In the 80 years plastic has been around, we've created 91 billion tonnes of it, and only recycled 10%. The plastic problem has spearheaded environmental panic for decades. The term ‘plastic pollution’ evokes imagery of floating plastic bags in the sea, discarded bottles tainting picturesque beaches, and eroding coastlines, but what about our wardrobes? The fashion industry plays an enormous role in global plastic usage.
Saving the planet is a growing trend and many brands are jumping on the bandwagon of becoming more sustainable and less detrimental to the environment. Let's delve into fashion's plastic obsession and how both brands and consumers can help to reduce the problem.
Death by microfibres
In 2016, 65 million tonnes of plastic was produced for textile fibres, contributing to 20% of the plastic produced for that year. It's crucial to understand that plastic is just as present in clothing garments as it is in production and packaging. Approximately 60% of clothing materials are plastic-based, including polyester, acrylic, and nylon.
According to the 2017 Ellen MacArthur Foundation Report, the textile economy found the fast fashion sector actually increased the demand for plastic-based clothing. Fast fashion companies rely on ‘virgin plastic’ in order to produce new styles at quick turnarounds. The report estimates that 63% of materials used in clothing during 2015 were virgin plastic-based, with only 3% deriving from recycled materials. Due to fast fashion often meaning a fast turnaround, most items are disposed of within a year and make up the 10,000 items of clothing that get shipped to landfill every five minutes.
What is alarming, is that only 6% of plastic waste in the sea is visible to the naked eye. Environmental Scientist Catie Tobin highlights how our clothing is not only damaging our oceans but also our own health. The thin, hair-like synthetic microfibre strands of plastic used in our clothing course through the water and air as a result of our sea pollution and as a result, have entered our food chains.
Research from the Institute of Marine Science suggests that there are 1.4 quadrillion fibres floating through our oceans, as well as plastic, eco-friendly materials such as linen and cotton are also proving to be detrimental. The excessive colour dying and treatment of the materials stops them from biodegrading, thus becoming highly toxic. Dr. Laura Foster from the Marine Conservation Society states; “We need to make more of a connection between the sea and what we do in our everyday lives, including the clothes we wear and put in the wash. It all becomes part of a soup of ocean plastic."
Behind the scenes
The long-term effects of plastic consumption within fashion are becoming ever more prevalent with increasing marine research. The shocking statistics have led to increasing intervention in fashion production. The top-down approach incorporates government policy, independent organisations, top brands, and consumers.
From a political perspective, in 2019 French president Emmanuel Macron debuted the Fashion Pact which encouraged leading brands and their suppliers to adopt more eco-friendly modes of production. The agreement between 32 companies and 150 brands houses the shared objective of reducing their environmental impact by achieving zero greenhouse gas emission by 2050, and most importantly cutting single usage plastic.
Independent organisations have collaborated with businesses to help transform sustainability. Clean by Design and the Conscious Fashion Campaign are some of the leading groups behind the reshaping of clothing production. Conscious Fashion acts as an online platform for industries, stakeholders, and governments to work collectively and showcase their actions and ideas on achieving their set sustainability goals.
The introduction of the Certified B Corporation has further encouraged the industry to redress its sustainability. The prestigious qualification is awarded to companies that meet the highest standards of environmental performance, driving a new global movement of conscious industry. Statistics can only take us so far, and legislative intervention is a crucial aspect going forward into a plastic free fashion culture.
On the shop floor
“The fashion industry is known for making trends, now it's working on its biggest trend yet: sustainability.” As highlighted, fashion production is more damaging than international flights and maritime shipping when it comes to pollution, and many fashion brands are beginning to do their bit to help the planet. Public demand for environmental intervention has led to 88% of consumers asking for brands to help them become more environmentally friendly. Below are a few examples of how brands are reshaping their production to improve environmental standards:
Patagonia, popular for its outwear, is helping customers repair and reuse their clothes rather than buy new ones. Due to the durability of its products, the ‘worn wear’ campaign repairs and reshares second-hand products, reducing the demand for plastic materials used to make new clothing.
Popular high street retailer H&M are moving away from their fast fashion roots and adopting sustainability through their Conscious Collection which utilises organic cotton and recycled polyester over synthetic materials.
Lastly, Everlane’s ‘No New Plastic’ campaign aims to eliminate all virgin plastic from its supply chain by 2021. As of April this year, they have successfully replaced all apparel materials previously containing nylon and polyester with recycled water bottles, fishing nets, and leftover fabric.
"The fashion industry is known for making trends, now it's working on its biggest one yet: Sustainability. This is a trend all consumers can get behind." Blake Morgan, Forbes
In your wardrobe
Plastic is a parasite and will continue to feed off fashion as long as we, as consumers, allow it. It's not easy for everyone to introduce a policy or start a global campaign against plastic usage in fashion, but there are a few things as consumers we can do to help reduce plastic pollution.
By shopping second-hand and using sustainable companies, we will subsequently reduce the demand for virgin plastic in clothes. By donating and selling old clothes rather than throwing them away, we will reduce the amount of clothing in landfills, thus combat the microfibre pollution in the sea.
Most importantly, we can be mindful. By reading the small print and care labels on our garments, and avoiding purchasing clothes that are high in plasticised material, we can become more conscious of our plastic intake and work to reshape clothing production in order to save our oceans and ourselves. Plastic is so last season anyway.