Is Textile and Apparel Sustainability a Pipedream?

I have been blogging for over a year now, primarily about textile and apparel sustainability.  As I do research and write these blogs, attend conferences, and talk to industry people, I have felt an overriding sense of frustration with the lack of real and sustainable progress.  There are hundreds of articles one can read about a wide variety of efforts underway to promote and drive sustainability and ideally a circular economy for textiles and apparel.  Some of these efforts will make a real, though small, impact and many more are little more than “green washing” marketing ploys to tout the sustainability bona fides of companies who promote wasteful practices.  The image of putting green lipstick on a pig comes to mind.  As does the image of dancing millennials in commercials promoting cheap, disposable clothing.  In my opinion, to the H&M’s and Old Navy’s of this world, wasteful consumption in the name of fast fashion appears to be the business plan.  Signing on as a charter member of the next Ellen MacArthur Foundation initiative likely won’t change that.


As I work my way through all the noise and clutter, I see two primary issues with textile and apparel sustainability.  They are:

·       polyester fibers from apparel (typically referred to a “microfibers”) being released into our waterways, and

·       the enormous and growing amount of apparel being dumped into landfills.

I understand there are issues with the petrochemicals used in the production of polyester and the significant environmental impacts of growing cotton, as I’ve discussed in previous blogs.  But until another fiber that is cheap enough, plentiful enough, and with the right set of physical properties comes along, I’m afraid we’ll just have to work on making what’s available less awful.  I have discussed improvement efforts, primarily recycled water bottles as a polyester feedstock and better cotton growing practices, in previous blogs.

But let’s get to the meat of this discussion.  Is there anything we can do to truly have a major impact on the two primary issues?  Let’s start with microfibers.

There have been many studies performed on and articles published about the microfiber issue.  The latest article I’ve read, from the Wall Street Journal, is linked here.  The points made in the article are consistent with those I made in my blog from March 12, 2018.  Also noted in the WSJ article were pending bills in New York and California related to microfibers.  These bills would require labels on clothes made from more than 50% synthetic material to tell consumers that these garments shed plastic microfibers when washed.  Commenting on this, Nate Herman of the American Apparel and Footwear Association said the legislation was getting ahead of the science.  “We don’t know if synthetic apparel is a primary contributor to the microfiber issue,” he said, “There is very little way to accurately measure the impact of one type of thing versus another.”  Seriously?  Reminds me of the tobacco industry in the 1960’s saying there wasn’t enough evidence to tie smoking to lung cancer.  I’ve read a few of the university studies performed on apparel and microfibers and the findings are pretty clear to me.  Apparel sheds microfibers in the wash and some of those microfibers get into our waterways.  It’s been estimated that roughly 35% of the plastic pollution in waterways is from apparel, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.  Several efforts are underway to help deal with this issue.  They range from Polartec’s new insulating fabric which sheds less microfibers than fleece, to entrepreneurs who are developing technology to clean the plastic out of the oceans.  While I applaud the effort, nothing I have come across will come close to truly dealing with this problem.  Addressing this issue at its source and making real and measurable progress will take a massive effort, not just from the industry, but from governments and consumers.  Here is what I feel needs to be done:

·       Shift synthetic production away from spun yarns and focus on using continuous filament.  I say this not because I was in the continuous filament business, but because studies have clearly shown garments made from spun yarns shed significantly more.

·       Require that all garments which have been shown to shed large amounts of microfiber, especially fleece and other napped goods, be prewashed aggressively at the factory, using commercially available filter technology to capture the microfibers for recycling.  It has been clearly demonstrated that the majority of microfiber shedding occurs in the first few washes.  Let’s use that knowledge to our advantage.

·       Require all new washing machines and dryers have easily cleanable filters to capture microfibers.  They will end up in the landfill, but that is better than in the waterways.

·       Governments and the industry should support funding for research and development of new polymers which would be comparably priced to, and biodegrade like, cotton or other natural fibers to replace polyester. The Parkdale JV owned CiClo polymer I blogged about on September 27, 2018 may meet this need, assuming it performs as advertised (from the data I have seen, it does) and can be scaled up sufficiently to get costs in line.  If this can be done, the three actions above would become less necessary, but still of value.  In fact, this would also help mitigate the effects of our second big issue, apparel being dumped into landfills.


Clothing being dumped into landfills in alarmingly increasing amounts has been the subject of a few of my previous blogs, so I won’t bore you with all the details again.  The problem is already huge and it is growing.  Add to this the fact that other waste streams that were previously being recycled no longer have outlets and are now being added to dumps and the problem will quickly approach crisis proportions.  In fact, some municipalities which had previously been paid for their recycled materials are now finding they have to pay to have them recycled.  Many are simply now sending this material to a landfill.  More on this is in an article from The Atlantic discussing the “End of Recycling?”, linked here.


Back on May 2, 2018, I wrote a blog asking if a textile and apparel circular economy was possible.  In the blog, I recommended three steps which could make it possible:

·       The trend to “fast fashion” and the culture of disposable clothing will have to end.  Consumers will have to consider the cost per wear versus the cost per garment and learn to value quality and durability.  More importantly, they will have to understand the impact of their choices.

·       Technologies to efficiently and cost effectively recycle clothing into renewable and reusable outputs, effectively closing the loop, will have to be developed and commercialized.

·       The means to collect and sort enormous amounts of clothing will have to be developed and deployed.

As I have studied and thought about this issue, I’ve concluded that the first point above is the most important.  Technology can help address the symptoms of our wasteful behavior, but it cannot address the disease, wasteful consumption and disposal in the name of fast fashion.  The brands and retailers driving this culture seem unwilling to recognize the issue, instead joining feel good initiatives and sometimes collecting 1 or 2% of the stuff they sell for recycling and calling themselves sustainability champions.  Only consumers can lead the needed change. 


A broad and well planned campaign to educate consumers globally will be required to have a measurable impact on this growing problem.  For instance, sustainability focused non-profits like The Textile Exchange and The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, working with industry groups like The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, should develop and fund a global public service advertising campaign explaining the enormous environmental effects of apparel disposal.  The financial and ecological benefits of purchasing and continuing to wear high quality and durable clothing and ways to dispose of or repurpose that clothing in a sustainable and responsible manner should also be highlighted.  Campaigns like this work.  As an example, we in the U.S. have made real progress in cleaning up our streets and highways over the last 50 years.  It all started with the “Keep America Beautiful” program in the 1960’s. Those of us old enough still remember the indelible image of a native American sheading a tear while seeing trash littering our highways.  Broad based and effective public service advertising works if the message is powerful and purposeful. 


The concept of clothing rental, sharing and resale, currently confined mostly to high value items, can and should be expanded.  Some brands are recognizing the threat and opportunity presented by this thinking, as discussed in this article


Assuming we can reverse the trend of wasteful consumption, we will still have to deal with a large, albeit no longer growing, amount of used clothing.  Half measures and incremental improvements will not be enough.  In my May 2018 blog, I highlighted the need to develop waste collection and recycling technology for apparel.  In retrospect and in light of the apparent waning of recycling efforts in the US mentioned above, I now feel recycling of clothing, while important and helpful, will not fully solve the problem.  More fundamental technological solutions are required.  As crazy it sounds, I feel the most viable solution is to drive a shift from polyester to a more sustainable replacement.  That will take innovation, investment and time to achieve.  It will not happen because the industry is committed to sustainability, consumers will have to demand it.  As noted above, the CiClo polymer I blogged about on September 27, 2018 may meet this need, assuming it performs as advertised and can be scaled up sufficiently to get costs in line.  Others are also working on biodegradable polymers aimed at replacing polyester.  I will report on some of these in future blogs.  


The bottom line here is dumping used apparel into landfills is already a massive problem and it is growing.  Even the most sustainable apparel companies, like Patagonia, while using recycled polyester to make their garments, still sell products that shed microfibers and end up buried in a landfill for hundreds of years.  I am sure many will argue that bold steps like those I am proposing would entail a massive reinvention of the textile and apparel industries and are too difficult to achieve.  I imagine sitting at home with an iPad and buying pretty much anything you need from clothing to food to bike racks sounded like a pipedream too, about 10 years ago.  If consumers demand it, industry will deliver.  Many will argue that the small incremental steps we are taking now are all the industry could ever support and will have to suffice.  While I understand a long journey starts with the first step, I am afraid that with every first step we take on this issue, the journey is getting a mile longer.  Only bold and fundamentally game changing action will make apparel sustainability and ultimately a circular economy possible.  Until we recognize that fact, the problem will only get worse and more difficult to fix.  If brands and retailers truly want the textile and apparel industries to be circular and sustainable, then they should act like it.  If not, then stop insulting our intelligence and promote something you really do believe in.


I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  Please comment.