by Tena Lavrencic
'Their method is simple but effective: you can take a challenge on their website and pledge to avoid single-use plastic for the month of July; they also offer a great resource library where you can find ideas and alternatives to plastic in pretty much any aspect of your life.'
I remember shopping for clothes with my mum when I was a child. Although we were far from being able to afford more than fast-fashion, I remember her avoiding certain shops, saying 'they only sell those plastic clothes'. She might’ve been onto something. Now that I’m years into thinking about sustainability and activism, I want to use this Plastic-free July to discuss the damaging use of plastic in the textile industry.
Let’s start at the top: what is Plastic-Free July? The global movement started 10 years ago aiming to help individuals find solutions to plastic pollution, and it grew into an award-winning campaign against single-use plastic. Today, it is one of the biggest movements in the world, with over 250 million people participating in 177 countries. Their method is simple but effective: you can take a challenge on their website and pledge to avoid single-use plastic for the month of July; they also offer a great resource library where you can find ideas and alternatives to plastic in pretty much any aspect of your life. It goes beyond the basic and obvious tips: I've been inspired to swap out my plastic bin liners for compostable ones after having a look at their website! Now, completely removing all traces of plastic from our lives sounds not only scary but it is also realistically just not possible for many people. That is why Plastic-Free July is a great movement. It encourages people to make lifestyle changes where they can, without imposing an illusion of a perfect plastic-free life (if you search Instagram for “zero waste” posts, you’ll know what I’m talking about). Instead, Plastic-Free July offers realistic alternatives and lots of real stories for inspiration.
Following Fashion Revolution’s #whatsinmyclothes campaign earlier this year, the use of plastic in fashion is also really relevant to consider. Polyester is a synthetic fibre, petroleum-based product and the most used material in fashion, currently holding 55% of the share in the global fibre market. It is a cheap, wrinkle-resistant, durable, and versatile material, unsurprisingly making it a favourite with fast fashion brands. According to Retviews’ analysis, some of the these brands have up to 60.5% of polyester in their material composition. But polyester is also used across the whole fashion industry: luxury brands often make clothes out of synthetic materials from non-renewable resources - try googling “Prada + polyester + jacket” or “Dior + polyester + tie”.
'Every time we wash or even wear clothes made out of polyester or similar plastic-based material, we are contributing to plastic pollution.'
Polyester, however, is not the only material we see on clothing labels that should raise concern. Nylon has almost the same properties as polyester and it is widely used, especially as a replacement for the silk; rayon is used for similar reasons. Acrylic, though it can vary in composition, is used for its warmth properties, while PVC and vinyl make shiny and water-resistant clothing, but are also highly toxic. You will probably come across other materials too, like spandex or lycra: these are just some of the most commonly used synthetic materials that are essentially plastic.
Even though clothes are not an obvious area that we think of when ditching single-use plastic, the fashion industry is very relevant for the Plastic-Free movement. Every time we wash or even wear clothes made out of polyester or similar plastic-based material, we are contributing to plastic pollution. Not only does the production of polyester and other materials come with a huge ecological cost, but when these clothes are used, they shred microplastics - tiny plastic fibres that are less than 5 mm in length. As those fibres are too small to get caught by most filters, they often end up in the ocean; estimations say that almost 35% of global microplastics pollution comes from the fashion industry. This is not surprising considering another report estimating that 6 kg of polyester can shed as much as 137k fibres.
The reason this is so damaging for the environment is because of the disastrous effect microplastics have on algae, fish, turtles, and other marine organisms, as well as humans. (You can learn more about microfibres in the oceans in the Story of Stuff’s video.) Because of the evident unsustainability of producing plastic fibres, there are many brands in recent years embracing recycled polyester as a way to reduce CO2 emissions and energy consumption, as well as preventing plastic from going to landfill. The recycling of plastic material has its pros and cons, but it does not solve the issue of the ever-growing amount of plastic waste in the oceans. There are brands taking a step further and making new clothes out of ocean-plastics, but even this seemingly eco-friendly effort may not be as sustainable as you think, with brands rarely disclosing the exact proportion of ocean-plastic vs new plastic in their products.
The solution to this plastic pollution is to try and choose clothes that are made out of 100% natural material rather than synthetics when possible. Some great alternatives are:
Organic cotton: cotton is a very resource-intensive crop, and while the organic version still needs a lot of space and water, it is a far better option.
Bamboo: this material makes super soft, hypoallergenic clothes and needs very little water.
Linen: another plant-sourced material that needs less water and chemicals to grow and produces durable and breathable clothing.
Fibres made of wood pulp (like Tencel): these innovative fibres make soft, gentle and breathable clothes and are also one of the most sustainable natural materials.
Plant alternatives to leather (like cork or fruit leather): alternatives to conventional leather are usually plastic-based materials. Instead, look for the plant-based options.
While wool, leather and other materials of animal origin are natural, it's key to note that they are not necessarily the best alternative to the synthetics used in fashion. Their production, apart from being ethically problematic, requires heavy resources (from land to food and water), produces enormous CO2 emissions, and requires heavy chemical usage, making it almost as damaging as that of plastic fibres.
'You probably already own a lot of clothing made of synthetic materials, but there are still things you can do this month to reduce your plastic pollution.'
Whilst choosing to purchase alternatives to plastic-based clothes is a great option, clothing made of natural materials may not be accessible to everyone because of their higher price range; another issue is that brands are not always transparent about what items are made of. Besides, you probably already own a lot of clothing made of synthetic materials, but there are still things you can do this month to reduce your plastic pollution.
Install the microfibre filter onto your washing machine
Wash your clothes less often and on a lower temperature
Learn how to take care of your clothes properly, so they stay in a better shape and last for longer
Air dry your clothes rather than use a tumble-dryer
Choose plastic-free laundry products that are refillable or packaged without excess plastic
There are plenty of good resources online to learn more: if you are just starting, take a look at these two articles on washing and caring for your clothes. I've been following these ideas for a while, and have just begun making my own laundry detergent (there are loads of recipes online) so I can eliminate another plastic package from my life and stop using harsh chemicals on my clothes. I hope everyone has got some ideas from this article about changes you can make this month - have a happy Plastic-Free July!
Tena is determined to change the fashion industry: word by word. She is a sustainable & ethical fashion freelance writer, who draws from her experience in the market and public research to help businesses, brands and organisations change how fashion works. You can catch up with her on Instagram or Twitter or see more of her work on her website, Thinking Threads.