Skip to main content

Fashion Must Abandon the ‘Folly’ of Recyclable Plastics for Biocompatible Fibers

If there’s one thing the current pandemic has thrown into relief, it’s that biodiversity is inextricably connected to human health. It’s this relationship, fashion experts say, that the industry needs to not only honor but actively promote.

“I think what’s important with the crisis is that people are making the link between nature, climate change and what does it mean for their health,” Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer at luxury conglomerate Kering, said at a webinar with Coresight last week. “I have a feeling that people will be asking more questions—not only from luxury, not only from the textile industry—and they will expect brands to take [greater] responsibility.”

Kering on Wednesday announced a slate of targets for achieving a “net positive” impact on biodiversity by 2025 by “regenerating and protecting” an area roughly six times the total land footprint of Kering’s entire supply chain. Within that time frame, Kering says it will convert 1 million hectares of farms and rangelands into regenerative agriculture, protect an additional 1 million hectares of critical “irreplaceable” habitat outside its supply chain through programs that support biodiversity protection, carbon sequestration and livelihood improvements, and launch a Kering for Nature Fund to help the fashion industry accelerate its shift to regenerative agriculture.

“Thriving biodiversity is intrinsically linked to the long-term viability of our industry, and society more broadly. Integrating a dedicated biodiversity strategy—which is now part of our wider sustainability strategy—into Kering’s day-to-day operations is pivotal for our contribution to bending the curve on biodiversity loss over the next years,” Daveu said in a statement. “Business has a serious role to play in shifting towards a ‘nature-positive’ economy and…it is important that Kering’s strategy aligns with the scientific community so that we are already on the right path and taking the actions that are urgently needed.”

Related Stories

A new report published Tuesday by the Biomimicry Institute, with support from the Laudes Foundation (formerly C&A Foundation), takes the conceit even further. Fashion, in order to thrive within planetary boundaries, it says, needs to function like a natural ecosystem, where there is no place for non-compostable materials like polyester or novel “recyclable” fibers without a natural route for decomposition.

“The new generation of buyers—millennials and teens—believe petroleum causes problems rather than solves them,” Beth Rattner, executive director of the Biomimicry Institute, said in a statement. “It’s not going to take long for fashion brands to recognize this and shift toward regenerating the planet for their customers instead of participating in destroying it.”

Manmade material loops, the report’s authors argue, “always, inevitably” leak into the environment. “This is one of the chief reasons recycling has failed for decades and why we have a microfiber problem,” they write. The bright side? Fashion companies already possess all the necessary ingredients to transition the industry to 100 percent biocompatible fibers, which they say will improve local economies and “clean up the environment in the process.”

These elements, the report notes, include natural fibers such as regeneratively grown wool and cotton, cellulosic fibers derived from agricultural waste and sustainable viscose production, and fibers produced through fermentation—that is to say, using microbes such as bacteria and yeast to produce the building blocks for textile production. Two transition technologies—chemical recycling and gasification—can also provide new business opportunities. “All of these solutions can be implemented at regional scales, helping to mitigate risks in the supply chain,” the authors write.

The Biomimicry Institute says fashion must function like a natural ecosystem, where there is no place for non-compostable materials.
Young consumers are looking for brands to stop destroying the planet and start regenerating it. Robin Utrecht/Shutterstock

Despite the much-vaunted promise of “infinitely recyclable” plastic that is often hailed as the holy grail of the circular economy, nature, the report says, “shows us the folly of this thinking.” Materials, the authors aver, cannot be separated into technical loops and biological loops. Not to mention, all materials, even the most durable of plastics, will eventually break down and seep into the soil, water and air. Textiles made from recycled plastics, too, will still shed microfibers into the environment and poison the the food chain.

Decomposition, the report claims, is “critical” to how nature shares materials and makes nutrients available for primary production. Decomposition, the authors write, is “inevitable,” yet in designing fashion systems we’ve “failed to consider its critical role.” Embracing decomposition, on the other hand, will pave the way for new business models and opportunities while scrubbing out existing waste.

The Biomimicry Institute, in partnership with other organizations, plans to launch pilot projects that “create resiliency in the supply chain” while contributing to ecosystem restoration and local job creation. The pilots, it says, will home in on biocompatible fibers, from sourcing through decomposition.

“The fashion industry now more than ever needs to look at materials in the larger context of natural systems,” said Anita Chester, head of materials at Laudes Foundation. “We at Laudes Foundation are glad to have supported the Biomimicry Institute on this, and hope that the industry, along with investors and other key stakeholders, view this report and its recommendations as a launchpad to build on the existing momentum and tap into the opportunity that nature presents to us.”