• Fashion

Are your recycled plastic leggings sustainable after all?

A deep dive into the fashion world of recycled plastics 

By Felicity Bonello

Sustainability and fashion. It’s certainly a complicated topic, and one that can feel quite confusing, both for us the wearers of fashion, and for brands trying to do the right thing.

Here at Green + Simple we’ve been talking a lot lately about the concept of wearing recycled plastic. It’s in the activewear we wear daily, in the puffer jackets we’ve invested in and it’s the hero of many fashion campaigns. 

But we’ve been wondering, could the use of recycled plastic in our clothing end up being one giant hoax?

The biggest loophole in sustainability is the fact that the term itself doesn’t have a clear, quantifiable definition. With greenwashing in fashion on the rise, it begs the question: is your new recycled synthetic fabric jumper considered sustainable or is this just another form of greenwashing?

Are we being greenwashed?

“I think it’s risky to call any use of recycled plastic and nylon ‘greenwashing’ because it negates the hard work that has gone into finding the innovations to limit the use of virgin plastics/petrochemicals,” says Dr Lisa Lake, Development Manager at the Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Fashion + Textiles (a UTS and TAFE NSW initiative).

“There is no doubt that we need to dramatically move away from virgin petrochemical products, and in that sense recycling is certainly better. But ‘better’ and ‘recycled’ do not mean ‘perfectly sustainable’.”

The good news is recycled synthetics use 30-50 percent less energy during production and generate 54 percent fewer CO2 emissions. But while that feels like a significant eco-conscious box ticked, recycled synthetics still rely on fossil fuel-based material, and don’t resolve those other pesky environmental issues associated with the non-biodegradable nature of the fibre at the end of a garment’s life.

Not surprising, petroleum-based virgin and recycled synthetic fibres don’t biodegrade like natural fibres. And with our country’s textile recycling rate at a mere 7 per cent, when our plastic-bottles-and-fishing-nets-turned-clothes eventually reach end of life, they’re still destined for landfill, and won’t decompose in our lifetime. 

That’s not to say that recycled synthetics shouldn’t be repurposed. Liz Miles, Managing Director of Sustainable Living Fabrics suggests a closed looped solution. “Recycled plastics need to close the loop by going back into recycled plastic,” she suggests. “Whether that’s back into plastic bottles or containers or other products that need to be made of plastic like kids’ playground equipment or outdoor furniture.” 

But if we’re keeping things in the fashion realm, according to Najah Onn – multi-disciplinary environmental engineer and Principal at Footprint Mechanics – designers have a responsibility to consider where their garments go, after their primary use. 

“I wish fashion designers knew more about textile technology or innovation. But in general, when you design something, always look for what will happen after it’s lived its optimal life for the consumer; whether it’s upcycled or becomes fodder to make something else. When designing, the challenge is to create something with the end in mind; that’s how designers need to think now,” she says.

And when it comes to greenwashing?

“Sustainability is more than just one element; it is the whole gamut of indicators within the supply chain that make up the total picture of something. Beware of brands that don’t use facts and figures,” offers Onn. “If they say they’re sustainable but they don’t back that up with official claims, that’s complete greenwashing.” 


When it comes to recycled synthetic fibres more research is needed around the impact of synthetics on our bodies however, according to Dr Lake, whether it’s a virgin synthetic fibre or recycled synthetic fibre, there is a release of microfibres. 

“What we do know is that petrochemicals are endocrine disruptors, meaning our hormones react to their presence. And we know that plastic microfibres have been found in all organs of human bodies – in our blood, and in placentas – they are everywhere, and we don’t yet know the extent of the harm they will cause.” 

Further to the immediate impact of these synthetic fibres on our bodies, when these environmentally dangerous materials pass through waterways and end up in the ocean, they’re ingested by aquatic creatures, which can be lethal to marine life. From tiny crustaceans to birds and whales, polluting microplastics can alter entire ecosystems. It’s clearly a huge issue, with many moving parts. 


When it comes to shopping, the onus really is on the consumer to buy consciously. As we know, sustainability goes beyond recycled fibre. While there’s no one internationally governing body that sets a sustainability benchmark, there are individual certifiers that will tick certain boxes on your behalf. But it’s prudent that consumers are across what certifications are important to their value system at the point of purchase.

“Different certifications have different benchmarks, or qualifiers,” explains Onn. For example, if a textile article carries the OEKO-TEX STANDARD 100 label, you can be certain that every component of that piece – whether it’s the thread, button and other accessories, has been tested for harmful substances and the article therefore is harmless for human health.” 

“The biggest certification I would say is OEKO-TEX, in combination with Bluesign® SYSTEM. Bluesign is a certification that looks at hazardous chemicals, and how it’s managed in terms of pollution.

The biggest sustainability footprinting tool out there is the Higg Index, which is one of the best things to happen to fashion. It’s a framework for worldwide sustainable apparel production. It has more than 200 global members, they’re committed to measuring and improving social environmental sustainable impact, and they promote social justice throughout the global value chain,” explains Onn.

natural fibre alternatives

If we can truly understand their potential, natural fabrics will not only transform how we dress, but how we live. According to Dr Lake, classic fibres that also help to regenerate the environment are the next step in the fashion revolution.

“It’s imperative that we move toward predominantly natural and bio-based fibres. This is the future,” says Dr Lake.

“There is no doubt that we are used to the performance quality of polyester/nylon, particularly in activewear and outerwear. But we need to be investing more into R&D of natural/bio-based synthetics so that we are working in harmony with Earth’s systems. We know that clothes shed fibres, so it is best to privilege natural-based materials that the earth has the natural ability to break down when those fibres inevitably end up in our waterways and our soil.”

While it’s early days, we are seeing remarkable solutions from innovative organisations like Kintra who have used inputs derived from sugar instead of fossil fuels to create a farm to fibre renewable synthetic. Meanwhile brands like Piping Hot are doing their due diligence and working closely with UTS to investigate the use of algae to replace synthetics. It’s an exciting space to watch. 

Of course, then there’s the natural fibres we are largely familiar with.

“People are better off looking for natural fibres (plant or animal based) and to buy better quality items that can last for years,” says Miles.

“If clothing is an animal-based product there are many sustainable alternatives out there such as the wool (which is renewable) and even leather is a bi-product of the meat industry, so it is using waste. Plant based textiles like sustainably sourced cotton and hemp have been used for years and are a much better quality than synthetics; they last longer too and don’t put any nasty microplastic pollution into our waterways when we wash our clothes.”

Shop with confidence

It’s a lot to take in, we know. But the best advice for consumers when it comes to shopping sustainably is to focus on quality and fit, and to limit the number of garments purchased. To this day, whatever materials are used, the largest factor making the fashion industry so unsustainable is the volume of clothing being produced and discarded, and that’s where we can all make a huge difference. 

“Buy what you need, what you love, what fits you well, and what suits your lifestyle. Get clothes tailored to fit just right, avoid fast fashion trends, hone your own style and feel great knowing you don’t have to participate in a new trend every week, or month, or year,” suggests Dr Lake. 

Once you get the hang of that, then you can start supporting labels that embrace sustainability with quality garments, quality natural fabrics, and other sustainable materials, remembering that we’re still in the very early days of material innovation, so it will be hard to find a ‘perfect’ fabric.

And importantly, send a message to your favourite labels letting them know that you care deeply about sustainability, and you’re looking forward to hearing about their sustainable improvements. They are listening!


RELATED: This is how you avoid greenwashing

RELATED: Why greenwashing is the ultimate betrayal 

The Green + Simple Newsletter

Sign up for the best of sustainability each week