Everlane's ReNew collection is a good example of how to make the best of a bad situation.
Everlane is a U.S.-based fashion retailer known for its radical transparency. Peruse the website and you'll get an in-depth view of its factories and locations, detailed cost breakdowns about why direct-to-consumer pricing is more affordable than other top-notch brands, and descriptions about why quality and lasting style matters so much more than fleeting trends. This is a company that clearly wants to give a greener name to a notoriously dirty industry.
Its latest effort is perhaps the most impressive of all: Everlane has committed to eliminating virgin plastic from its entire supply chain by 2021. No other large 'green' fashion company that I know of has gone to such impressive lengths. From a press release:
"By 2021, all Everlane apparel, footwear, accessories and packaging will be virgin plastic free. All new products containing synthetic materials will be made with recycled versions, and all existing yarns, fabrics and raw materials with any percentage of virgin synthetic fibers will be redeveloped into recycled equivalents."
Items will be shipped in recycled poly bags and single-use plastics will be eliminated from the company's stores and offices. Founder and CEO Michael Preysman believes there is no other option:
“Plastic is destroying our planet and there is only one solution: stop creating virgin plastic and renew what’s already here. Companies have to take the lead and any company that hasn't made this commitment is actively choosing to not improve our environment."
Everlane has begun this process by launching a new collection called ReNew, made from recycled plastic water bottles, just this week. The first batch of products took an impressive three million water bottles to make and features six styles of puffer jacket, three parkas, and four fleece pullovers. They're cute, cozy, and arguably a heck of a lot better for the environment than using virgin material.
But that's where things get complicated.
Regardless of whether or not a piece of clothing is made from recycled or virgin polyester, it's still going to shed microfibres in the wash – and this is a mounting problem that scientists (and the public) are only just beginning to grasp. These miniature fibers are not captured by washing machine filters, nor by wastewater treatment facilities, and get flushed out into waterways where they are ingested by marine wildlife. Then if you're a seafood-eater, you might end up eating bits of your shirt down the road. We know this because microplastics are turning up in human feces.
In an ideal world we'd all switch to natural fabrics – organic cotton, hemp, linen, jute, wool, silk, etc. – because these do not shed microplastics in the wash and will eventually biodegrade. But, honestly, how realistic is that? Even I, a committed environmentalist who is aware of the health risks of wearing plastic, still own comfy gym clothes, stretchy jeans, running shoes, a bathing suit, rain coat, and a few sports bras. Sure, many of the pieces are ethically made and bought second-hand, and every bit of life is squeezed out of them by the end, but the thought of eliminating synthetics entirely from my wardrobe seems next to impossible, based on my active outdoorsy lifestyle.
That is why I think Everlane is on to something good. If we can transform a waste product into something that people are already buying in large quantities, while reducing demand for its virgin equivalent, it will, at the very least, buy us time – time to come up with better options for safe laundering, end-of-life disposal, recycling/upcycling, and innovation in sustainable fabrics that can perform in similar ways to synthetics.
I do not think that people will become complacent and buy more bottled water because they assume it's being turned into clothing. No, I believe that the tide of public opinion is slowly turning against disposable plastics and will gain momentum in coming years, aided by policy interventions like the EU's new ban on single-use plastics.
Due to the 8 billion tons of plastic already floating around the planet, retailers like Everlane will have no shortage of material with which to make its recycled pieces, even if virgin production shrinks. I see Everlane's effort as a logical phasing-out of virgin plastic production and a sign of what the future holds for the entire fashion industry.
This doesn't mean you should give up seeking out natural alternatives. If you can wear a waxed canvas coat instead of a Gore-Tex-coated nylon one, by all means do it; the same goes for merino and down insulation replacing polyester. These industries need support to grow and improve in the meantime.
Given the choice between running shoes made of recycled or non-recycled plastic, I'd take the former any day, and I suspect most TreeHugger readers would, too. The fact that we have this choice now, when it comes to buying leggings, underwear, bathing suits and much more, is a wonderful thing. I hope that one day buying non-plastic will become the new norm, but for the time being, this is a win worth celebrating.