Recycled plastic clothing: a sustainable revolution or just greenwashing?

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Clothing made from recycled plastic has been heralded as the next great step in sustainable fashion, but is this vegan-friendly fabric just another case of greenwashing?

From fast fashion giant H&M’s Conscious Collection to smaller retailers like TALA, more and more companies are adopting recycled materials in the name of sustainability. These increasingly popular textiles offer a seemingly eco-conscious alternative to oil-based, synthetic fabrics.

Synthetic fibres, and polyester, in particular, are already staggeringly prevalent in our wardrobes. One study suggests that polyester alone accounts for 55% of the global fibre market, which is particularly worrying when you consider that it’s made from oil. In 2015, 330 million barrels of oil were used to make polyester and other synthetic textiles — the equivalent of more than 21,000 Olympic pools of oil. Faced with such statistics, it’s no wonder that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions.

That said, synthetic materials have a necessary role in the clothing industry, and particularly in the vegan market. Man-made fibres offer certain ‘performance’ qualities, such as elasticity or waterproofing, that natural materials cannot rival. Moreover, whilst one can do without a fake fur coat, it’s hard to avoid any kind of leather alternatives in a vegan wardrobe.

As it stands, oil-derived materials are an inescapable component of the vegan fashion industry, so recycled items are a much better option than their virgin plastic equivalents. Recycled polyester (rPET), for example, requires 59% less energy to create than virgin polyester, and is suggested to emit 79% less CO2 compared to new material. However, that’s not to say that recycled synthetic clothes are without their own, significant drawbacks.

A microscopic problem

microfiber sheddingThey may be small, but microfibres are causing colossal damage to the planet’s waterways and aquatic life. Thinner than a human hair and less than 5mm long, these tiny pieces of plastic shed from our clothes account for an estimated 35% of ocean microplastics. As well as being potentially carcinogenic on their own, microplastics absorb harmful chemicals which can be toxic to marine life.

The problem of microplastic pollution is vast. A 2018 study found that 73% of fish caught in the Northwest Atlantic had microplastics in their stomachs. And it’s not just fish who are ingesting the stuff: 83% of drinking water samples worldwide have been shown to contain microplastics. We are literally drinking our rubbish — including our clothes — and though the impact of this on our health is yet to be determined, it’s obviously a cause for concern.

Read our story on fashion businesses that address microplastic pollution.

Though microfibres drop off our clothes constantly, over 700,000 fibres can be released in just one average wash load. Whether your garment is made from recycled material or not is irrelevant, as the microfibres shed by both fabrics are likely to be the same.

clothes sheddingThere is a workaround, albeit imperfect. Installing a microfibre filter in your washing machine can prevent microplastics from entering our waterways. Similarly, washing bags like Guppyfriend can reduce the number of fibres lost in the wash by up to 86%, and any fibres that do break off are retained in the bag rather than washed away with the wastewater.

Another option is to seek out recycled synthetic items that need less washing. As the experts at Good On You, Gordon Renouf and Solene Rauturier, explain: “It’s worth noting that there is much less of a problem with items that are never or rarely machine washed, like shoes made from rPET or swimwear that you gently handwash.”

Brands such as Patagonia are also working on reducing microfibre release through innovative material design, which Renouf and Rauturier single out as a positive initiative.

Destined for landfill

microfiber shedding pollutionMost recycled polyester clothing on the market is made from post-consumer plastic bottles. As a sustainability expert at WRAP states: “This is great compared to using polyester made from oil, and it’s good that the material has been used at least once previously. Recycled polyester is better than a lot of options currently available.”

However, the question still remains of what happens to our old plastic-bottles-turned-clothes once they’ve reached the end of their usable life. When only 13% of our clothes get recycled, the harsh reality is that most of our recycled polyester clothes are destined for landfill. Even of the garments that do get recycled, they are highly unlikely to get turned back into further textiles (less than 1% of clothes are recycled into new clothes). Instead, they will be ‘downgraded’ to lower value items — insulation material, wiping cloths, and mattress stuffing, for instance — which will doubtless be their last use before they are resigned to landfill.

This is largely down to the recycling process. Most textiles are recycled using a mechanical process where the fabrics are shredded down to reusable fibres. The deconstruction of the material shortens and damages the fibres, resulting in a low-quality product that cannot be turned back into clothes unless combined with other virgin fibres. Whilst chemical recycling offers a potentially more circular alternative, it too has its limitations: it’s not yet widely available, and the chemicals involved are far from environmentally friendly.

For recycled garments to be truly sustainable, we need a ‘closed loop’ system that allows clothes to be turned back into clothes. In the meantime, the best choice we have is to prolong the life of our oil-based fashion. Experts recommend sticking to durable items, such as shoes or coats, when buying recycled polyester as they will offer longer usable wear. This double-edged approach can also tackle the microplastics problem, as these items are less likely to end up in a washing machine.

Red flags for greenwashing

fashion greenwashingThe world cannot cope with our current levels of clothing consumption. The fast fashion model of low-cost, mass-produced clothing is trashing our planet and driving us ever closer towards climate catastrophe. Whether a company is using organic cotton, virgin polyester or recycled plastic bottles for its clothing, it will never be sustainable within a fast fashion system.

Despite appearing a more eco-conscious choice of fabric, there’s huge potential for fast fashion companies to manipulate recycled synthetics to greenwash their brand. Renouf and Rauturier from Good On You, explain: “Greenwashing is a marketing tactic used to portray an organisation’s products, activities, or policies as environmentally friendly when they’re anything but. With people becoming increasingly aware of the impact of consumer goods on the planet, some brands are tempted to put a spin on their environmental sins.”

They add: “‘Eco-friendly collections’ by fast fashion brands, using ‘better’ materials like recycled PET plastic, are an increasingly common marketing tool. ‘Eco-conscious’ ranges often make up only a tiny portion of their overall production. Moreover, they do nothing to combat the ‘buy cheap then throw away’ business models.”

Making clothing from recycled plastic — an apparently moral decision — can also veil a company’s unethical treatment of its workers. Fast fashion has a horrifying track record of human rights abuses, and a majority of companies do not pay their garment workers a living wage. According to a 2019 report by Oxfam, 100% of garment workers in Bangladesh and 99% in Vietnam earn less than they need to cover basic essentials for survival. Though it may seem virtuous on paper, recycled plastic clothing can never truly be ethical if the people making it are being exploited.

An imperfect option

recycled clothingRecycled polyester and other recycled synthetics have their place in the fashion industry, and especially for vegan consumers. Until vegan fashion no longer relies on oil-derived materials, recycled clothes are undeniably a better choice than virgin nylon or polyester. This is particularly true of durable items that don’t need machine washing — think raincoats, trainers and swimwear. It is also useful for activewear production, yet by no means the most eco-friendly option compared to materials like Tencel.

Ultimately, though, the most sustainable clothes available to us are the ones already in existence. Shopping secondhand, or wearing what you already own, will always be the best fashion statement one can make for the sake of our planet.

Amy Nicholas
Amy Nicholas
Amy is a regionally and nationally published journalist. Having finally broken up with dairy during Veganuary 2018, she believes that our diets are one of the biggest personal changes we can make in tackling the climate crisis, though she also advocates for urgent, systemic action. Amy recognises the intrinsic link between climate activism and social justice, and feels we must address both with the same energy and urgency. When not writing, Amy is a performing arts teacher, and loves nothing more than belting out show tunes in her kitchen (much to the dismay of her flatmate).