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 according to the CEO of one of the world’s largest apparel manufacturers, there is no easy solution. “There is still no raw material that is as cheap and versatile as polyester,” said Roger Lee, who runs TAL Apparel, headquartered in Hong Kong.
Polyester is not only inexpensive, it also does not wrinkle and can be washed at low temperatures. However, the washing process 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 land 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? Very often the polyacetals (fibers) that we use actually come from recycled bottles.”
In the past two years, the use of recycled plastics in fashion has accelerated tremendously, according to Lee. “The reason is that the cost of using it has come down to the same price as using new polyester. And that’s the key – if the price is the same … (it’s) a no-brainer. It saves Environments (and has) the same trading costs. “
TAL Apparel makes clothing for brands like Burberry, J Crew and Patagonia and was founded by the Lee family who entered the fashion business with a cotton fabric 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 Textile Exchange standards body, only around 14% of polyester is currently made from recycled fibers. How close is the industry to the breakthrough in recycling used clothing?
“If you’re talking about pure polyester, 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 separation was a problem,” Lee explained.
TAL is involved in the Hong Kong Textiles and Apparel Research Institute, which is looking for new ways to make the fashion industry more sustainable. In November, the institute launched a “Green Machine” that was developed with the H&M Foundation and can separate mixed materials. The new machine breaks down the cotton part of the material and extracts the polyester, which can then be spun into garments.
Preventing clothes from going to landfill or encouraging people to buy less could help get rid of an excess of polyester garments – and that means looking at the fundamentals of the fashion industry.
Brands are currently “guessing” how many pieces of each style they will produce, Lee said, and the clothes take three to six months to make before they are posted to stores or posted online. What is not sold at full price is written off. “If it’s that cheap or 70% cheaper (people think) I don’t really need it, but you know what 70% is worth, (well) I’ll get it. And then you buy yourself what I don’t really need “said Lee.
One solution is to make clothes to measure, as TAL has been doing for 15 years. “In the last few years it has really been undressed … you go to the store, the garment is not ready for you. But you say you know what, I like this fabric, I like this style, you place the order and the shirt, for example, will be available on your doorstep in seven days, “explained Lee. Before the coronavirus pandemic, TAL produced around 600,000 shirts annually in this way.
While making bespoke clothing is currently more expensive than making it in bulk, that could change in the long run. “You don’t need (a) warehouse to store (clothes) … You don’t need big stores to sell … But big brands that are stationary a lot can’t get rid of them overnight, so it is makes no sense, “said Lee.
“What is entering the market is the emerging people … we need more people who think about it like that,” he added. In December, Amazon launched a bespoke t-shirt service Made For You in the US, while Unspun of San Francisco sells bespoke jeans.
“Brands have to commit to saying: I will be removing this raw polyester from my supply chain in five to ten years, for example, and forcing people to find alternative ways that are more sustainable is the responsibility of the brand CEOs to do so,” said Lee.
He also urged the industry to work together. “Our industry is highly competitive (and) shares secrets about how we do things to 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.