Why Recycled Plastic is Not the Future of Fashion

Sustainable fashion is having a moment, and I’m not mad about it. It’s nearly my five year anniversary of committing to only buying responsible fashion (fashion made using fair labor and sustainable materials or second hand), so the more sustainable and ethical fashion on the market, the better.

The challenge is that, as the “trend” is rising, it’s getting harder and harder to discern who is doing things right and who is merely looking to profit off of appearing like they are sustainable.

Unfortunately greenwashing, which is defined as “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image,” is becoming more and more prevalent as brands recognize the demand in the market for sustainable and responsibly made products. In between the truly conscious brands and those that are using it as a marketing ploy, there are a number of companies who are well intentioned but not taking a systematic approach to ensuring that their impact is actually contributing to a healthier planet and a more equitable workforce.

There are many ways to approach sustainability in the fashion sector, and one of the bigger trends I have been seeing is the utilization and marketing of clothing made from recycled plastics. There are certainly benefits to using water bottles and other recycled plastics to make polyester, but there are significant drawbacks as well…

Using recycled plastic to make polyester is not a new concept (though some brands may make it seem like it is!). Patagonia, a pioneer in the sustainable fashion industry, has been using the material since 1993. According to their website, they were the “the first outdoor clothing manufacturer to transform trash into fleece.” Now they use recycled plastic bottles as well as their own worn-out clothing to make new clothes. Since then, there have been a plethora of companies using the material, some of which are more heavily marketed than others.

Of course, this is one of the major benefits of using the material — it transforms trash into clothes. It’s a wonderful thing to keep plastic bottles out of a landfill by reimagining them into something people will wear and love. Recycled polyester also has a much lower ecological footprint to make than virgin polyester as it does not rely on petroleum (though petroleum was used to create the initial material).

So what’s the problem? While recycled polyester is widely considered much better for the environment than virgin polyester, it still takes a toll on the planet. Washing polyester garments leads to a number of environmental concerns…

Microplastic has been found in our oceans due to runoff from washing plastic-based materials, and its fibers can have a devastating impact on marine life. That then trickles down to you when you eat seafood.

Your garment also will not biodegrade itself once you toss it out — it will live in a landfill like the original plastic bottles, just in a different shape.

Polyester is a material that is not friendly to your skin. Ever get super sweaty from wearing a polyester t-shirt? That’s because it is not a breathable material, and more importantly, can cause a number of health problems including endocrine disruption, and potentially even cancer. It’s the same reason I don’t recommend drinking from a plastic water bottle (in addition to the fact that plastic water bottles are awful for the planet). Polyester is even flammable (be careful wearing a fleece while cooking!) but is often sprayed heavily with flame retardant. Our skin is our largest organ, and much is absorbed through the skin — so if you wouldn’t add flame retardant to your morning coffee, I wouldn’t recommend wearing it either.

While recycled plastics may seem sexy at the moment through trendy brands like Rothy’s or Everlane’s new Renew collection, the material should be seen as a temporary solution to the amount of plastic refuse we create, instead of celebrating it as the next step in a plastic water bottle’s lifecycle.

From a consumer’s standpoint, knowing that plastic bottles can now be transformed into clothing may give a pass for using plastic disposables, and may imply that shoppers are supporting the environment by buying recycled plastic garments. But the truth is we need to stop the production of single-use plastics to begin with, instead of reimagining what to do with them after the fact.

We can’t keep continuing to put bandaids on the environmental mess we are creating on this planet. We can’t keep producing plastic at this rate while assuming we can wear it as a sweatshirt later, ignoring the fact that it’s killing our ocean life and polluting our air.

I encourage you to support companies who are mindful of their impact. Patagonia, for example, is actively working to investigate and create solutions to the microplastics issue, recognizing that everything they create has an impact on the planet and is always working to lessen it. I choose to support brands that are pushing the needle forward and taking a comprehensive view and approach to their impact.

Sara Weinreb is a writer, strategist, and design thinking facilitator on a mission to support people and businesses in being kinder to themselves, each other, and the planet. She is the host of the Medium Well podcast, and Founder of The M List, a daily newsletter supporting individuals in living a more mindful, holistic, and sustainable lifestyle. Sara has dedicated her lifestyle and work to helping others live a more holistic, stress-free lifestyle. She writes for Forbes, mindbodygreen, AlleyWatch, StartupFashion, and more. You can often find her on the yoga mat, making herbal elixirs, singing karaoke, and attempting to keep alive her growing collection of plants.

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