How Sustainable can Polyester be?
SLOW FASHION FROM RECYCLED PLASTICS
The term “fast fashion” has been around for some time, but it took a terrible accident to bring the ugly facts about the fashion industry into mainstream knowledge.
The death of over 1000 garment workers in the collapse of a factory in Bangladesh in 2013 and the subsequent media coverage led a lot of people to think about the impact of their consumer choices for the first time. It also inspired the movie "The True Cost", one of the most influential documentaries about the fashion industry. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend that you take an hour out of your day to watch it.
Fast fashion relies on exploiting workers in some of the poorest countries and is one of the biggest polluters on earth. Companies launch collection after collection and create fashion that is intended to land in a landfill within months!
TURNING BOTTLES INTO CLOTH
The production of synthetic fibers from petrochemicals is just one of the many problems of the industry, but it’s one where we see a lot of change recently. More and more brands source part of their polyester from post-consumer recycling. Usually, you will see marketing messages that tell you how many plastic bottles were recycled to create this specific piece.
(The fact that producing recycled yarn relies heavily on the unsustainable practice of selling water in single-use plastic is a whole other topic that I’m going to skip this time.)
When the big players in fashion introduce recycled collections, it is often out of marketing considerations. After all, the demand for more sustainable clothing is growing, and big brands don’t want to lose their customers.
But there are companies that start with sustainability in mind and a mission to have a real impact. I discovered one such company recently when vetting them for inclusion in the askBelynda product suggestions.
Sustainable Shopping Made Simple
Let me take you along the production journey of a piece of Girlfriend Collective active wear to show you why we included them.
And if you want to discover more cool companies like this one, download the free askBelynda plugin.
THE RAW MATERIAL
The raw material for polyester, the synthetic fiber used in activewear is PET plastic, the type of plastic that’s widely used in water bottles. Since those bottles are made from clear plastic and are relatively clean, they are the perfect basis for new materials.
Recycling involves a lot of manual labor for sorting and quality control, which is why some factories in unregulated places buy brand-new water bottles and then “recycle” them. It’s cheaper than recycling post-consumer waste and fetches better prices than conventional yarn. Therefore, Girlfriend Collective chose to source their PET from Taiwan where the government cares about recycling:
Taiwan, where we source all of our post-consumer water bottles, once struggled to clean up mass amounts of waste resulting from rising living standards and soaring consumption. A small island nation of 23 million people, the government saw the danger of ignoring the problem, and through widespread change has transformed Taiwan into a world leader in recycling, with 55% of waste being recycled (as opposed to 35% in the US). We visited the facility and were blown away by what we learned. It’s not only trusted by the Taiwanese government, it’s certified by them too. Being government-certified means more than just having a certificate hanging on your wall saying that you can process plastic to resell. It means security measures are implemented and each facility is subject to accountability for how much plastic is taken in and how much is shipped out.
From the Girlfriend Collective Website
BRINGING COLOR TO THE MIX
Dying is one of the most harmful processes in the textile industry, often using up precious water in vulnerable communities and releasing toxic residue back into the environment.
No matter if the yarn is made from recycled material or so-called virgin polyester, it will most likely be dyed. There are some well-established standards and certifications for non-toxic dyes, like OEKO-Tex, but Girlfriend Collective is taking it a step further: Not only do they treat the wastewater directly on the premises, but they also constantly monitor the water quality and send this information to the Taiwanese EPA in real-time.
But what about the stray fibers and dye residue that are filtered out before the water gets released? This dye mud (what a lovely word…) is upcycled!
Most facilities dump dye mud in the landfill, but we decided to get creative. Our dye mud is sent to a pavement facility, where it’s transformed to be used for paving stones, making sidewalks better for the community.
From the Girlfriend Collective Website
THE HANDS THAT MAKE OUR CLOTHES
Cutting and sewing is the most labor-intensive part of making a garment, and especially big brands don’t want you to know anything about the conditions in which your clothes are being made.
To tell you the truth, I assumed for years that clothes were made using elaborate high-tech machines. It’s embarrassing how little I really thought about it even well into adulthood, but I just couldn’t fathom that every seam must be made by a real person on a simple sewing machine.
The standards and certification to ensure workers’ rights vary widely. The SA8000 standard that is met in the factory that produces Girlfriend Collective garments is one of the strictest. An SA8000 certification guarantees a slew of really important stuff, including no forced or child labor, safe working conditions, and the right to unionize.
Acknowledging that this is a great place to start but not enough, Girlfriend Collective added a whole bunch of benefits:
We ensure all workers are paid fair wages, provide both free catered lunch (and dinner for those who work the evening shifts) instead of just a lunchroom, and guided exercise breaks, because no one likes to stare at a desk all day (us included). While healthcare is often deducted from wages, we decided to provide free health checkups every 6 months at the factory for every employee, as well as health insurance.
From the Girlfriend Collective Website
WEAR AND CARE
Fast fashion brands want you to buy new garments every few months, and nothing is made to last longer than a season. When Quang and Ellie Dinh founded the company in 2016, they had a different aim in mind. They wanted to provide high-quality, eco-friendly, and luxurious activewear for everybody
The collections are size-inclusive and made to last.
One reason why many people prefer natural fibers is the fact that all synthetic materials release microfibers into the water when you wash them. These fibers cannot be removed by conventional water treatment processes and contribute to the pollution of soil, rivers, and oceans. So what can we do? Here’s what Girlfriend Collective suggest:
We recommend washing all of your synthetics in a washing bag or filter. We make and sell one that attaches to your home washing machine and captures these fibers before they can enter water streams, keeping microfibers out of the oceans and away from the creatures that inhabit them. Let’s clean this place up.
KEEPING OLD CLOTHES FROM LANDFILLS
Even the best clothes get worn out over time, so they eventually end up in landfills, right? Well, not necessarily. ReGirlfriend is the name of their recycling program that offers to take back most of the products. The polyester is separated from other components like spandex (which is not recyclable) and turned into new raw material.
You can buy a shipping label for 7 Dollars, ship your old leggings, and get a credit of 15 dollars towards your next purchase. Now that’s what I call an incentive.
…SO, IS IT SUSTAINABLE?
The frustrating fact about aiming for a more sustainable lifestyle is that you can never have the perfect solution. I personally try to avoid synthetics altogether, but for some applications like activewear, it’s just the best material out there.
When the game is synthetic garments, I’d say that Girlfriend Collective is doing an amazing job at making them as sustainably as possible. I love how they not only look at the source material but at all the steps on the way and all the pitfalls.
Discover their products the next time you look for active wear on Amazon. With the free askBelynda browser extension, they will pop up in your suggested products.
Jennifer Scales is a photo artist and train travel enthusiast. When she is not vetting companies for askBelynda, she spreads her love for sustainable travel by capturing the beauty of nature seen through the train window.
Check out her website Landscape in Motion and follow Jennifer Scales | Fine Art on Instagram to see her artwork.