g-star raw switching to recycled polyester with pharrell williams
When I first read about G-Star RAW for The Oceans, I thought it was brilliant. But as I´ve spent yet another weekend reading about plastic recycling and polyester, and it is not black and white. Fashion never is. Read about what I found out.
In 2014, Dutch denim design and clothing company G-Star RAW teamed up with music producer and entrepreneur Pharrell Williams on RAW for the Oceans, a line of denim apparel that incorporates recycled material by Bionic Yarn, the company that upcycles marine plastic into fabric. This year G-Star continued on this path while joining forces with marine pollution campaign group the Plastic Soup Foundation in an effort to prevent microfibres creating plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.
It is estimated that in 2025, there is one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish in the oceans, and in 2050 the weight of plastic has overtaken that of fish. While much of this ocean plastic is due to the food industry and countries not investing in energy burning facilities rather than landfills, the textile industry still plays a part in polluting oceans. Consumer based machine washing of clothes is a major contributor to plastic pollution. Every time we do laundry, garments made from synthetic fabrics such as polyester, shed small plastic fibers that end up in the water and pollute rivers and oceans. Even if you live in a country where all sewage water is processed through waste water treatment facility, these microbic particles are too small to be stopped from getting through the filters and into the oceans, lakes and rivers. While there, they become hazardous to marine life and poison their surroundings and should be considered toxins as they do not degrade until a 100 years. So an issue worth noticing and making an effort to stop it, especially if you are an eco minded fashionista.
What exactly is this campaign about?
The significant thing is that G-Star plegdes to shift to using 100% recycled material as an alternative to conventional polyester by 2020, which accounts for around 10% of the materials used in the firm’s collection. 10% sounds a lot since G-Star is a global fashion brand, but I could not find any info on how many garments or textile kilos this would mean in a year. But it is still something and a valuable statement from the brand.
I think it is great that celebs do environmental campaigns, because they reach so many people. I admire Pharrell. He has a good thing going in many ways and he has been super active in raising awareness in a number of different projects, social and environmental organizations and campaigns. While I doubt that people actually throw plastic into the oceans, a Pharrell says in one of the campaign videos, they actually get there because the country or city does not have sufficient waste management and plastic recycling processes in place. In the Nordic countries we have them, but for example many countries surrounding the major oceans like South-East Asia and The Mediterranean sea (South European and North African countries) do not. So if you really want to effect the ocean plastic situation, it would be best done in grass root activism and pressing for your government to take a pledge in environmental issues and tackle the waste management issues in your area. This means signing petitions, marching for climate change and voting for people that care for environmental issues. These waste issues are key also to travelers.
I´m sure the main idea behind this campaign is to take the focus on to our consumption habits and local waste management. How many bottles of water do you drink in a year? Do you manage all your plastics into recycling? Does your home town or city even have bottle recycling, plastic waste facilities or energy burning facilities? And all that jazz.
30% of garments ecological footprint comes from its consumer maintenance.
The battle against microfibre fits into G-Star’s own sustainability strategy, which the firm says prioritises the social and environmental aspects of product manufacturing. But when it comes to fighting against textile micro fibers in the oceans, rivers and lakes, the washing method and cycle is key. I could not find any eco washing or care instructions on G-Star website or online shop for these products. Just the regular “wash in 40 degrees, do not tumble dry, bla bla bla”. I´m hoping G-Star highlights the ecological product care instructions and washing amount when you order and buy these pieces. I love it when brands make tutorial videos on ecological product care. But far too few fashion retailers are doing them. Otherwise the battling against micro fibers does not really apply to these products. Just the recycled material bit.
The Bionic Yarn website does not promise, that it will not release or lower the amount of rPET micro fibers per wash. I can see from the BY´s website that this type of denim is made with the rPET weaved inside the cotton yarn. I´m hoping that this will help to stop the PET fibers from being released from the fabric as it is being washed. But I cannot confirm this.
In my experience, denim should not be water washed often, especially if it is raw denim. The idea is to just use it and wear it until it looks worn. But if you wear regular denim (does not fade) and like water or machine washing your clothes after a few uses, make sure, they are made from natural fibers to prevent micro plastics from coming off. Or if you use clothes made from polyester, just wash them less, take it out to air, or freeze it more than wash it.
Take note that 30% of garments ecological footprint comes from its consumer maintenance (washing), so I think manufacturers and brands should take much better care in educating their customers on what is ecological garment care and what is not. What is a suitable cycle, what detergent to use if you want to be eco, and so on. It is studied that millennials are terrible in wardrobe maintenance when compared to previous generations, even though they have the knowledge and devices to access all the info online. It just shows that wardrobe maintenance is a hand craft, much like cooking, and should be learned by doing. Garment care is also different in the US, and different European countries, the instructions should also vary from place to place.
Also as I browse through these fashion campaigns, I am often irritated by their fluffy slogans. “Save the oceans” with a piece of fashion? C´mon. A bit too arrogant for my taste. How about “helping undo the our consumption mistakes” or “consume more wisely”? Those would sound more truthful. No single product or brand can save something completely nor should they claim to do so.
Also it would be nice to see the brands progress as the campaign evolves. How many kilos of polyester has been saved by using rPET at G-Star? How much is this in energy use, CO2 emissions and water? Where did all the ocean plastics used for these clothes come from? Where was the fibers and fabrics produced? I´m always interested on the finer details of production and following up on the outcome. Even if the result was not 100% what the brand hoped to achieve, it is still important to report the result as transparency is a vital part in sustainable business. H&M launches yearly a fairly long and detailed company sustainability report, but G-Star does not. Or at least I could not find one. I hope G-Star starts releasing one soon.
But why is recycled polyester considered a sustainable textile? How ecological is it?
When ever I need some understandable but wise words on textiles and fibers, I turn to EcoTextiles-blog. It is run by one of the two eco savviest women I know, and I enjoy reading their pieces. This post, that I am referring to now, has been written originally in 2009, but it is still very relevant. I cross checked the numbers and they are still currant.
Textile recycling is a complex process and can be evaluated on a number of different ways, such as energy efficiency during production, CO2 emissions, water consumption, price and the durability and recyclability of the finished product. The brand just has to choose, which points are most important to them and their consumers.
Switching to rPET instead of using PET is significant in the global textile industry. Synthetic fibers count over 60% of all fibers produced annually and over 70% of them is polyester. The polyester most often used in textiles is PET. The majority of the world’s PET production, about 60%, is used to make fibers for textiles. About 30% is used to make bottles. At the moment only a tiny fraction of the PET which is used to make bottles, is recycled into fibers. This recycling process is not a new innovation, but has been in around for 20 years or so. But the idea of using recycled bottles “diverting waste from landfills and oceans” and turning it into fibers has caught the public’s imagination and is very interesting angle from a marketing point of view. It is also honest recycling and upcycling.
The fiber production process can be evaluated in many ways. As EcoTextiles points out, the energy needed to make the rPET is half of what was needed to make the virgin polyester in the first place, so we save energy. Also, if the fibre producers use renewable energy, it is even better. I would love to know if these denims were made with solar energy. That would be a great marketing angle for the PR people.
But the rPET energy consumption is still more than organic cotton, linen and hemp. Therefore I am presuming the reason they wanted to add polyester in their denims, is that it makes the denim more durable to wear, especially in thinner fabrics. Making a product last longer in use is always a good thing. And by meaning this I´m talking in years and decades, not in months. If not, there is no point in replacing cotton with rPET and therefore they should just help collect the ocean plastic by donating to organizations that fight it and then burn the collected plastic in energy burning facilities.
Despite the savings of both energy and emissions from the recycling of PET, the fact is that it is still more energy intensive to recycle PET into a fiber than to use organically produced natural fibers – sometimes quite a bit more energy. When comparing the manmade fiber alternatives to natural fibers, hemp wins in a lot of cases. It takes significantly less energy, has as much CO2 emissions as rPET, uses less water and chemicals to make (compared to rPET) and is much more durable in use than rPET. Hemp does need some acres for cultivation, but much less water than cotton. It is also relevant if the G-Star fibre and clothing factories uses solar energy and disposes it´s waste waters responsibly. After the garment is discarded, hemp-cotton mix fibers are easier to recycle than cotton-rPET mixes.
So why did G-Star choose rPET over hemp? My guess is price. rPET must be cheaper to produce than hemp. I could not find any accurate data on this since the fiber prices depend on a variety of reasons, but that is my educated guess. Also hemp does not have the recycle and save the oceans angle that is vital for this campaign. So yeah, rPET is better than regular polyester, but in my mind it does not beat hemp or organic cotton.
Recyclability of clothes containing rPET?
What also interests me, is the recyclability of these G-Star denims, as the polyester from PET bottles is woven into the cotton yarn. 100% cotton fabrics are recyclable as it contains only (natural) fibers. But what about mixed? It is true, that the fix of these two fibers does probably increase the durability of these denims, so they will last longer in use. But do they last as long as the fantastic denims of the 80´ sand 90´s? The website and online shop only says medium weight, but not the oz. amount. It should be between 12 oz. and 14 oz. to be durable and thick enough for longevity in use. 10 oz. in only thick and durable enough to shirts.
EcoTextiles also concludes, “One of the biggest obstacles to achieving McDonough’s Cradle-to-Cradle vision lies outside the designers’ ordinary scope of interest – in the recycling system itself. Although bottles, tins and newspapers are now routinely recycled, furniture and carpets still usually end up in landfill or incinerators, even if they have been designed to be recycled because project managers don’t take the time to separate out the various components of a demolition job, nor is collection of these components an easy thing to access.”
“Currently, the vision that most marketers has led us to believe, that of a closed loop, or cycle, in which the yarns never lose their value and recycle indefinitely is simply that – just a vision. Few manufacturers, have taken the time, effort and money needed to accelerate the adoption of sustainable practices in the industry so we can one day have synthetic fabrics that are not only recycled, but recyclable.”
Many sustainable fashion retailers and manufacturers offer take-back programs (although I encourage to do them without discount vouchers) for their clothes, repair services in brand stores and so on. These actions help the consumer to recycle and maintain the clothes responsibly and discard them after use.
Although PSP and G-Star are calling on other fashion companies, washing machine manufacturers and the textile industry to support the international charter, Ocean Clean Wash. Signatories of the initiative will contribute to the development of one or more innovative solutions to prevent the release of plastic fibers from garments in the future, such as fabrics that do not release microfibers or washing machine filters that capture the released fibers. Technological center Leitat is collaborating to research the technical feasibility of the solutions proposed. They G-Star is trying to get better for real.
And since 2014, plastic bags in all G-Star stores worldwide have been replaced with paper bags made from FSC certified paper, enabling the label to reach an annual reduction of more than 1.5 million plastic bags – accounting for approximately 70,000kg of plastic. This is something that all fashion retailers should do.
To finish, I really hope Pharrell gives G-Star the sustainable and activist boost it needs to become a fully sustainable clothing company. Like Nudie is. We need more of those.