Fashion’s Plastic Addiction Is Harder To Shake Than It Seems

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Last year, 91% of the polyester used in Adidas sportswear was recycled. By 2024, the outerwear brand aims to completely phase out virgin polyester. Climate-focused outerwear brand Patagonia and fast fashion giant Inditex have similar goals for 2025.

The pledges – and progress towards them – look like major wins for the kind of sweeping overhaul needed to reduce fashion’s negative impact on the environment. Polyester is fashion’s favorite material, accounting for about 54% of the market, according to a new report from the nonprofit Textile Exchange.

Essentially a form of plastic, it’s also responsible for millions of tons of cheap disposables that end up in landfill every year. Switching to recycled alternatives is a good step that reduces fashion’s reliance on virgin fossil fuels, but it doesn’t solve the waste problem.

The problem is that almost all of the recycled polyester available on the market today comes from plastic bottles, not old clothes. And once turned into textiles, that plastic is much harder to keep in circulation than if it had remained a bottle that could be recycled over and over again.

“It’s better than creating a new synthetic material from fossil fuels,” said Ashley Gill, Textile Exchange’s product manager. But “at the end of the day, it’s kind of like ending the life of that plastic that’s in the bottle more quickly than if it stayed in this continuous bottle-to-bottle recycling.” About 99% of recycled polyester on the market today comes from plastic bottles, according to Textile Exchange.

This makes the change currently underway the start of a much longer (and harder) job to really tackle the impact of the industry.

Textile-to-textile recycling technologies that are beginning to reach industrial scale should help move the needle forward and offer an attractive solution to the ambiguous tension between big brands’ sustainability goals and their growth goals.

Adidas and Inditex are among the many brands that have invested in such recycling solutions. By the end of the decade, up to 30% of post-consumer textile waste in Europe could be turned into valuable raw materials, according to a report by consulting firm McKinsey & Co published in July. Meanwhile, brands are also experimenting with redesigning products and building the infrastructure to pick up and enable more recycling.

But rapid industry-wide acceleration is needed to move these efforts beyond buzzing, marketable pilots. Last year, around 3.4 million tonnes more of fossil fiber was produced than in 2020, an increase in volume out of whack with industry commitments to tackle climate change and cut emissions, according to the new Textile Exchange report.

Polyester volumes reached 61 million tonnes, up 7% year-on-year. Low prices mean demand for recycled variations (almost all made from plastic bottles) has stagnated at around 15% and is only expected to increase to 17% by 2025.

“It’s following the trajectory of business as usual,” Gill said. Where the companies are in terms of material substitution “isn’t aggressive enough yet.”

Rachel Deeley contributed to this article.

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