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Earth Day plastics

Model twins Brett and Scott Staniland reveal why the plastics problem is also a fashion problem
Brett and Scott Staniland

This article first appeared in our Earth Day issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 22 April 2024. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Fashion is extremely reliant on plastic and, as a result, also on the oil industry. The two are completely intertwined.

The most common material used in fashion is polyester, meaning the term single-use plastic also applies to fashion.

Garments are being bought and worn fewer times than ever before; according to the trade group Textile Exchange, polyester accounted for 54% of all clothing in 2021.

In addition to polyester there’s acrylic, which is often used in knitwear; nylon, used for outdoor wear and technical garments; elastane, which is in all those stretch jeans and polyurethane, which is marketed as a leather alternative – often named ‘vegan leather’ – and used as a coating on many real leather accessories.

But it’s not just about the actual garments; data from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reveal that packaging – used heavily by the fashion industry – constitutes 26% of the total plastic created each year. So it’s safe to say that the plastic problem is very much a fashion problem, too.

Plastic pollution

You’re almost certainly aware that plastic is sourced from oil, and that the heating and distilling of oil into plastic is extremely problematic and damaging on many fronts.

But another major issue with turning plastic into clothes lies in its end-of-life status: pollution.

We can picture plastic bags lying in landfill and never decomposing, sitting there either on fire or wrapped into the ground and around animals, but we rarely consider clothing in the same way.

After reading these figures, and some of the other articles in this issue, and knowing the negative impact plastic has on the planet, you might be thinking: why? Why are we so obsessed with plastic in fashion?

Well, plastics do have some decent properties, such as water resistance and stretch, but most of all, they’re cheap and easy to produce.

Recycled plastic in fashion

Navigating away from plastics can be challenging because brands are getting more cunning and streetwise than ever in making you believe you’re buying a good product.

This isn’t just fast fashion; even ‘sustainable’ brands have used clever tactics in pursuit of your buck and a cleaner reputation.

Brands have loved to hail ‘recycled polyester’ as the solution for the future and the basis of a guilt-free purchase for the consumer, while producing the same garments in tens of colours, releasing new styles weekly and creating trends that drive up demand. Recycled or not, the fabric is by this point generally unrecyclable.

Recycled poly will behave like virgin poly in landfill, too – shedding microplastics into waterways and impacting the environment for centuries to come.

Understanding clothes labels

Often those soft ‘knits’ are knitted from plastic, and silky, mesh, satin and chiffon fabrics are also likely plastic. We can all take action by learning about how items of clothing are labelled, so we can recognise when claims are misleading.

The ‘vegan’ label denotes products that contain nothing derived from animals, but also brings connotations of being animal friendly. This could not be further from the case – even though last year’s winner of Peta’s ‘Vegan fashion moment of the year’ was a plastic jacket.

We don’t need to lecture you on how unfriendly the oil industry is to animals. Heating the world with fossil fuels leads to biodiversity loss, and habitats suffer irreparable damage from the manufacturing of plastic and how it behaves as waste.

Something that lives longer than all of us, our children, their children and probably the next 10 generations will have an immeasurable impact on the world, unquantifiable by any measuring stick.

While many organisations will try to make you believe that plastics are the future – better than most natural fibres or better simply because they don’t harm animals – remember that they derive from oil, will last for ever and will negatively impact literally everything they touch.

While solutions may be hard to navigate, slowing down and supporting the secondhand clothes market are two good places to start.

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