When goods and energy are subsidized, the price is not the real cost but a reduced and often harmfully artificial one. For example, synthetic fabrics known as nylon and polyester are made from subsidized fossil fuels. The artificially low price of these clothing and textile items leads to higher sales and shorter use times. The average wear time of synthetic clothing often referred to as fast fashion, fell by 36% between 2002 and 2017. According to a recent report, about 92 million metric tons of textiles are thrown away each year, an amount equal to the weight of two midsize cars every second; less than 0.5% of used textiles are recycled. Additionally, synthetic clothing fibers are a significant part of microplastic pollution that afflicts water, soil, air, and living systems.
Several newer companies are working on or using technologies that reformulate clothing and efforts toward sustainable textiles. In Virginia, the company Circexpects to convert textile waste into a resource that can be used for new clothing production by 2024. The Sweden startup Renewcell and the Seattle-based company Evrnu recycle used cotton fabrics for new clothing using sustainable processes. Natural Fiber Welding is a company in Illinois that offers recyclable and biodegradable leather alternatives made from agricultural waste and other plant-based feedstocks.
One barrier to the success of these solution companies is the inability to compete with the low cost of synthetic fast fashions. Lowering of this barrier requires a level playing field and additional incentives for sustainable textiles. Multi-component textiles pose another difficulty in recycling clothing. Many fast fashions include blends and flashy fashions (more synthetic materials). Europe is taking the lead, requiring recycled content in clothing starting in 2025. Sustainable clothing companies acknowledge that consumers need to steer away from the lure of fast fashion and toward the purchase of high-quality clothing that is worn for a long time.
Julie Peller, Ph.D., is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ). Julie has been writing a weekly column for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), and student and citizen participation in environmental work.