World leaders have been meeting over the past week at the U.N. Climate Change Conference— COP26—to discuss the need for meaningful action to address the climate crisis. Core to Fibershed’s mission is talking about the climate impact of clothing and the need to build regenerative fiber and textile systems. That’s why we want to talk about the COP26 volunteer uniforms.
We are passionate about transitioning away from fast fashion towards products that are ecologically sensitive plus regionally grown and made. The COP26 volunteer uniform example sheds light on the depth and complexity of the issue and the urgent need to transform our understanding of clothes’ true environmental impact.
The COP26 volunteer uniforms are being applauded for being made from “recycled and sustainable fabrics.” While many media outlets gave the uniforms the red carpet treatment, a deeper analysis must ask whether these garments should truly be considered a solution. The primary component of the uniforms is 100% recycled polyester fibers from plastic bottles. Synthetic materials, even those that come from recycled plastics, are derived from fossil fuels with both upstream and downstream impacts on ecosystems and human communities that are not being accounted for by major sustainability indicators and labeling programs.
At this point, we are used to seeing claims that synthetic clothes made from recycled plastic are good for the environment and that anything with ‘recycled’ on the tag must be a benefit. The truth is that these uniforms are representative of a larger narrative that allows big brands and industry leaders to make vague and misleading claims about the environmental impact of their clothing. Tools used by the global textile industry to measure the environmental impacts of different textile materials consistently fall short of accounting for their true social, economic, and environmental impacts. While microplastic pollution is generated from all synthetic textile garments (during everyday wear as well as in the laundry), recycled polyester emits more. And critically, the label of sustainability on recycled polyester has only validated and sustained patterns of overconsumption. Recycling plastic bottles into clothing is still a one-way path from fossil fuel extraction to plastic waste that ends up in a substantially more environmentally harmful form than individual plastic bottles. Synthetic materials like recycled polyester perpetuate our reliance on fossil fuels and their infrastructure; claims of sustainability for these materials enhance the flow of this supply chain.
This is alarming on many levels, especially given that COP26 has the resources and power to set precedent for countries around the globe. The message here should not be to continue a false assumption that “recycled” synthetic materials are sustainable but to commit to and model values that will meaningfully point us toward healthier systems: emphasize the longevity of clothing use and care; eliminate excessive consumption and reliance on fossil fuels; support equitable regionally-centered textile production and usage, grounded in natural fibers derived from careful land stewardship that is restoring the balance of atmospheric and terrestrial carbon. High-level events focused on sustainability, like COP26, should highlight practices that offer true solutions. We are missing a critical opportunity to advocate on a world stage for the fashion/textile sector to support appropriately scaled, regionalized, regenerative forms of agriculture and textile economies that are a true solution to the climate crisis.
Image Source: Glasgow City Council