Searching for a Solution to the Outdoors’ Polyester Problem

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Searching for a Solution to the Outdoors’ Polyester Problem

Until recently, I did not make the connection between a synthetic jacket and a barrel of crude oil. But

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Until recently, I did not make the connection between a synthetic jacket and a barrel of crude oil. But now I know: The vast majority of polyester is petroleum-based plastic. Fifty-seven million tons—more than any other fiber in the world—were produced in 2020 alone, according to the Textile Exchange, an international consortium of manufacturers. Few sectors are as reliant on fossil fuel-derived fabrics as the outdoor industry: Hikers need their insulation to stay warm when it’s wet, rain jackets to shed water in a downpour, and backpacks to survive the rough-and-tumble without turning into Swiss cheese. 

Fortunately, many outdoor enthusiasts are quicker on the uptake than I am, and are demanding that outdoor brands muster some semblance of environmental cred in order to maintain consumer loyalty. In recent years, apparel-makers—even those that didn’t necessarily identify as “eco-friendly outdoor brands”—have shifted to products made from recycled fishing nets, PFC-free water repellents, and biodegradable jackets. Patagonia, the original fleece king, now makes 87 percent of its polyester from repurposed plastic bottles. 

“We are a brand that famously started from polyester fleece,” says Nicholas Hartley, Patagonia’s fleece expert. “It would be really detrimental for us to leave that space and say, ‘Hey, it has petroleum in it, it’s not the best thing.’ We need to stay and work with the industry to make it better.” 

But recycled synthetics aren’t progressive enough for increasingly educated outdoor recreationalists in 2022: Next-gen bio-based textiles, like those derived from sugarcane, have become the newest environmental consumer benchmark to meet. Conversations with a dozen outdoor brand CEOs, product designers, and textile consultants show that “naturals,” including age-old fibers like wool and cotton, are now a major priority for apparel and product design. But, as with any brand-based environmental trend, the truth is murkier than the marketing, and simply replacing synthetic materials with naturals may not be the paradigm shift that conscious buyers are hoping for.

Icebreaker Ad
Icebreaker’s 2021 anti-synthetics ad campaign (Photo: Courtesy of Icebreaker)

The modern move away from synthetics is largely due to a growing awareness about microfibers (microplastics from synthetic textiles), up to 700,000 of which can be released into our waterways in a single load of laundry. And those fibers add up: According to a 2019 study by Ocean Wise, a Canadian conservation organization, about 878 tons of those fibers wash downstream each year from the United States and Canada alone—the equivalent weight of 10 blue whales.

This problem crept into consumer awareness through headlines about the proliferation of microplastics near the summit of Mt. Everest and collecting at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. It made many of us think twice about our petroleum-based plastic apparel. “This is the plastic era,” says Sydney Gladman, chief scientific officer at the Material Innovation Initiative, an incubator for next-gen bio materials. “[Future archeologists] are going to dig through sediment and find a layer of plastic from the last 50 years. It’s become public enemy number one.” 

In 2021, Liberty Oilfield Services put up a series of vindictive billboards in Denver thanking The North Face for its contribution to the petroleum industry after the outdoor apparel giant refused to fulfill an order of branded jackets from a fellow oil and gas company on principle. To its credit, The North Face has made major commitments to its sustainability framework in recent years. “Our new sustainable materials goal is to convert 100 percent of our top apparel fabrics to recycled, regeneratively-sourced, or responsible renewables by 2025,” says Carol Shu, senior manager of global sustainability at The North Face. “Our science-based targets are incredibly aggressive.”

Icebreaker, one of the earliest champions of merino wool-based outdoor apparel, recently ran an ad campaign showing a churlish hiker clad in plastic wrap with the tagline “Still Wearing Plastic?” (It’s worth noting that Icebreaker’s parent company, VF Corporation, owns several polyester-dependent apparel brands, including The North Face.) 

When consumers recoiled from plastic-based clothing, the first place many brands turned to was recycled polyester.

You can’t get more than a mile from the trailhead without bumping into the “eco-friendly” solution for everything from rain jackets to Nalgene bottles. It might come as a surprise to you, as it was for me, that recycled polyester is not made from old outdoor gear, but rather everyday plastic bottles made of PET, or polyethylene terephthalate. The technology required to separate polyester from the other materials that exist in apparel, such as spandex, or strip away waterproof coatings and dyes, simply does not exist at scale. PET, on the other hand, is a relatively pure, transparent, petroleum-based plastic. But while recycling the drink bottles clogging our waterways sounds good on the surface, PET is still a problematic material. 

Lauren Bright is a materials consultant who works with some of the industry’s biggest brands to help them reduce their environmental impact. She’s currently advising the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) on a project to make recycled nylon economically viable. Along with the same microfiber shedding problem that plagues pure synthetic fibers, recycled PET has another major drawback, says Bright. As a material, it has become the default for companies, from Nestlé to Nike, that need to check their “eco” box. The global market for recycled PET was estimated to be worth nearly $9 billion in 2021, and is projected to be worth $11.7 billion by 2026. 

Between apparel brands and the food and beverage industry, the need for an easily recycled eco-product is actually driving the demand for more plastic. Bright says that clothing made from PET has another drawback: It’s no longer a recyclable product, as it is when used in recycled bottles. “It is dishonest to say that a product coming from a recycled PET bottle is circular,” says Bright. “What you’ve done is taken a product that could theoretically be recycled many times, and you’ve transformed it into a state where it has almost no end-of-life potential.”

Beyond bottles, Bright says there’s good reason to be skeptical of recycled synthetics in general: “I can tell you that as a materials expert in this industry, it’s not even easy for me to decipher the difference between something that is really impactful versus a marketing story.” 

Part of the issue? Some companies cook their books.

Bright described an all-too-common scenario using a hypothetical outdoor brand. Let’s say the company claimed roughly 80 percent of its apparel was sustainable. For a synthetic product to be considered sustainable in the outdoor industry, 50 percent of its makeup needs to be “preferred” recycled materials. For a recycled material to be preferred, only 20 percent of its fibers need to be non-virgin (i.e. freshly processed synthetics). After the game of diluting percentages is done, this brand actually uses less than 1 percent non-virgin material in its lineup.

“I think everybody’s heart is in the right place,” says Bright, “but we are dealing with late-stage capitalism here.”

bolt threads
Growing mycelium at Bolt Threads (Photo: Courtesy of Bolt Threads)

You might expect outdoor brands to turn toward time-tested natural fibers like wool and cotton, but many don’t. Traditional natural textiles can be difficult to produce at scale (where will all of the sheep come from?), entangled in dubious overseas labor practices, and slow to shift from their industrial farming roots into a regenerative, ethical system. Instead, much of the consumer resistance toward petroleum-based clothing is being assuaged with next-gen bio-based textiles. That is, newly-developed materials made at least partially by—or from—living things. The $14 billion bio-based materials industry is expected to grow dramatically in the coming years. Many next-gen companies, like Bolt Threads and MycoWorks, are Bay Area startups that garner interest from investors looking for fast, scalable replacements for vilified synthetics. These innovators attract the kind of enthusiasm and money you might expect to see for a hot new tech company. 

The Material Innovation Initiative (MII) is a nonprofit link between promising startups, investors, and brands with an eye toward vanquishing petroleum-based materials and animal reliance. Gladman, the chief scientific officer at MII, says requests for non-synthetic materials are booming: “If it’s more sustainable and has the same performance and cost, why wouldn’t you pick the bio-based option?”

Gladman’s list of likely innovators for synthetic replacements reads like science fiction. There’s Piñatex, an alt-leather made out of pineapple leaf waste currently being used in a line of sneakers with Nike. Japanese brand Spiber manufactures silk using fermented microbes. It partnered with The North Face to make TNF’s Moon Parka in 2019. PANGAIA, a clothing brand and materials innovator, has created a new type of down replacement from wildflowers, corn-based biopolymer, and biodegradable aerogel. 

But to think that bio-based materials are the silver bullet to our reliance on petroleum-based materials—as many investors, brands, and consumers want to believe—is yet another problem. 

Just because something is bio-based doesn’t mean it’s biodegradable or even natural, says Bright, the environmental consultant: “It doesn’t matter if you use petroleum or corn. If you end up making the same chemical formulation in the form of a polymer, its biodegradation potential is the same.” In other words, polyester from corn is identical to polyester from petroleum. In fact, petroleum itself is a “natural” input, albeit a dirty one. “To the world, to nature, to everyone, that chemistry is that chemistry. You cannot equate a bio-based material to something that will readily return to nature as a nutrient. And the outdoor industry does this all the time,” she says.

Another issue: Most bio-based alternatives still incorporate synthetic materials to add strength or waterproofing. Even Mylo, the mushroom-based breakout success story from Bolt Threads—which one day could be used as a cow-free alternative in hiking boots—is coated with bio-based polyurethane. 

A growing group of materials experts are looking for new ways to overcome this last petroleum hurdle. Natural Fiber Welding, which “welds” biogenic fibers by partially melting them chemically, has the potential to eliminate the need for the polyester crutch. It’s partnering with sustainability-focused shoe brand Allbirds for a new line of plant-based leather footwear. And as for that tricky waterproof/breathable polyurethane coating that sheds water on apparel? A company called Squitex may have discovered the replacement in a protein structure found in squid tentacles. 

Libby Sommer, Bolt’s director of corporate responsibility and a former instructor of green material innovation at the University of Oregon, is quick to admit that the company doesn’t market Mylo as being biodegradable. “I’m not sure how anyone can make a strong biodegradability claim when these materials don’t have good end-of-life pathways,” she says. “Not that designing for biodegradability isn’t the right thing—it’s an easy word to internalize in this complex world of ‘what is sustainability?’ [But] it’s not quite akin to the leaves in your compost pile.”

Many experts agree that any claim to biodegradability, regardless of makeup, is misleading. Joel Mertens, the director of Higg Product Tools at the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, says his job is to find ways to quantify the overall environmental impact that apparel has over its full lifecycle into easy-to-understand data. “If you look at a lot of biodegradable test methods, they are using accelerated aging methods to simulate a bioreactor landfill, which is not a typical landfill. [Bioreactor landfills] are new technology that governments are looking into. But your standard landfill is meant to sequester waste, not break it down.” 

Kathmandu’s NXT-Level Bio Down Jacket, for example, is made entirely of “biodegradable” nylon, insulation, and zippers, and won an Outdoor Retailer Innovation Award in 2022. But it will take eons to break down in a traditional landfill—which is almost certainly where it will end up, considering that bioreactor landfills­ (essentially giant, industrial compost bins) exist mostly on the drawing board.

Another red flag often raised with regard to next-gen bio-based materials is the danger of sliding further into a monocropping economy. That is, one based on growing a single crop year after year to the detriment of soil health and biological diversity. All fabrics require what’s called a “feedstock,” the substance from which it’s engineered. For bio-based materials, more often than not, the feedstock is something like beet or cane sugar. When scaled up to replace polyester, those crops could potentially have devastating impacts on the environment. 

Bright says she was once approached by an organization attempting to sell her on an alternative to spandex derived from excess industrial corn. The problem, she explains, is that instead of rehabbing battered industrial farmland back into a healthy, carbon-absorbing soil, farmers simply sold their monocrops to a different market. “We’re looking for bio-based materials because we demonize the extraction of petroleum … but if we incentivize cutting down the rainforest to grow sugarcane, that does not help our purpose,” she says. 

pineapple leaf fiber
Pineapple leaf fibers drying in the Philippines (Photo: Courtesy Ananas Anam)

Feeling like there’s no responsible way to dress for a hike? Don’t. Just listen to Rebecca Burgess, the founder and director of Fibershed, a Northern California-based nonprofit that preaches a regionalized, regenerative system of fiber production. Burgess has been described as the Alice Waters of the slow fiber movement. 

Brands that use Fibershed’s model bear a “Climate Beneficial Verification” tag, which guarantees that the fabric used in its apparel was produced under regenerative practices based around healthy ecosystems. Delaine & Co.’s collection of ski sweaters, for example, is Climate Beneficial Verified, as was The North Face’s Cali Wool collection, which ran for roughly two years. (TNF is now focusing on regenerative cotton from Indigo Ag, with a new line expected to launch in 2023.) 

Within Burgess’s ideal “soil-to-soil” model, material for apparel is grown, woven, sewn and then recycled at the end of its life all within the same bioregion. That is—if the finished product isn’t made with toxic dyes or other, nonbiodegradable fibers. In essence, she offers a truly sustainable domestic system for the production of wool, cotton, hemp, and many other traditional natural fibers. These efforts have been maligned by brands and activists that say ramping up production of those fibers would have an even greater impact than using synthetics.

“Where do you start the life cycle assessment on the polyester baselayer?” asks Burgess. “Where did the feedstock start? Take the amount of water being used in California to frack gas, for instance. On one hand you are getting into assessing if ‘this sheep ate a strand of whatever from this field, and is that field rotated?’ And yet somehow a polyester filament just appears out of thin air. [Environmental assessment] talked about on that level is asinine.”

Burgess fields almost daily phone calls from brands looking to green up their outdoor apparel. The attention is gratifying, but she says the issue is long-term commitment. Brands don’t want to invest money or time, both of which are required for regional farms to shift toward regenerative models. Adopting a domestic supply chain instead of shipping fabrics internationally is another compounding factor. “For big outdoor companies, the pattern has been just moments and small apparel lines,” explains Burgess. “They are looking for solutions within their existing business model. They will often learn something and then try to apply it to the mega. You can’t put that much lipstick on a pig. Companies need to work within the planetary boundaries.”

“The Higg Materials Sustainability Index might be the best tool that consumers have for measuring just how detrimental their purchase is to the planet.”

While Fibershed’s U.S.-based philosophy has seen most of its success in the fashion industry, a similar model recently took hold among outdoor brands in New Zealand. In February 2021, the New Zealand Merino Company announced a regenerative wool alliance between three major wool-reliant outdoor apparel brands: Icebreaker, Smartwool, and Allbirds. Some 167 sheep farms with 2.4 million acres of grazing land have committed to an alphabet-soupy “ZQRX” platform, aiming to balance out greenhouse gas emissions, commit to animal welfare standards, and improve environmental health. Says Icebreaker global president Jan Van Mossevelde: “As we look into the future, regenerative farming and regenerative wool is going to be our next big focus.”

But what about apparel that can’t (yet) be made out of natural fibers? Compromising on environmental impact for a durable and protective hardshell is an all-too-common dilemma. The Higg Materials Sustainability Index, led by Joel Mertens, might be the best tool that consumers have right now for measuring just how detrimental their purchase is to the planet. 

Launched in May 2021, the Higg Index takes into account a wide scope of environmental issues—from global warming potential to water scarcity to green chemistries—to calculate a detailed but accessible assessment for over 150 brands. Buy a baselayer online from one of these outdoor apparel makers, and you’ll find its overall sustainability ranking compared to one with traditional materials, with a breakdown in those specific environmental categories. That means you no longer have to wonder if your 100-percent recycled polyester snow pants with a 30-percent bio-based insulation are actually doing Mother Nature any favors.  

Ultimately, it seems, the only path to petroleum independence is for consumers to demand it from their favorite
outdoor gear brands by voting with their wallets. With a better-educated public and increasing transparency, we can slow our polyester-enabled consumerist momentum and invest in truly sustainable natural fibers. 

“A lot of our partners don’t want to hear what I have to say,” says Burgess. “But I can’t not see it. The earth doesn’t just keep handing over infinite resources. We are breaking all of these natural cycles and still expecting that our grandchildren are going to exist. Or our children. Or even ourselves. [We have to] acknowledge that and go from there.”   

pineapple leaf fiber
Piñatex fiber extraction (Photo: Courtesy Ananas Anam)

How to Shop Responsibly

  • Stop buying virgin, petroleum-based products and invest in transparent, sustainability-minded brands. Consumer spending is what will ultimately change this industry.
  • Make informed decisions about the gear and apparel you buy. Look for the Higg Index’s big-picture sustainability evaluation on brand websites. Aim for materials that are verifiably biogenic and regenerative, like those bearing Fibershed’s Climate Beneficial tag or produced using New Zealand Merino Company’s ZQRX platform. 
  • Buy less gear and hold onto it longer. Not purchasing an additional shell, or simply repairing the zipper on the one you have, does more good than any eco-friendly material ever will. Many outdoor brands, like Patagonia, will gladly perform minor repairs in-store, or you can mail your gear in for bigger issues.
  • Buy and sell used gear. Some brands and third-party shops sell used equipment for discounted prices, like REI’s Good & Used gear shop and Out & Back Outdoor. 

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