Plastic Fantastic - How plastic effects Fashion
There has been a lot of talk recently on the detrimental effects of plastic on the environment. We have all seen the images of beaches completely covered in discarded plastic bottles, of the overspilling landfills, of plastic islands floating in the oceans. If you type 'Plastic' into google the first two hits are 'Plastic Recycling' and 'Plastic Pollution'.
The world is waking up to the perils of a single-use society (see #ZeroWasteJuly for example). But what about non-single use plastics?
Can there be a place for plastic in our future? And more importantly* in our fashion?
A brief history of plastic fibres
The first hugely popular plastic based fabric was Nylon. Created by French-American company DuPont in the 1930's it rose to prominence during WW2 when it was used to replace silk stockings, which were expensive and hard to come by in wartime. Even after the war, when fabric rationing ended, it remained popular due it its stretchy quality and its resistance to damage. Silk stockings were far too delicate and required regular repairs.
Nylon continued to dominate with the Bullet Bra, favoured by Marilyn Monroe and responsible for the silhouette of Pin-Up girls throughout the 50's. The fact that Nylon could be produced quickly and cheaply made fashion accessible to the masses. Poodle skirts, which required a huge amount of silk tulle, were out of the question for many. But nylon tulle was much cheaper.
The invention of Elastane in 1958 really revolutionised women's clothing. Known as Spandex in the States, an anagram for Expands, this stretchy fabric allowed for the invention of bikinis and undergarments as we know them today. The elastic quality made a full range of movement possible. The aerobics studios of the 80's would have been very different without this innovative cloth.
Plastic fastenings, zips, buckles, buttons etc, plastic accessories, plastic glasses frames, plastic shoe soles; there is a very practical place for plastic in fashion.
But now that we know more about the negative side of plastic production and what it is doing to the environment should we be avoiding it altogether or can there still be a role for polymers in our wardrobes?
Let's take a look at some of the trends of the last 10 years which have relied on synthetic help.
Denim has dominated 20th and 21st Century style. It is versatile, comfortable, practical; equally suitable for labouring on a ranch or strolling down Oxford Street. But in the 00's jeans became tighter and tighter and the original recipe no longer worked. If you used traditional woven cotton denim for the modern, figure hugging cut, you would not be able to sit down. It is the added elastane which allows the trousers to stretch and contract as your body bends.
Skinny jeans require elastane to avoid robotic restrictions on movement. Even brands which position themselves as sustainable and ethical seem to struggle with this. Nudie Jeans recently announced that their "Hightop Hilde" skinny jeans were 100% Organic yet they are actually only 92% cotton (6% Polyester and 2% Elastane).
There have been a couple of different companies, including Lycra, who have been trying to produce a Bio-based elastane. The Radici group were boasting about Rad-Elast, from 2008 but I can't find any news on it since 2011 so it seems to have gone bust. Until someone succeeds in producing a non-petrol based stretch fabric my advice would be to opt for one of the many brands recycling denim, like ELV or Mud Jeans.
Athleisure is an ever growing area of the fashion industry, estimated to be worth £300bn to the UK economy in 2017. Before I go any further, let me be clear, Athleisure is not the same as ActiveWear which needs to be very practical. Athleisure refers to the gym-style clothing worn socially ie not at the gym. The rise of this has seen brands like Yeezy and Supreme reach almost cult label status. So these clothes do not need quite the same durability and practicality of true athletic-wear, but still need to be stretchy/fitted/comfy and all the other qualities which made this style such a growth industry.
Finding leggings which don't lose their shape after 2 washes requires quite particular materials, usually some form of poly-based fabric. Natural fibres just don't seem to hold elastic as well as synthetic do.
Fortunately yoga clothing was one of the first to be given an ethical makeover and there are now tonnes of amazing brands finding alternative answers to this conundrum. The best of which use recycled polyester. These fibres exist in the world, so rather than send them to landfill, the most sustainable thing to do is reuse them. The Girlfriend Collective do this brilliantly with their latest collection made from recycled plastic bottles.
Due to this rise in sporty-kit, trainers have never been more popular. There are now very few workplaces where sneakers would be consider inappropriate. But like many shoes nowadays, they are predominantly made of plastic. And despite the public rejecting plastic in many areas - JD Sports reported a 24% increase in profits last fiscal year, taking their revenue from £2.4bn to £3.2bn.
The trend for trainers doesn't seem to be going anywhere. They are way too comfortable! But with plastic being used for soles, lace eyelets, tongues and even the body of the shoe in a lot of cases, how can we avoid adding to the environmental damage caused by this industry?
Sportswear giant Adidas has taken the lead with a range of footwear made from Ocean plastics. Although they are currently out of most peoples' budget, the fact that the technology is there is really encouraging. The more we support these kinds of initiatives, both with our money if we can, but also with loud support on social media (which is free) the more other brands will follow suit. In the meantime there are brands like Veja which use sustainably sourced rubber for their soles instead of plastic.