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Denim Brands Take On the Industry’s Plastic Problem—One Polybag at a Time

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There’s no getting around it: the fashion industry is drowning in plastic, and the single-use polybag is a big part of the reason.

Thin, lightweight and derived from low-density polyethylene, roughly 180 billion of these bags, both large and small, are employed by the apparel supply chain every year to protect stock in warehouses and distribution centers or to cosset online orders as they traverse vast distances by truck, ship or plane to someone’s porch.

The polybag is so ubiquitous, in fact, that it “unites every fashion brand”—from fast fashion to luxury—“regardless of whether the customer sees it or not,” said Kathleen Rademan, innovation director at Amsterdam-based sustainability initiative Fashion for Good.

Bags made from low-density polyethylene are “technically recyclable,” yet their rate of uptake remains fairly dismal, particularly since inks, paper labels and stickers—all hallmarks of online orders—can foul up existing recycling technologies, Rademan says. And though packaging represents a “very small part” of garment production’s overall impact, the problem has grown more acute with the pandemic-driven e-commerce boom. IBM’s U.S. Retail Index predicts online sales to swell by 20 percent in 2020 in the United States alone, accelerating pre-Covid-19 retail trends by nearly five years.

The appeal of the polybag is clear. It’s an effective way of shielding shoes, clothing and accessories from moisture, which can promote mold and cause damage. Even better, it’s cheap. But plastic, made from nonrenewable resources such as crude oil and natural gas, contributes to climate change at all stages of its life cycle. It takes centuries to break down, and despite long-running ad campaigns extolling the benefits of recycling, most plastic waste is landfilled, incinerated or left to clog up rivers, lakes and oceans.

This is a worrisome situation across the board—not just in fashion. Of the 86 million tons of plastic packaging produced globally every year, less than 14 percent is recycled. But fashion isn’t doing the issue any favors. With the industry’s colossal waste and climate footprints facing mounting scrutiny, tackling the polybag has become an imperative for many businesses.

“There’s a real threat to the social license to use plastic packaging,” said Adam Grendell, associate director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a Virginia-based organization whose members include 3M, Avery Dennison and DuPont Biomaterials “It’s more visible than ever before [and] people are being more visceral about it than ever before.”

With no universally agreed-upon solution, however, fashion’s efforts to cut down on plastic has manifested itself in various, often disparate ways. One tentpole initiative is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, which has rallied more than 450 brands, retailers and organizations, including household names such as Asos, Burberry, Stella McCartney, H&M and Zara owner Inditex, to pledge to eliminate “unnecessary and problematic” plastic packaging, ensure that remaining plastics are reusable, recyclable or compostable, and circulate all plastic items “in the economy and out of the environment” by 2025.

Together, brands have promised to increase the recycled content of their packaging from a current global average of 2 percent to 25 percent.

Annette Lendal, project manager for the New Plastics Economy, would like to see less of a focus on recycling and more on elimination and reuse, though she understands why it’s so difficult for brands to quit the polybag entirely. “I was talking to a big brand and they said, for example, that the reason they used polybags was because the factories were so dirty,” she said. “[My first thought was] we can actually clean the factory. Of course, it’s usually more complicated than that. You need a holistic perspective when you’re thinking about packaging; there is often a reason why it’s there.”

There are other tweaks polybag users can make. Companies like Gap Inc., Toad&Co. and Kontoor Brands, which owns Lee and Wrangler, have experimented with decreasing the thickness and size of their polybags, a process called “lightweighting” that whittles the amount of plastic used.

For polybags to be truly circular, however, they need to be recyclable not just in theory but also in practice. Most recycled polybags on the market, according to Fashion for Good, consist of post-industrial—read: pre-consumer—sources, such as offcuts from the plastics industry because they’re a purer feedstock. To that end, it’s teaming up with the Sustainable Packaging Coalition to work with technology startups like Spain’s Cadel Deinking to flush away contaminants and create a “suitably clear” recycled polybag from a high percentage of post-consumer polybag waste.

Better design can also boost the polybag’s reusability, resulting in less waste. Each of Lee and Wrangler’s new plastic mailers, for instance, features a secondary adhesive strip that eliminates the need for separate packaging for returns. To make its polybags easier to reuse, say as waste-pickup bags for dogs, Toad&Co took the ventilation hole, which is typically situated near the bottom of the bag, and moved it next to the opening. “It’s just a very small change, but now you can reuse this,” said senior marketing manager Steven McCann.

For some of its deliveries, Toad&Co works with LimeLoop, a startup that replaces disposable shipping packaging with reusable mailers made from recycled billboards. Customers can choose the option at checkout at no extra cost. After their delivery arrives, they can return the LimeLoop mailer through the post. Compared with conventional packaging, LimeLoop’s reusable mailers are estimated to save roughly 70 trees, 90 gallons of water and 200 gallons of oil for every 10,000 shipments, according to co-founder and CEO Ashley Etling.

Asos, perhaps borrowing a page from LimeLoop and Finland’s RePack, has developed a reusable “bespoke prototype mailing bag” it says it will trial soon. On the distribution front, Boyish Jeans has started working with a new company called Boox that makes reusable shipping boxes that “can be flattened and returned back to us to keep reusing them over and over again,” said director of marketing Aubrey Christensen.

Still, denim can present its own challenges when it comes to packaging, such as concerns with crocking, particularly with raw jeans. “These require a physical barrier in transit and during processing in our distribution centers,” said Kirsty Stevenson, head of environmental and product sustainability at Gap Inc.

The retailer, which owns the Athleta, Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy brands, previously piloted a polybag replacement derived from tissue paper, but the bag didn’t hold up to the performance requirements of its distribution system. “We are constantly exploring new materials for B2B and B2C packaging, and the challenges posed by this issue are an additional aspect we need to evaluate,” she said.

Jeans have other packaging quirks, said James Bartle, founder and CEO of Australia’s Outland Denim. “With shirts, when you produce them in bulk, they’ll be packaged into a cardboard box together with maybe one plastic wrap around,” he said. “Whereas with denim, every single piece is individually packaged [in plastic].”

For the past few years, Outland Denim has been shipping its jeans from its Cambodian factory in ComPlast bags made from cassava root, a natural organic starch that biodegrades so quickly, it readily dissolves in a jug of boiling water. Otherwise, “it can go straight into the trash,” Bartle said. Outland Denim originally dispatched its e-commerce orders in recycled cardboard mailers, but that route proved too expensive. Now, it uses Better Packaging Co.’s home-compostable “courier satchels,” engineered from corn and other plant-based materials, that come emblazoned with the words “I’m a Real Dirt Bag” and instructions for what to do with them.

While choosing biodegradable or compostable packaging is a way for companies to decouple from fossil-fuel feedstocks, picking the right one can be fraught with pitfalls. Not only do many types only break down in industrial composting facilities, which are not readily available to most people, but they also cannot be recycled through conventional waste streams. It’s for these reasons Bartle opted for packaging that doesn’t require a lot of fuss to dispose of. “If we can produce something that is hassle-free and easy for the person on the other end receiving the package to discard responsibly, then we believe that’s a big win,” he said. “People don’t need more complications or anything else to do.”

Biomaterials, of which there are innumerable varieties, are not without their critics. Those derived from plants require land to grow, potentially competing with cropland for food. Then there’s the fact they’re designed to disappear. “Generally, recycling things is a good thing to do because you recapture the value of the material and you incorporate it into new products again,” said Ashley J. Holding, a circularity consultant and a former innovation manager for Fashion for Good. Some kinds of compostable packaging, he warned, can include blends of bio-based plastics and petroleum-based plastics.

With few available options on the market, some brands are eschewing off-the-peg choices and co-creating their own. By next fall, Outerknown will have transitioned all its suppliers from polybags to envelopes made with Vela, a Forestry Stewardship Council-certified paper vellum it describes as durable, weather resistant and recyclable. New products will be made at a factory, sealed inside Vela bags and then shipped to a distribution center to be processed for their final destination, said Meg Stoneburner, director of sustainability and sourcing at the California-headquartered eco-lifestyle brand, which was founded by champion surfer Kelly Slater.

The process of bringing Vela to life was a collaborative one. Outerknown teamed up with fellow brands Mara Hoffman and Prana to work with Seaman Paper to develop the product, which will eventually transition to recycled content “so we’re using waste rather than virgin material,” Stoneburner said. But even as is, Vela makes recycling “extremely accessible and easy for all to participate in,” she said. Customers and suppliers won’t have to overthink its disposal: Vela can go straight in the paper recycling bin because that’s exactly what it is—paper.

Denim
Prana Courtesy

Rachel K. Lincoln, director of sustainability at Prana, also based in California, said giving consumers a paper-based “tie” that they already understood was important. Just as important is not keeping Vela to themselves. In August, the brand, whose tagline is “clothing for positive change,” launched the Responsible Packaging Movement, an initiative that will allow it, Outerknown and Mara Hoffman to share their learnings with other brands and “inspire and create industry-wide change.” Toad&Co. is a member. “I think the biggest pain point in any supply chain is socializing big change,” Lincoln said.

One polybag alternative slowly gaining steam is no polybag at all. For denim shipping, Everlane, which has promised to nix all virgin plastic from its supply chain by 2021, removes all polybags at the distribution centers so they can be properly recycled. Jeans are mailed to customers in thick kraft-paper mailers sans plastic sleeve. Prana sometimes bundles its garments into raffia-wrapped “sushi rolls” when it ships its orders. Patagonia, too, has linked arms with retailer Surfdome to trial the removal of polybags from its clothes during transit, though attempts in the past have produced mixed results, including soiled clothing.

Even so, Lendal from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation encourages brands to think outside the polybag, so to speak. Perhaps different companies could share the same reusable packaging, so when a customer returns an empty polybag or mailer, it doesn’t head to, say, H&M or Inditex, but to the closest distribution center, where it can be redeployed by any other brand.

“Shifting the burden to another material is not necessarily the solution we’re aiming for,” she said. “Maybe we can get creative… maybe there’s a reason for needing polybags that we can accommodate in a different way, like cleaning the factory.”