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How companies can source polyester more sustainably

The most widely used fiber in the world, polyester accounts for roughly half of the fiber market overall and about 80 percent of all synthetic fibers.

In conjunction with the release of the Textile Exchange 2019 Material Change Index, GreenBiz has partnered with Textile Exchange to publish actionable insights for apparel and textile companies looking to source raw materials more sustainably. The entire series may be found here.

Polyester is the most widely used fiber in the world, accounting for roughly half of the fiber market overall and about 80 percent of all synthetic fibers, according to Textile Exchange’s 2019 Preferred Fiber & Materials Report. Derived from petroleum, it first emerged in the 1970s and was considered revolutionary for its long-lasting, wrinkle-free, easy-to-clean qualities. But polyester also has a number of negative impacts, which are increasingly relevant. 

For one, virgin polyester is made from a non-renewable resource (oil) using an energy-intensive process. It is usually not biodegradable, and so will end up in a landfill for years unless recycled. Polyester also sheds microplastic fibers when it is washed, which end up in our waterways, oceans and eventually our food chains after being consumed by fish and other aquatic creatures.

As an organization, Textile Exchange supports the apparel and textiles sector in switching to preferable materials that enable a more positive impact on people and the environment compared to conventional. Recycled polyester is considered a preferred alternative to virgin polyester; bio-based polyesters — produced with renewable raw materials — are in early days but viewed as a promising alternative. 

Recycled polyester uses mainly plastic bottles, packaging or textile waste as its raw material. At the end of its life, it can be further recycled through either mechanical or chemical processes. Several "chain of custody" standards track recycled polyesters through the supply chain, including the Recycled Claim Standard (RCS), Global Recycled Standard (GRS) and SCS Recycled Content Certification.

Bio-based polyester uses renewable feedstocks such as crops or bio-waste as inputs instead of petroleum. As many are still in the early stages of development, independently verified sustainability standards for bio-based polyester are just emerging. 


water bottle

How can companies level up their polyester sourcing strategy?

Every year, Textile Exchange publishes a Material Change Index that tracks the fashion industry’s progress toward more sustainable materials sourcing, as well as alignment with global efforts such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the transition to a circular economy.

There are some key activities that top performers in the polyester category have in common. These should serve as inspiration for any companies looking to push their preferred synthetics programs to the next level. Textile Exchange also will share a more detailed analysis of findings later in 2020.

1. Invest in the future

Leading brands don’t wait for a new sustainable material to be widely available before using it; they invest in research and development and help suppliers bring new materials to market.

Some companies appearing on Textile Exchange’s leaderboard for polyester were early adopters of recycled materials. Now, biosynthetics are an emerging fiber category that could provide preferred alternatives to virgin polyester in the near future. Many bio-based alternatives are still in early development, and several brands leading the charge in this area engage with pre-collaborative initiatives such as Textile Exchange’s Biosynthetics Round Table and Fashion for Good.

Material change in action: Patagonia was the first outdoor clothing manufacturer to incorporate fleece made from post-consumer recycled plastic bottles into its clothing line. That was in 1993.

Today, 83 percent of Patagonia’s line is made from preferred materials that are recycled or renewable, and the brand aims to use only preferred materials in its products by 2025. At first, Patagonia faced sourcing challenges around the availability of recycled polyester materials and the quality of the end product. However, its close relationship with suppliers helped it address these issues.

"We have been consistent with our interest in using recycled materials. By providing a consistent demand, our suppliers could be confident that we would be back year after year to purchase the recycled fabrics they were developing," said Elissa Foster, senior manager of product responsibility at Patagonia. "Over time, this has helped address the availability issue."

2. Look to close the loop

Currently, post-consumer recycled bottles are the most common source of recycled polyester. However, as the plastic discussion reaches new heights and awareness around plastic waste drives down the use of disposable bottles, other post-consumer plastics will be needed to ensure consistent feedstock is available for recycled polyester.

This provides an exciting opportunity for brands to close the loop and use old textiles as input for new ones. Garments being created from recycled polyester should aim to be continuously recycled with no degradation of quality and companies should look to create and collaborate on post-consumer collection solutions that address plastic and textile waste at the source.

Adidas, sneaker

3. Connect consumers to the story

Consumers are increasingly conscious of the effects of plastic waste, making this a good time to use powerful storytelling to get people excited about recycled polyester and tackle misconceptions around the quality of recycled materials. Plus, it’s easier to make a business case for investing in recycled inputs when customers are demanding products made from recycled materials. 

Material change in action: In 2015, sportswear brand Adidas initiated a unique partnership with environmental organization Parley for the Oceans to produce shoes containing plastic waste intercepted at coastal areas. It manufactured 1 million pairs in 2017, 5 million in 2018 and planned to produce 11 million in 2019 — with a goal to use 100 percent recycled polyester (from multiple sources) by 2024.

According to Philipp Meister, senior director of sustainability at Adidas, having a strong, stylish and successful product was essential. "With our products containing recycled plastic, we offer our consumers real added value beyond the look, functionality and quality of the product, because we reduce the amount of waste," he said. "Seeing success with the consumer was a key factor for our supply chain partners to invest in the technologies needed."

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