Eating pieces of your polyester sweater: Rethinking sustainable fashion

By Ejun Kim

Sifting through the endless racks of new clothing, customers weave in and out of the maze of shelves at a local store. Inexpensive sweaters, skirts and blouses are strewn everywhere, bunched up and tossed carelessly. Employees scuttle about making crinkled clothes crisp with folds and restocking shelves.

For Northwestern University juniors Regina Morfin and Avantika Raikar, this is the fast fashion challenge. Morfin and Raikar are the co-founders of Lura, an online platform that provides small apparel brands with access to sustainable textiles such as recycled PET (one form of polyester fabric) and biodegradable nylon. The two met in 2018 through Northwestern’s EPIC Launch entrepreneurship program. After bonding over a mutual interest in sustainability and fashion, they began work on Lura.

Set to launch in early 2021, Lura is a consulting service that connects small fashion brands with textile manufacturers. Lura’s primary mission is to make sustainability more accessible. The fashion industry “functions in a really outdated way,” Morfin said, and without the right connections, sourcing and producing sustainable clothing is difficult.

Companies can peruse eco-conscious fabrics on Lura’s website, selecting ones that match specific sustainability and style goals, such as water conservation during manufacture or active wear. They can also schedule one-on-one consultations with Morfin and Raikar to discuss potential designs, price range, textures, and colors. Lura will then send textile samples and either connect companies with the appropriate manufacturers or places a textile order for them. Lura’s manufacturers hail from all over the world The company charges a $30 monthly subscription fee for its services, with the first two months free.

For newer, smaller apparel brands, finding  and establishing connections with textile hegemons is even more challenging. Morfin and Raikar sympathize with these brands, citing the lack of industry connections as the “hardest thing.” To build their current connections, the Lura founders spent hours researching, emailing and calling people, searching hashtags such as “eco-conscious” on social media and compiling information.  

“It’s about giving these small businesses accessibility to these textiles that they might not have heard of or might not have found otherwise,” Morfin said. “And empowering them to be sustainable and be proud of it.”

Synthetic materials used in fast fashion clothing, such as polyester and nylon, are not biodegradable and are filled with unsustainable forms of plastic. They compose 60% of clothing worldwide. Polyester manufacture uses large amounts of water and emits 14.1 pounds of carbon dioxide per pound produced. Making nylon creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas far more more potent than carbon dioxide. Although relatively small amounts are released, it traps 200 to 300 times more heat than carbon dioxide and depletes the ozone layer, reducing the protection offered from harmful UV sun rays.

Because they are not biodegradable, these synthetic materials break down into microfibers that are released into the air, wastewater systems and oceans. According to a report by Friends of the Earth, washing one load of synthetic clothes releases millions of microplastics into the wastewater system. Each year, one person produces 793 pounds of microfibers.

Sasha Adkins, an ecologist at Loyola University Chicago, points to fast fashion as one of the “biggest culprits” of microfiber pollution. Due to their microscopic size, microfibers are easily ingested by both animals and humans. The average person, Adkins said, consumes a credit card’s worth of plastic every week. 

“It’s just common sense that that’s not healthy, right?” they said. “You don’t want to eat pieces of your polyester sweater.”

Microfibers, and plastics in general, attract organic pollutants and absorb toxic chemicals from detergents and fire retardant chemicals in waste systems. As they travel through water ways and in the air, they eventually become trapped in colder regions such as the Arctic because they cannot remetabolize into the air.

“These chemicals are being released with climate change, as ice and snow are melting and the Arctic gets warmer. And they’re traveling around the planet again,” Adkins explained. “They’re sticking to (other) plastic. We’re eating the plastic. So we’re also eating all these contaminants in a concentrated form.”

According to Haley Boyd, a sustainable fashion expert, the fashion industry can greatly reduce microfiber production with greater regulation from the Federal Trade Commission. Although the Federal Trade Commission has definitions of “sustainable” and “biodegradable,” they are not specific or consistent enough, granting brands too much flexibility on what is sustainable and what is not. For one brand, sustainability may mean incorporating textiles such as linen in its fast fashion business model. For another, it may mean using 100% organic cotton in all products. 

Additionally, brands must obtain third party certifications to claim that a material is, for instance, biodegradable. However, the hundreds of organizations that have the same certification all have different standards for “biodegradable.”

Morfin also expressed concerns about  third party certifications, which she and Avantikar rely on extensively. “There’s so much we wish we could do about checking if everything is truly sustainable,” she said. “And COVID made it worse too because we even wanted to travel to these places and see them for ourselves, but we kinda just have to rely on people’s word, people’s statistics. Hopefully they’re not skewed in any way.”

One example is recycled plastic. Companies such as the Girlfriend Collective produce clothing made from recycled water bottles. One pair of leggings uses 25 water bottles, preventing 18.61 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions and saving 3.11 gallons of water.

Although Girlfriend Collective uses 100% post-consumer water bottles, some companies do not meet this standard. The lack of regulation and information, Boyd said, misleads designers and manufacturers into thinking their sustainability efforts are positively affecting the planet. Because recycled plastic textiles have become increasingly popular, the supply of post-consumer recycled bottles is inadequate because not enough bottles get recycled. Manufacturers then must make virgin plastic bottles that have no other purpose than to be sold to a company that wants to say they are making textiles out of recycled plastic, according to Boyd. 

“Recycled plastic is a band-aid; it's not a solution.” Boyd warned. “You are putting off the inevitability of plastic reaching a dead end a few years later than it would have otherwise. Someone’s gonna buy those leggings for a hundred bucks, wear them for a couple years, and then they’re gonna go to a landfill. If the plastic bottle had just been landfilled, how's that differ than reusing that product one more time?”

Morfin, meanwhile, thinks that recycled plastic fabric such as polyester (PET) can be a step in the right direction. “At the end of the day, we don’t want to shame anyone.” she said. “If a brand feels like recycled PET is the way that they can make a difference, it does help.”

For Kristy Drutman, creator and founder of Brown Girl Green, the most pressing issue in sustainable fashion is the threat of greenwashing. Seeing the prospect of sustainable fashion, some companies deceptively market themselves as “eco-friendly;” in reality, they have tenuous connections to responsible sourcing or production. “Many companies don't have transparent practices around material sourcing or paying their workers/ producers a living wage,” Drutman added. “Yet, they’ll push for things like 'recycled' or 'upcycled' materials, and make money off of that marketing, rather than actually cleaning up their practices.”

The best way to reduce microfiber production, Adkins, Boyd and Drutman agreed, is shopping at second-hand stores. Sustainable fashion brands can often be expensive, demanding upwards of $100 for a single shirt.

Although second-hand clothing still produces microfibers, they do not fuel the sourcing of new synthetic materials. Clothing subscriptions or rental services is another sustainable alternative.

For Adkins, fast fashion is rooted in a “narcissistic mentality that mainstream culture promotes.” Because fast fashion clothing is cheap, flimsy and trendy, people often buy and dispose of it quickly. 

“If something’s ripped, you can repair it.” they said. “We don't have that mentality anymore. I think that it’s a cultural issue about the status and prestige people get from keeping up with trends and looking a certain way, valuing that over justice.”

Boyd also cautioned that fast fashion’s low cost is deceptive, as it does not quantify the environmental or ethical costs. Over the last 60 years, the price of apparel has not risen at the same rate of other consumer goods, and Boyd cited sweatshops as one of the greatest factors. 

“It’s because we aren't paying people a fair wage in developing countries to make clothes, and we should be paying more per item, and we should be buying less.” she said. “And that's really a hard thing for people to accept.”

Adkins and Boyd both urge consumers to consider the complete life cycle of a garment, hoping to shift attention away from solely microfiber shedding. Tracing a garment’s life cycle — its initial production, consumption, and post-consumption status — is essential when assessing its true sustainability. Moreover, working conditions, exploitation, fair trade and animal welfare intersect with sustainability, and are crucial in quantifying a garment’s environmental and social impacts.

“It’s not about what it does to you as a consumer. It's about what it does during its life cycle.” Adkins said. “You have to think about the people and the rest of the planet. The workers who make it and the people who have to deal with it when you throw it away. We need to rethink disposable culture.” 

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