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Can Fashion Live Without Plastic? It’s Complicated

Last month, Boss’s runway show in Milan featured a trio of limited-edition jackets made using a new fibre designed to replace polyester. But untangling the industry from a material that has played a central role in its growth will be a tricky business.
Two models in black trench coats stand against a white backdrop. The coats are made using a new fibre designed to replace polyester and other oil-based materials.
Boss has launched a limited-edition collection of jackets made using a new fibre designed to replace polyester and other oil-based materials. (Boss)

Key insights

  • A new campaign calls on the fashion industry to ditch fossil-fuel-based materials like polyester by 2030.
  • Some big companies, like Hugo Boss and Icebreaker are already working on the challenge, looking to replace oil-based fibres with new materials or innovating existing natural alternatives.
  • But finding a material that can compete with all of polyester’s performance characteristics and price remains difficult.

At the Boss runway show in Milan last month, models stomped through a futuristic office clad in deconstructed pinstripes, power-shouldered mob coats and waist-cinching pencil skirts.

But while the collection was a vision of next-generation “corpcore,” perhaps the most modern element was a trio of limited-edition jackets made using a new fibre designed to replace polyester and other oil-based materials.

The products — two trench coats and a bomber jacket — are the latest experiment in a long-term strategic partnership between Boss-parent Hugo Boss and HeiQ AeoniQ, a material innovation business that has engineered a cellulose-based yarn it says is endlessly recyclable, biodegradable and able to compete with fossil-fuelled textiles on performance.

For Hugo Boss, the capsule is a baby step on the way to a much bigger goal to phase polyester and nylon out of the group’s collections entirely by 2030, said Dorothee Niebergall, head of group strategy, sustainability and innovation at Hugo Boss.


But the company isn’t yet sure how it’s going to do that. Despite growing investment in buzzy material innovations, most are still years away from reaching the kind of scale that would allow them to compete with polyester’s low prices while matching its technical capabilities. (Only 100 of each of the Boss jackets launched in Milan last month will be available for sale. And with prices ranging from $995 to $1,695, they count among the most expensive items the brand sells).

Exactly how the industry addresses this challenge is a question of growing concern, as the tension between brands’ high-profile commitments to curb their environmental impact and ongoing reliance on oil-based plastic fibres — a group of materials whose path to dominance has fuelled the explosive growth of cheap, disposable fashion — faces mounting scrutiny.

Last year Hugo Boss invested $5 million into HeiQ AeoniQ, with an additional $4 million on the line if the material meets specific performance milestones. It’s a bold bet on a product that is still moving out of the R&D phase and that will need to rapidly deliver on its roadmap to scale to have a chance of helping the company meet its 2030 target.

“It’s the most promising solution we have so far,” said Niebergall. “We need to find an alternative fibre.”

Life in Plastic

Every year, roughly 700 million barrels of oil are converted into plastic pellets, melted and extruded into fine filaments that can be spun into synthetic yarns like polyester, according to a BoF analysis of International Energy Agency data.

Polyester production alone was responsible for more than 700 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, roughly the same as the annual emissions from 185 coal-fired power plants, according to the World Resources Institute.

Meanwhile, wardrobes increasingly full of synthetic clothes are responsible for leaching microplastics into waterways and food systems with every wash. Accumulations of these tiny plastic particles have been detected in breast milk and human organs. According to a study published last week, even clouds contain plastic now.

To top it off, 99 percent of the time the final destination for all this accumulated clothing is landfill, where polyester can survive for hundreds of years, slowly releasing toxins into the soil.


It’s a three-fold problem, said Niebergall. With polyester and other oil-based fabrics, “it’s not good how you produce it. When you use it it’s a problem. And when you want to get rid of it, it’s a problem,” she said. “[But] fashion is so addicted to polyester.”

Today, the material is the world’s most widely used fibre, accounting for 54 percent of the total market in 2021, according to data from sustainable materials focused trade group Textile Exchange.

Plastic Politics

Breaking the industry’s fixation on fossil fuels is the focus of a new campaign launched by a coalition of 15 environmental groups during Climate Week in New York last month.

Its goals include ensuring brands deliver on commitments to drastically reduce supply-chain emissions and boosting the industry’s profile in high-level political discussions around phasing out fossil fuels. But perhaps its most radical ask is that brands commit to completely phase out fossil-based materials by 2030.

Avoiding catastrophic climate change “requires rapid, deep and immediate cuts [to greenhouse gas emissions] this decade,” said Livia Firth, the Co-founder and creative director of Eco-Age, the sustainability consultancy and advocacy group spearheading the campaign, during it’s launch in New York last month. “How on earth do we do that when we’re all wearing oil?”

Eco-Age’s clients include wool industry trade group The Woolmark Company, which has a vested interest in shifting the industry away from synthetic materials that have gobbled market share from natural fibres for decades. The organisation said its advocacy work operates under a separate division to its consulting business, which covers a range of clients, and that it supported the launch of the Fossil Fuel Fashion campaign pro bono.

The campaign is not about replacing one material with another; rather it’s aimed at the market forces that have enabled unsustainable growth in fashion’s production and consumption, said Eco-Age director of policy and advocacy George Harding-Rolls. .

“Fast fashion is predicated on cheap labour and cheap materials, and that’s polyester, polyamide, acrylic; this is why we’re going after [them],” Rolls told an audience of Climate Week attendees at the campaign’s launch last month.


Polyester: It’s Complicated

It’s not just that plastic fibres are generally cheap; they’re also incredibly versatile — and they’re ubiquitous. Those stretch jeans are woven with elastane. Leather handbags likely have a solid coating of polyurethane to protect from stains and water. Check the label of a wool coat and, depending on the brand and price point, odds on its a polyester blend. Step into anywhere that sells performance gear and you’re likely in a world of plastic.

Polyester in particular is lightweight, durable, colourfast and dries quickly — ideal for clothes that you run around and sweat in.

“Why are we using polyester and not making a commitment to move out? We think it has superior properties,” said Stefan Seidel, corporate sustainability chief at Puma.

Instead, the sportswear giant is betting on a shift away from virgin polyester, investing in new recycling solutions and investigating ways to reduce the risks of microplastic shedding to meet environmental commitments.

Last year, nearly half the polyester used by the company was recycled. By 2025, it’s aiming to increase that proportion to 75 percent for apparel and accessories. Puma has yet to set longer-term targets, but its goal is to keep driving down the share of virgin polyester in its mix, said Howard Williams, the company’s head of global innovation for apparel and accessories.

Even making this switch to a material backed by a well-tested technology and existing, if limited, supply chain has been a costly and lengthy process.

When Puma first started to source recycled polyester back in 2019, supply was scant and the premium on the yarn was as high as 20 percent, said Williams. Large volumes and commitments for repeat orders meant the company was ultimately able to negotiate a better deal, but it still ate a 6 percent uplift in the early days, according to Williams.

There have been other bumps along the road, including fraudulent sales of virgin fibre passed off as recycled. The solution — more certification — has added more cost.

Despite growing demand from a plethora of brands on a similar journey to Puma, recycled polyester’s market share is stalled at around 15 percent, according to the latest data from Textile Exchange — largely because of the low price of virgin fibres.

To critics, the bet on recycling is a half measure. The vast majority of recycled polyester currently on the market is made using a feedstock of plastic bottles, with textile-to-textile recycling contributing less than 1 percent to the global fibre market in 2021, according to Textile Exchange. It’s a supply chain that’s becoming increasingly controversial because, while bottles can be recycled back into other bottles repeatedly, once they become textiles their most likely end destination is landfill.

Like others in the industry, Puma is investing in textile-to-textile recycling solutions to address this criticism. But these technologies are still early in their deployment, will require substantial infrastructure investment and must prove they can deliver recycled material at a meaningfully lower environmental cost.

“We’re at a stage we can call bullshit,” said Harding-Rolls. “If we could do zero-waste, zero-loss, 100 percent recycling that ensures no microfibres are released, then we wouldn’t need virgin fossil fuels… My understanding is most of the solutions around that are red herrings.”

The Path to Progress

In 2019, outdoor brand Icebreaker announced a goal to go plastic-free by 2023.

The VF Corp-owned business, which specialises in activewear made from Merino wool, was already less exposed to synthetic fabrics than most other companies. But fibres like nylon, polyester and spandex still made up some 15 percent of its material mix. They were so critical to outerwear products that the company ultimately moved to scrap the category altogether in pursuit of its commitment, at least until it could find viable alternatives — a decision that came at a cost of “significant millions,” said creative director Neil Baker.

Coming up on its deadline, the company says it’s most of the way there thanks to innovations in the way it manipulates wool fibres to increase their durability, stretch and moisture wicking properties. Creative design has allowed it to eke out costs at a product level that offset higher material prices.

Last winter, Icebreaker launched a new outer shell made using 100 percent merino wool (though it still had a waterproof coating and some synthetic trims). The fibre is tightly woven in a way that makes it naturally resistant to wind and water and excellent in snow conditions, said Baker.

Even so, gnarly challenges remain. The company has yet to find replacements for the fossil-based synthetics used in things like waterproof coatings or stretch waistbands.

“We’re not at a point where we can say, ‘OK, we’ll be plastic-free by ‘25. This time we’ve really got it,’” said Baker. “But there’s something powerful in saying, ‘we said we’d be plastic-free by ‘23 and we got to 98.3 percent.’ Is that failure; or is it progress?”

Even so, the company’s approach comes with trade-offs that won’t work for every brand. Wool is more expensive than oil-based synthetics, comes with its own environmental and ethical complexities and can’t do everything polyester can.

More and better material innovations are coming to market, promising a range of varied alternatives in time. Some textile-to-textile recycling technologies are beginning to hit industrial scale and remain an area where many brands see promise. Research is progressing around biodegradable plastics and a range of bio-based plastics and cellulose yarns are vying to be anointed the next generation of material’s winner.

But scalability remains a sticky and costly hurdle and displacing plastic is a tough nut to crack. Last week, toy maker Lego abandoned a high-profile and costly effort to transition its bricks to recycled material, concluding that doing so would have required completely overhauling its factories, ultimately led to higher emissions and the resulting material still couldn’t compete on durability and safety. Similar challenges face the fashion industry.

“What is really a challenge is replicating all the positives at the same time — a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Niebergall. “We have not found a fibre so far that is on all the [performance] aspects at the same level of quality as polyester.”

Further Reading

The Truth About ‘Vegan Leather’

Leather alternatives have been boosted as eco-innovation and dismissed as mere plastic, but the truth is more complicated than that and demands clearer marketing to avoid misleading consumers.

Fashion’s New Materials Frontier

The fashion industry relies on an extractive business model. BoF assesses companies’ efforts to establish raw material supply chains with a positive impact on people and planet in the latest in a series of articles examining the findings of The BoF Sustainability Index.

About the author
Sarah Kent
Sarah Kent

Sarah Kent is Chief Sustainability Correspondent at The Business of Fashion. She is based in London and drives BoF's coverage of critical environmental and labour issues.

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