching over fashion’s environmental effects. “We’ve been taught to believe that recycled and sustainable are synonymous, but they’re not,” said Maxine Bédat, executive director of the New Standard Institute, a non-profit promoting sustainable fashion. The most common type of plastic bottle, PET bottles, are a common recycled substitute for pure synthetics.
PET bottles are produced in the billions each year. The Changing Markets Foundation polled nearly 50 fashion firms and found that 85 percent of them wanted to use recycled polyester from plastic bottles. According to estimates, recycled polyester might lower emissions by up to 32% compared to virgin polyester. Demand for recycled synthetics in areas such as fashion is predicted to rise.
According to Seana Hannah, Nike’s vice president of sustainable innovation, “some recycled material” is used in 60 percent of the company’s goods. “Nike is the highest industrial user of recycled poly,” Hannah added, “and we divert more than 1 billion plastic bottles from landfills on average every year.” Many major brands have set goals for themselves. H&M, Madewell, J Crew, and Gap Inc are among the more than 70 brands that have committed to adding recycled polyester’s share in their products to 45 percent by 2025.
It is part of the Textile Exchange’s recycled polyester challenge, which aims to increase lower-impact fibers in the textile industry. According to Alice Hartley, head of product sustainability and circularity at Gap Inc, synthetics account for the company’s second-largest share of fibers behind cotton.
Banana Republic, Old Navy, Athleta, and Gap are the four brands that have committed to the 2025 challenge, with Old Navy preferring to expand its recycled polyester to 60%. PET bottles are also part of a well-established closed-loop recycling system that can recycle them ten times. Because most of those items won’t be recycled, the fashion industry is “taking from this closed-loop and shifting it into this linear system,” according to Bédat. Converting plastic from bottles into clothing may hasten its decomposition, particularly for low-quality, fast-fashion outfits frequently abandoned after only a few uses.