Fashion has a polyester problem.
It’s the most widely used clothing fiber in the world, but as a synthetic material made from plastic, polyester takes a lot of energy to manufacture and is highly water and air polluting, according to the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
The fashion industry is trying to address the problem, but there is no easy solution, according to the CEO of one of the largest apparel manufacturers in the world. “Today there is still no raw material that is as cheap and as versatile as polyester,” says Roger Lee, who runs TAL Apparel, headquartered in Hong Kong.
Polyester is not only cheap, it also wrinkles and can be washed at low temperatures. However, washing also releases tiny fibers known as microplastics that can be harmful to marine life. While polyester will last for years, longevity is a double-edged sword – clothing can be worn many times but will likely end up in a landfill and not become biodegradable.
“Today we rarely use pure polyester,” Lee told CNBC’s “Managing Asia: Sustainable Future”. “What do I mean by that? The polyacetal (fiber) we use is often made from recycled bottles.”
In the past two years, Lee said, the use of recycled plastics in fashion has accelerated. “The reason for this is that the cost of using it has dropped to the same price as using pure polyester. And that’s the key – if the price is the same … (is) a no-brainer. It saves environments (and has) the same commercial cost. “
TAL Apparel makes clothing for brands like Burberry, J Crew and Patagonia and was founded by the Lee family who started a cotton fabric store in the fashion business in 1856. The company was revived in 1947 by Lee’s great uncle CC.
CEOs have to say, okay, what’s more important … a profit now or … a planet in the future?
According to the standardization organization Textile Exchange, only around 14% of polyester is currently made from recycled fibers. How close is the industry to a breakthrough in recycling used clothing?
“If you’re talking about pure polyester, yes, we’re close. But the problem is that a lot of materials are mixed materials, it’s a polyester mixture with something else. And the breakup was a problem, ”Lee explained.
TAL works with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel, which is exploring new ways to make the fashion industry more sustainable. In November, the institute launched a “Green Machine” developed with the H&M Foundation that can separate mixed materials. The new machine breaks down the cotton content of the material and extracts the polyester, which can then be spun into garments.
To prevent clothes from ending up in landfills or to encourage people to buy less, this could help tackle an excess of polyester clothing – and that means looking at the basics of the fashion industry.
According to Lee, the brands currently “estimate” how many pieces of each style they will produce, and the clothing takes three to six months to make before it is sent to stores or posted online. What is not sold at full price is written off. “If it’s that cheap, or 70% off, (people think) I don’t really need it, but you know how much 70% it’s worth, (so) I’ll get that. And then you buy things, that you don’t really need, “said Lee.
One solution is the customization of clothing, which TAL has been making for 15 years. “It’s been really crazy in the last few years … you go to the store, the item of clothing is not yet ready for you. But they say, you know what, I like this fabric, I like this style, you order and the shirt, for example, in seven days you will get it on your doorstep, “explained Lee. Before the coronavirus pandemic, TAL manufactured this way sells around 600,000 shirts annually.
Customization is currently more expensive than mass production, but that could change in the long term. “You don’t need a warehouse to store (clothes) … you don’t need big stores to sell … But big brands that have a lot of stationary products can’t get rid of them overnight, so it doesn’t make sense” said Lee.
“What is entering the market is the emerging people … we need more people who think that way,” he added. In December, Amazon launched a bespoke t-shirt service Made For You in the US, while Unspun, based in San Francisco, sells bespoke denim.
“Brands have to commit to saying, for example, I’ll be removing this raw material polyester in five to ten years from my supply chain and forcing people to find alternative ways that are more sustainable The responsibility of the brand CEOs to do so,” said Lee.
He also called for 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, which is more important … a profit now or … a planet in the future. And I think planet in the future.”
– CNBC’s Karen Gilchrist contributed to this report.