Innovation That Matters

Turning Plastic Waste Into Fashion

Trend Explained

Why we're seeing a big increase in innovations related to the use of recycled plastic in fashion.

When we think of fashion, we don’t often think of plastic, but the reality is that fashion, and especially fast fashion, relies on virgin plastics. In fact, it is estimated that around 63 per cent of the materials used to manufacture clothing is made up of virgin plastic – comprising around 65 million tonnes of virgin plastics each year.  

On top of this, fashion also incorporates numerous plastic-derived additives, such as antioxidants, dyes and fire retardants. All of this plastic is now making its way into the environment – into oceans, rivers, the food chain and even into our bodies, in the form of chemicals and micro-pellets. 

To lessen the environmental impact of all of this plastic, fashion companies have begun to eliminate or reduce their use of virgin plastics. One of the ways they are doing this is through the use of recycled and waste plastics. Major brands such as Stella McCartney Everlane, Adidas, Patagonia and H&M have all begun incorporating recycled plastic from sources such as soda bottles and fishing nets into their products. Some have also committed to removing virgin plastic from their supply chain entirely. 

The result of this is that we are seeing a big increase in innovations related to the use of recycled plastic in fashion. Everlane’s ReNew Collection uses fabric made from plastic water bottles that have been sanitised, ground down into chips, then melted and spun into yarn – a process also used by a large number of textile manufacturers. The resulting textiles are used to create everything from bathing suits to tube socks. 

Some are working with more unusual or niche types of plastic waste. Last year, automaker Hyundai teamed up with a number of high-end fashion designers to make clothing out of discarded car airbags. Israeli start-up Remeant has developed technology for converting single-use plastics into sustainable ‘leather’. The technology can be used to upcycle some of the most difficult to reuse waste plastics, including bubble wrap, to create lightweight, waterproof textiles.  

Others are combining recycled plastic materials with natural elements and vegan leathers to create clothing that is even ‘greener’. For example, French shoe company JUCH launched an eco-friendly show collection that incorporates recycled ocean plastic laces and sustainably sourced cork and rubber outsoles, and insoles made of natural latex, wool, wood and cornflour. 

It’s easy to see the appeal of using recycled and upcycled plastics in fashion. The use of recycled plastics can help brands to meet green demands by consumers and shareholders, and reduce their carbon footprint. Balenciaga realised this when the brand recently collaborated with conceptual material designer Shahar Livne on a line of jewellery made from a mixture of calcium carbonate waste from the marble industry and ocean plastic recovered by Oceanworks, a global marketplace for recycled plastic materials. 

Yet, simply using recycled plastic does not address some of the biggest issues of waste in fast fashion. For example, textiles made from plastics – whether virgin or recycled – are responsible for much of the trillions of microfibres that are showing up in our rivers, oceans and food systems. One recent study found that a 6kg wash releases on average up to half a million microfibres.  

The only permanent solution to this is to eliminate the use of plastics in fashion altogether. This realisation is why some fashion brands are working to eliminate plastic entirely. In fact, there is a huge growth in the use of alternative materials in fashion – from fruit and vegetable leathers to clothing made from reusable and flexible gels. Despite the success of brands like Allbirds, for now, most of these plastic-free or vegan products are largely niche. This is partly because plastic-free products tend to be much more expensive, and partly because many buyers of fast fashion are not aware of the extent of how much plastic goes into their clothing. 

Recent research found that just 49 per cent of those who regularly buy fast fashion believe the clothing they buy is synthetic, yet the reality is that as much as 89 per cent of the products sold by fast fashion brands like PrettyLittleThing are made exclusively from virgin plastics. While the best thing may well be to stop buying fast fashion altogether, this is not a practical solution for many consumers, who cannot afford more expensive clothing. For this reason, it is likely that recycled and waste plastics will play an increasingly important role in reducing the use of virgin plastic in fashion for some time to come. 

Written By: Lisa Magloff

This article was first published in July 2021 and was reviewed 13/07/2022