Recycled polyester is one of the main solutions invoked by fast fashion to claim that it is reducing its ecological impact. In this article, we’re going to try to explain how this material is above all a smokescreen that distracts us from the real solutions. An investigation that will take us to China, Uganda and even Tennessee.
Reading time: 18 minutes (sorry, but that’s how long it takes to explain!)
This article was first published in French, you can find it here.
Chapter 1 – Polyester is a bit of hell
Before we get to recycled polyester, let us introduce you to its « virgin » (i.e. non-recycled) version. And to do so, we’d like to show you the self-proclaimed world’s largest textile company: Hengli.
If you’re expecting to see thousands of workers at sewing machines, you will be disappointed. A Hengli factory in China looks more like this:
Two supertankers spill millions of liters of oil into a mega-plant, which are then transformed in a series of heavy industrial refining or steam cracking stages to produce… polyester. Yes, polyester starts out as oil.
And just as oil has fueled the transportation sector for decades, polyester is the fuel that has fueled explosive growth in the textile industry. Today, it accounts for more than half the textile fibers used worldwide.
How to explain such an increase?
Because polyester has always been cheaper than cotton? Like many people, that’s what we thought. But when you look at the figures, you realize that this isn’t true. Until 2010, the prices of the two materials were roughly equivalent:
In fact, the main reason for polyester’s explosion is that it can be used to make clothes that are better suited to many uses than those made from cotton:
- Fast-drying sportswear: Nike, Adidas and Décathlon are all familiar with the phenomenon.
- Waterproof or warmer garments for outdoor use: there is a reason why Patagonia and The North Face were the first to use them.
- More technical garments for everyday wear: as at Uniqlo, with Heattech technology for heat retention or Airism for better breathability
- More fluid fabrics that wrinkle less, perfect for women’s dresses and tops
- Fabrics that distort less, ideal for jogging suits or leggings, for example
- Fabrics that are more resistant to rubbing and washing, and therefore widely used in workwear, furnishings or the medical field.
At first glance, nothing dramatic. To assess the environmental impact of materials – and communicate this to their customers – most brands refer to the Higg Index. According to this tool, polyester is one of the most environmentally-friendly materials in the world… even more so than organic cotton!
It’s not totally incoherent: in polyester gigafactories, the manufacturing process is so optimized and industrialized that, on a garment scale, the environmental impact might not be so high.
So, is it true that polyester is eco-friendly?
For a start, the Higg index may be the benchmark used by brands the world over, but it offers little transparency on how it is calculated, and lacks reliability. According to a recent study, to assess the impact of polyester the Higg index builds on data from a European factory, whereas the vast majority of production takes place in Asia, under environmental (and working) conditions that are probably less favorable.
In any event, following criticism from a number of media outlets and organizations, the index was officially put on hold in mid-2022, pending a review of its data and calculation methods by independent auditors.
But the main problem with the Higg Index isn’t its unreliability: it’s what it doesn’t measure. Three things in particular.
1/ Making polyester is also making gasoline
Let’s go back to Hengli, the Chinese polyester company. When they refine oil, they don’t just get « naphtha », the base for making polyester. They also get some of the liquids we’re all familiar with: gasoline, diesel, fuel oil and kerosene.
And all these products are sold on. In 2019, Hengli was even the first private Chinese company to have the right to resell kerosene to airlines. And every year, they sell over 6 million tonnes of petrol and diesel, equivalent to over 10% of French consumption (!).
Hengli is the perfect illustration of the current trend in the oil and gas industry : what is now driving demand is plastics (and yes, polyester is plastic), which will account for more than half of oil’s growth by 2050. When Uganda’s dictator justifies the economic rationality of Total’s controversial EACOP pipeline, he’s talking about… his polyester shirt and the economic opportunities for synthetics.
The production of synthetic materials, such as polyester, therefore generates income for the oil industry. This supports the production of gasoline and kerosene, while fossil fuels are responsible for two-thirds of the world’s CO2 emissions.
But polyester has another co-product that’s almost as annoying: fast fashion.
2/ No polyester, no fast fashion
The dramatic ecological consequences of fast fashion and its 100 billion garments produced worldwide every year are well known, not least because of the greenhouse gases emitted during their manufacture: spinning, weaving, dyeing, manufacturing…
What has enabled the proliferation of H&Ms and Zaras is, first and foremost, their ridiculously low prices (obtained by relocating to countries with low-paid workforces) and the frantic renewal of collections to encourage consumption. As we’ve seen, it wasn’t low polyester prices that enabled the emergence of fast fashion in the 90s and 2000s: until 2010, prices were similar to those of cotton.
But fast fashion would never have grown as fast as it did if there hadn’t been a profusion of polyester available on the market. Today, synthetics account for 64% of textile materials. If fast fashion were to do without it – and replace it with cotton, for example – there would very probably not be enough natural material to maintain these production levels: we’d have to devote almost 7% of our arable land to it (vs. 2.5% today), or as much as is needed to grow all the fruit and vegetables on the planet. Difficult to imagine in a context of declining soil fertility and climate crisis.
In other words, while polyester may not have been the initial driving force behind the emergence of fast fashion, it is what keeps it going today. It’s the fuel that drives the engine of fast fashion, the prerequisite for producing ever more clothes.
And we can’t talk about polyester without mentioning ultra-fast fashion. Shein, the new global fashion behemoth, makes 85% of its garments from polyester. If this Chinese brand was able to emerge a few years ago, it’s also thanks to the recent drop in polyester prices, linked to the fall in the price of its main component (ethylene) generated by the exploitation of shale gas in the United States. Without shale gas and very low-priced polyester, this ultra-fast fashion might never have existed.
Finally, the third problem with polyester is not related to its production… but to what happens to it afterwards.
3/ Polyester and microplastics
Getting back to our famous Higg Index: we hadn’t even told you all about it yet (no wonder its use has been put on pause). The index is based on a « cradle-to-gate » life-cycle analysis, which leaves out the use and end-of-life phases. For polyester, these two phases pose serious problems.
First, when washed or worn, polyester garments release millions of microplastics into the environment. These microfibers have as yet uncertain but potentially very dangerous consequences for biodiversity, human health… and even global warming.
Secondly, the end-of-life of polyester garments is not very glorious either. When nobody wants them anymore, there are only two options:
- The garments end up incinerated, which generates greenhouse gases. Since polyester is made from petroleum, this is even more annoying than incinerating a cotton garment (burning petroleum releases CO2 that has been buried for millions of years, whereas cotton’s carbon cycle is much shorter: as cotton plants grow, they capture CO2). Not to mention some potentially toxic fumes, notably from antimony, a carcinogenic compound present in polyester and which can be found in incinerator ashes.
- The garments end up in landfill or in the environment, particularly in Africa, which receives more than half of our used clothing. And the problem is that plastic is not biodegradable in the environment, unlike cotton or wool. Inevitably, these polyester garments will end up decomposing in the soil, century after century, into billions of billions of microplastics (contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of polyester microfibers released into the environment come from end-of-life, not from our washing machines). As researcher Nathalie Gontard explains, plastics in landfills represent a gigantic time bomb for centuries to come.
In short: devil or the big blue sea.
All these polyester-related problems, fast fashion brands feel, are not very good for their reputation… and ultimately, not very good for business.
So they’ve come up with a magic solution. We name it:
Chapter 2 – What’s wrong with recycled polyester
A word of caution before getting to the heart of the matter
We don’t want to judge the small and medium-sized brands that use recycled polyester today. The choice of materials is an extremely complex subject, and there’s so much misinformation out there that we can all fall for it… And we’re the first: at Loom, we’ve used recycled polyester in our swimsuits, for example. Seeing through all this is almost a full-time job!
And then, of course, it’s very tricky for an « ethical » brand not to use a material that seems eco-friendly and that even fast fashion uses extensively! What would customers think?
Recycling appeals to a very powerful imagination. When we think of the word, what comes to mind is nature’s magical cycle: dead plants decompose in the soil, and the resulting nutrients enable a new plant to grow. Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.
A recent report shot in a Primark store showed the marketing power of recycled materials. A customer interviewed at the checkout explained:
« They tell us it’s recycled cotton, so it’s worth twice as much. I’m not regretting so much buying because I tell myself it’s good for the planet. »
What’s more, recycled polyester is barely more expensive than virgin polyester. So it’s the absolutely perfect material for brands: it looks eco-friendly, it sells by making consumers feel less guilty, without being overpriced.
So, of course, almost every fast-fashion brand has jumped on the bandwagon: today, 8% of all clothes sold worldwide are made from recycled polyester. That’s 10 billion garments sold every year.
Today, virgin polyester is still the mainstay of fast fashion. But tomorrow, it could well be recycled polyester.
According to a report by the NGO Changing Market Foundations, which contacted 46 major brands to find out their strategy towards synthetic materials, recycled polyester is « their main strategy for reducing their carbon footprint ».
But is it really the right strategy? Definitely not.
First of all, industrial recycling is far removed from the « magic cycle of nature » mentioned above. Admittedly, it avoids the need to extract oil and then refine it. But it also requires a lot of machinery: transport, sorting, washing, crushing, melting, extrusion to make a filament… and this equipment needs energy and materials. If we refer to the famous Higg Index, which cannot be suspected of being anti-polyester, the carbon impact of a highly efficiently recycled polyester (from the Repreve company) would be only 42% lower than its non-recycled equivalent.
42% isn’t bad, is it? Except that to make a garment from recycled polyester, you then have to go through all the usual stages: spinning, weaving or knitting, dyeing, garment making, distribution… And since the raw material only represents around 30% of the final footprint, the carbon impact of a garment with very good recycled polyester is only 13% lower than its virgin polyester equivalent. Well, that’s something… but this order of magnitude shows that it’s hard to say that this garment is « good for the planet », to use the words of the Primark customer in the report.
But there’s more to come.
And perhaps the biggest problem is that this recycled polyester… doesn’t come from other polyester garments. No one today has the technical solutions to recycle polyester garments on a large scale, not least because polyester is often mixed with other materials (such as cotton or elastane) and contains many impurities (starting with the dye).
n fact, 99% of recycled polyester comes from a much simpler source to exploit on an industrial scale: PET plastic bottles, which happen to be made up of the same chemical molecules as polyester. To give you an idea, with 13 plastic bottles, you can make enough yarn to make a t-shirt.
« Well, it’s better for those plastic bottles to end up in polyester threads than on beaches or in open dumps, isn’t it? »
Excellent question Jean-Michel.
When fast fashion brands explain that recycled polyester comes from plastic bottles, they often maintain the illusion that they’re preventing plastic bottles from polluting the environment. Indeed, the leading supplier of recycled polyester yarn (Unifi) explains on its website: « we created this yarn to create a more sustainable world where we prevent billions of plastic bottles from ending up in landfills or oceans ».
It’s touching… but the truth is quite different.
If these bottles hadn’t been used to make polyester, they would in fact have been used to make… more plastic bottles. The reality is that the textile industry recovers plastic bottles that can be recycled several times over, and transforms them into garments that cannot be recycled on a large scale.
In fact, the plastic bottle industry is very angry with the textile industry, which steals the majority of its bottles to manufacture « recycled » polyester. The fact that the textile industry recovers so many bottles prevents the bottle industry from achieving its own recycling targets. It is therefore demanding access to its own bottles ahead of other channels. Nicholas Hodac, Director of the European Soft Drinks Association, recently commented:
« Using someone else’s materials – as the textile industry does with PET bottles – is not circularity. […] It’s recycling. » For some months now, the plastic bottle industry has even been trying to develop its own street collection infrastructure, to ensure that as many bottles as possible are collected and don’t end up in textiles. Even the European Union has just affirmed this in its recent strategy for sustainable textiles: « Such a practice is not in line with the circular model of plastic bottles ».
Perhaps one day, the textile industry will no longer be able to access these bottles to « recycle » them into garments… Further proof that recycled polyester from bottles is not a magic solution to the environmental problem of textiles. On the contrary, it acts more like a smokescreen, delaying awareness… and distracting us from the real solutions.
So what are they? How can we have a textile industry that can clothe the planet without destroying it at the same time?
Chapter 3 – The solution: reduction
First of all, could we imagine a closed-loop polyester recycling process, using polyester from old clothes?
For the moment, this practice is virtually non-existent: today, only 0.18% of garments are made from materials recycled from other garments. And according to a report by the NGO Changing Market Foundations in 2021, none of the 46 major brands surveyed had set themselves the goal of developing closed-loop recycling.
And yet, there are a number of projects of this type that offer hope. And to top it all off, France is not too badly placed in this respect. Carbios claims to be able to recycle 90% of the polyester in clothing using an « enzymatic » method, and is currently building a pilot plant in Meurthe-et-Moselle. And the American company Eastman is to invest a billion dollars to
But would this closed-loop recycling of polyester be enough to make the textile industry virtuous?
Firstly, there is still a great deal of uncertainty about the ability of these projects to recycle textiles on a large scale in terms of cost and energy. For example, the public inquiry into the Eastman gigafactory reveals that it hopes to recycle less than 3% of the volumes marketed in France. But above all, this is a rather theoretical objective, since Eastman acknowledges that « textile purity and design is a challenge », and would first target… « 100% polyester seat belts ». We’re still a long way from being able to recycle Shein T-shirts or H&M dresses.
But let’s place ourselves in an ideal world where polyester recycling is close to perfection. Let’s imagine that :
- Half of all polyester textile comes from other polyester garments (as a reminder, this is less than 1% today)
- Chemical or enzymatic recycling is ultra-efficient, and the climate impact of recycled polyester is 70% lower than that of virgin polyester (which is very, very optimistic).
Under these ideal conditions, as the material itself represents only 30% of the impact (compared to the manufacture of the garment as such), the reduction in climate impact for the entire manufacture of polyester garments would then be… 10%.
10% ? That’s barely more than the growth rate in worldwide polyester clothing sales forecast for next year.
In other words, in terms of climate impact, if we managed the technological and industrial feat of deploying polyester garment recycling plants worldwide, it would be just like stabilizing the growth of polyester garments for… a year. That’s why recycled polyester is such a smokescreen: the word « recycled » gives us the illusion that we’re solving the textile industry’s pollution problem, when we’re not at all on the right orders of magnitude.
In short, if closed-loop recycling is not accompanied by a drastic reduction in the consumption of polyester garments, it will just be a flash in the pan.
In fact, it’s time to remember the good old 3Rs rule: to reduce the ecological impact of clothing, before recycling, you must first re-use and, even better, reduce.
But how do we go about it?
First of all, re-use.
Most of our clothes can have a second life, as long as we maintain and repair them as much as possible. If you’re afraid of (sewing) needles, there are thousands of repair workshops all over the country just waiting for your clothes.
But there’s another form of reuse, halfway between recycling and upcycling, that we may soon be able to count on: factories that automatically sort our old clothes by composition and color, then fray them to make threads that won’t need re-dyeing (thus avoiding the energy-intensive dyeing phase). This is the project of CETI, a textile research center near Lille, in partnership with several French mills. Admittedly, the yarns obtained are for the moment less perfect than yarns made from virgin material, but the initiative deserves to be supported.
Last but not least, reduction! Everyone has a role to play in reducing the ecological impact of fashion.
What we can do as a brand:
- Polyester accounts for half of the world’s textile fibers, and this proportion is growing every year. Sure, it’s handy for making fast-drying sportswear… but do we really need to use it to make dresses or T-shirts? Ideally, synthetic materials should be used in the smallest possible proportions, and when there’s really no alternative.
- If you do decide to use recycled polyester (which is legitimate, given consumer expectations), don’t forget the orders of magnitude, and don’t let people think that this is a sufficient solution to the textile industry’s ecological problems. And focus on the essentials: avoiding production on the other side of the world, not renewing collections every 2 days, etc.
What the government can do:
- Give the bottle industry first access to its own plastic, as many NGOs are demanding. If it no longer has access to recycled polyester from bottles, the textile industry will no longer be able to hide behind this solution and will be forced to ask itself real questions to reduce its ecological impact.
- Penalize polyester in future regulations, in particular in the environmental labelling scheme soon to be rolled out in France and Europe. This is far from a foregone conclusion, as the European environmental labelling scheme is coordinated by the organization behind the Higg Index, the same one that considers polyester to be one of the most environmentally-friendly materials on the market.
- Penalize the commercial practices of fast fashion, which generate ever greater over-consumption. Along with hundreds of other brands, this is what we’re fighting for through the En Mode Climat coalition.
What you can do:
- Boycott fast fashion, which consumes so much polyester. The bigger it gets, the more it pollutes… and the more it crushes the brands that try to do better. No wonder the cascade of store closures in France is accompanied by record profits for the major fast-fashion brands.
- Choose natural materials: there are plenty of cases where you can easily do without polyester or other synthetic materials. And they’re always preferable to polyester for garments worn next to the skin, because of their better resistance to odors (underwear, t-shirts, shirts, etc.).
We all want to believe that the solution to the environmental crisis can be found in a simple technical invention: a gigantic CO2 vacuum cleaner to keep burning fossil fuels, hydrogen-powered airplanes to keep flying off to New York for the weekend… and recycled polyester to keep buying more and more clothes. The real solutions to the textile problem are both simpler and harder for the clothing giants to swallow: they must first give up selling more and more. And for you, that means buying fewer clothes and pampering the ones you already own. Perhaps the ecological battle begins in front of our washing machines…
What about synthetic fabrics at Loom?
We try to use as many natural materials as possible, but we sometimes add a little synthetic material when it significantly increases the life of our garments.
Elastane: we use a small amount of elastane in our cotton pants, underwear and in the rib cuffs of our cotton sweaters to limit deformation over time.
Polyamide: we use polyamide to reinforce our socks, our merino T-shirt and our backpack.
Polyester: we use polyester in our swimsuit (because we can’t see what to replace it with), a little in our jogging suit (to limit its deformation) and in our chino, in the form of elastomultiester (to limit poaching).