Why is There Still so Much Hidden Plastic in Our Clothes?

Why is There Still so Much Hidden Plastic in Our Clothes?

Photographed by Dan Roberts
While many of us are trying to stop using plastic as much as possible, there’s one area of our lives that still contains a huge amount of the problem material: our clothing. In fact, synthetic fibers such as polyester make up more than 60%of fibers produced globally. And although some brands are starting to move towards alternatives, a recent study found that 50% of fast fashion is currently made from virgin plastic — meaning the industry is still responsible for vast volumes of brand-new plastic entering the world. 
It’s important to remember that plastic comes from fossil fuels, which are the primary drivers of climate change. “Synthetic fabrics are a big part of the business model of oil and gas companies,” Josie Warden, co-author of the paper Fast Fashion’s Plastic Problem and head of regenerative design at London’s Royal Society for Arts (RSA), tells Vogue. 
With a  separate, new report in June estimating that synthetic materials are set to make up nearly 75% of all textiles by 2030, it’s clear we’re still heading in the wrong direction. “[These materials] are seen as a growing field of output for oil and gas companies, which ultimately is problematic because we know that we need to be winding down the extraction of fossil fuels,” Warden adds.  
Not only this, but synthetic fabrics release millions of microplastics into our oceans and waterways when we wash them, presenting a serious threat to marine life. Given that synthetics are not biodegradable, they can stay around for up to 200 years, all the time releasing more harmful microfibres and potentially toxic chemicals into the environment. With a shocking 92m tons of textile waste being produced every year, according to a 2017 Global Fashion Agenda report ending up in landfill or being incinerated, the urgency of the situation can’t be underestimated. 
“[Plastic] is everywhere and we have to do something about it,” says Liesl Truscott, European and materials strategy director of the nonprofit Textile Exchange. “We’ve got to wake up to the [issues of] waste and microplastics, the impact on nature, biodiversity, and our food chain. It’s a problem and it’s not going away fast.” 

Fashion’s reliance on synthetics 
Fashion’s reliance on synthetics dates back to the 1940s and 1950s, when nylon and polyester first emerged on the market as a rival to cotton, wool, and silk. Fast forward to today, and these fibers are more readily available than ever before. “They’re resilient fibers, relatively inexpensive and reliable,” Truscott explains. “Whereas cotton and other natural fibers may be a little bit more vulnerable to availability or weather conditions and climate change.” 
Often, polyester is blended with cotton and other natural fibers to improve its strength and durability, but this causes an added problem when it comes to the end of its life. “It’s probably one of the worst options because you’ve blended a natural material with a synthetic,” Truscott says. “In terms of being able to recycle it and pull those materials apart for different recycling streams, it’s pretty impossible at the moment.” 
The demands we place on our clothing nowadays also means plastic is difficult to eliminate from our wardrobes altogether. “We like our technical clothing, a little ironically, for getting out into nature,” Truscott says. “Synthetic fibres [are used] for its lightweight, high-strength attributes and being able to wick away moisture.” Activewear and underwear are also areas where it’s difficult to move away from plastic altogether because of the need for that all-important stretch.
What’s the solution? 
Given the amount of plastic that already exists on our planet, recycled polyester — which is often made from plastic bottles or discarded fishing nets — is currently a better option than virgin plastic, but shouldn’t be seen as a long-term solution. “Recycled plastic in clothing will still end up being incinerated or put into landfill at the end of that second life, so it’s quite a short loop,” Warden explains. 
At the moment, it’s still extremely difficult to recycle textiles into new clothes — with less than one percent currently being recycled in this way. “There is very little infrastructure for the recycling of synthetic fibers,” Warden continues. Mechanical recycling, where textiles are shredded, usually reduces the quality of the fiber, while chemical recycling, which involves breaking down materials into chemical form, is energy-intensive and can also lead to toxic substances being released. 
That’s why brands such as Pangaia are looking to move away from plastics altogether, with its new Gym collection being 90% bio-based, using eucalyptus, seaweed, and bio-based nylon made from castor oil. “Pangaia Gym combines the best sustainable choices of fibers and treatments that work together to create a biodegradable profile of activewear while still optimizing maximum functional performance,” says Dr Amanda Parkes, Pangaia’s chief innovation officer, adding that it is now working on a “bio-based biodegradable synthetic” to replace nylon for 2022, with the aim of eventually using this to replace traditional elastane in activewear. 
While such innovations are exciting, it will take time for these new textiles to scale up. There’s also still the need to consider what happens to bio-based materials at the end of their life. “Once you’ve produced it, can you recycle it? Is it going to end up in landfill in the same way?” Truscott asks. 
In the meantime, fashion needs to directly address its consumption of plastic, with some sustainability advocates calling for a warning label to be put on garments that contain synthetics. Others, such as campaign group the Changing Markets Foundation, say legislation and a tax on plastic is needed to force companies to move away from a reliance on plastic. “We need a pathway out of conventional fossil-based plastic, and we need to set some ambitious targets that we can start making tangible,” Truscott concludes.
Read Next: Livia Firth’s 10-Step Solution to Being More Sustainable in Fashion
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Everything You Need to Know About Buying Vegan Fashion

Everything You Need to Know About Buying Vegan Fashion

From researching the latest plant-based materials on the market to ensuring that the entire manufacturing process is actually eco-friendly, here are five things to look out for when shopping for vegan clothes.
Natalia Vodianova wearing Stella McCartney KOBA® Fur Free Fur. Courtesy of Stella McCartney

Given our increasing environmental and ethical concerns, it’s no wonder that Veganuary — a challenge to go vegan for the whole of January — is becoming increasingly popular. And while much of the focus is on food, there are plenty of other ways to live free of animal products, particularly when it comes to the contents of our wardrobes.
In fact, vegan fashion is something of a growing movement. Last April, Lyst reported that searches for ‘vegan leather’ had increased 69% year-on-year, while retail intelligence platform Edited suggested the pandemic could be behind an increased drive towards vegan items. (According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 60% of all human pathogens and 75% of new or emerging infectious diseases originate from animals.)
“More and more consumers are seeking out both ethical and sustainable fashion options — and vegan is often the benchmark for both,” Annick Ireland, CEO and founder of online boutique Immaculate Vegan, tells Vogue. “Just as we’ve seen a real revolution in how people eat over the past few years, with huge growth in the plant-based food sector, we’re now seeing the same in vegan fashion.”
For those curious about what vegan fashion actually is and how to go about buying it, here’s everything you need to know.
1. Learn about vegan and non-vegan fabrics
Put simply, a vegan wardrobe is one that doesn’t include any silk, leather, wool, cashmere, feathers or fur. If the clothes feature any kind of animal byproduct, they’re not vegan. Make sure you keep an eye out for the details and trimmings. For example, Nudie Jeans are now vegan because the back patches are no longer real leather, but that might not be the case for other brands. Look for the Peta-approved vegan logo to ensure that any products you’re buying really are animal-free.

2. Make sure ‘vegan’ means sustainable
Avoiding animal products won’t automatically make your wardrobe better for the environment, though. Many products labelled vegan are made from fossil-fuel derived synthetics, which are difficult to break down and can harm our oceans.
“A lot of consumers see it as a daunting transition, from understanding the myriad materials that exist to making sure that the vegan alternative you’re buying is also sustainable,” says Ioanna Topouzoglou, founder of London-based vegan handbag brand Mashu. “It can be a lot to digest and navigate.” She suggests turning to directories such as Good on You, CoGo, and Mochni, which include sustainable vegan listings from various brands.
Seek transparency about the manufacturing processes. After all, if you’re going vegan, you probably care about more general ethical credentials, too. “Look at the fabrics, check where they’re made and dig a little deeper to find out about their sustainable supply chains.  Fortunately, many sites list this along with the product details,” says stylist Rebekah Roy, director of London’s first vegan fashion show Bare Fashion.
Courtesy of Pangaia

3. Research vegan-friendly alternative materials
A dress made out of seaweed, anyone? Becoming au fait with vegan fashion means digging into the science of textiles, from soybean cashmere to leather made from corn. Even linings such as goose or duck feathers in puffer jackets can be replaced with down made from flowers, as demonstrated recently by Pangaia.
Mariam Al Sibai FW20 made with Piñatex. Photo: Instagram/@mariamalsibai

One of the biggest challenges when shopping vegan is finding an eco-friendly alternative to leather, as much of the vegan leather currently out there is made from un-environmentally friendly virgin PVC (ie. plastic). Cult brand Nanushka is starting to use post-consumer and recycled polyester for its luxe vegan leather, but if you want to go entirely non-synthetic, there are plenty of options from the natural world as well. For her eponymous brand, Syrian-British designer Mariam Al Sibai works with innovative fabrics  with the most exciting being the Piñatex fabric (made from pineapple leaves) as a sustainable alternative to leather.
“One of the great things about vegan fashion is how many amazing innovative materials there are that are not only cruelty-free but also really sustainable and often made using waste products,” Ireland says. “For example, there’s Piñatex and apple leather (made from apple cores and leftover skin from apple harvests) — they provide an additional source of income for fruit farmers. There’s also cactus leather, which is high quality and uses very little water to grow.”
Oh, and if you’re looking for faux fur, which again is typically made from synthetics, check out the offerings from Maison Atia and House of Fluff, as well as Stella McCartney’s recently developed KOBA Fur-Free Fur — made from a mix of recycled polyester and plant products.
Stella McCartney KOBA® Fur Free Fur. Courtesy of Stella McCartney

4. Try buzzy smaller brands for innovative fabrics
Shopping vegan also offers the opportunity to discover smaller labels. “It’s wonderful to have a wardrobe full of Stella McCartney,” says Roy, “but it’s so worth adding some innovative young designers to your edit. At Bare Fashion, we featured [UCA Rochester graduate] Eirinn Hayhow, who’s showing at London Fashion Week in February.”
Alongside other vegan labels such as actor Rooney Mara’s Hiraeth, look out too for buzzy brands making use of innovative vegan materials. Start with Mara Hoffman’s dreamy silk-free dresses made from TENCEL (a textile derived from wood pulp, also loved by brands including Mother of Pearl and Reformation), and others including BITE Studios, Maggie Marilyn, and Collina Strada who all offer a rose-petal alternative to silk. Try Cossac for its specifically vegan knits, composed of cotton and recycled polyester.
Cossac. Photo: Erea Azurmendi

5. Don’t forget the accessories
Luckily, accessories provide particularly rich territory when it comes to vegan options right now.  If you’re looking for bags, check out the delectable wares at JW Pei, Poppy Lissiman and Ashoka Paris. “The industry is growing exponentially, and I’m sure it will become even easier to find alternatives at more accessible prices in the coming years,” says Topouzoglou, adding that she’s found it easier to find vegan shoes in recent years.

That’s thanks to vegan sneaker brands such as Veja and YATAY, as well as Emma Watson-approved shoe brand Good Guys Don’t Wear Leather. For luxury vegan heels, try London-based Pīferi, founded by former Jimmy Choo designer Alfredo Piferi, or Los Angeles-based Taylor + Thomas, while Spanish brand Mireia Playà is the go-to for recycled vegan boots.

Read Next: 5 Completely Vegan Skincare Brands to Try for Veganuary
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