Why polyester is a problem for the industry
Fashion has a polyester problem.
It is the most widely used clothing fiber in the world, but as a synthetic plastic-based material, polyester needs a lot of energy to be produced and is highly polluting of water and air, according to the Council. of Fashion Designers of America.
The fashion industry is trying to tackle the problem, but there are no easy solutions, according to the CEO of one of the world’s largest clothing manufacturers. “There is not yet (a) a raw material as cheap and as versatile as polyester today,” said Roger Lee, who heads TAL Apparel, headquartered in Hong Kong.
In addition to being inexpensive, polyester does not wrinkle and can be washed at a low temperature. However, the laundry process also releases tiny fibers called microplastics, which can be harmful to marine life. While polyester lasts for years, longevity is a double-edged sword – clothes can be worn multiple times but will likely end up in landfills and not biodegrade.
“Today, we rarely use virgin polyester,” Lee told CNBC’s “Managing Asia: Sustainable Future”. “What do I mean by that? A lot of times our polyacetal (fiber) that we use actually comes from recycled bottles.”
Over the past two years, Lee said there has been a huge acceleration in the use of recycled plastics in fashion. “The reason is that the cost of use has come down to the same price as virgin polyester. And that’s the key – if the price is the same … (it’s) a no-brainer. It saves environments. (and a) the same commercial costs. “
TAL Apparel manufactures clothing for brands such as Burberry, J Crew and Patagonia and was founded by the Lee family who started in the fashion business with a cotton fabric store in 1856. The business was revived by Lee CC’s great uncle in 1947.
Currently, only about 14% of polyester is produced from recycled fibers, according to the agency’s standards. Textile exchange. How close is the sector to a breakthrough in terms of recycling used clothing?
“If you’re talking about pure polyester, yes we’re close. But the problem is a lot of the materials are blended materials, it’s a blend of polyester with something else. And the separation has been a problem,” Lee explained. .
TAL is involved with the Hong Kong Textiles and Clothing Research Institute, which is studying new ways to make the fashion industry more sustainable. In November, the institute launched a “green machine”, developed with the H&M Foundation, which separates mixed materials. The new machine works by breaking down the cotton part of the material and extracting the polyester, which can then be spun into clothes.
Stopping clothes from going to the landfill, or encouraging people to buy less, could help remedy an excess of polyester clothing – and that means looking at the fundamentals of the fashion industry.
Brands are currently “guessing” how many pieces of each style they’ll produce, Lee said, and the clothes take three to six months to make before they hit stores or put online. What is not sold at full price is reduced. “When it’s that cheap, or 70% off, (people think) I don’t really need it, but you know what 70% is worth, (so) I’ll get it. And then you buy things that you don’t really need, ”Lee said.
One solution is to make tailor-made clothes, which TAL has been doing for 15 years. “In recent years, it’s really taken off… you walk into the store, the garment is not ready for you. But you say you know what, I like this fabric, I like in this style, you place the order and the shirt like, in seven days you will get it at your doorstep, ”explained Lee. Before the coronavirus pandemic, TAL made about 600,000 dress shirts per year.
While making bespoke clothing is currently more expensive than producing it in bulk, this could change in the long run. “You don’t need (a) warehouse to store (clothes) … you don’t need department stores to sell … But big brands that have a lot of bricks and mortar can’t not get rid of it overnight. doesn’t make sense, ”Lee said.
“What captures the market are the promising people … we need more people to think about it,” he added. In December, Amazon has launched a Made For You custom t-shirt service in the United States, while San Francisco-based Unspun sells bespoke denim.
“Brands need to make a commitment to say: I’m going to eliminate this polyester raw material, for example, from my supply chain in five to ten years, forcing people to find alternative, more sustainable ways. the responsibility of brand CEOs to do this, ”said Lee.
He also called on the industry to work together. “Our industry is highly competitive (and) sharing secrets about how we do things will give one company an advantage over another,” said Lee. “But CEOs have to say, OK, what’s more important … a profit now or … a planet in the future. And I think the planet in the future.”
– CNBC’s Karen Gilchrist contributed to this report.