PACKAGE DEA Fashion brands take on the industry’s plastic problem—one polybag at a time.
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here’s no getting around it: the fashion industry is drowning in plastic, and the single-use polybag is a big part of the reason. Thin, lightweight and derived from low-density polyethylene, roughly 180 billion of these bags, both large and small, are employed by the apparel supply chain every year to protect stock in warehouses and distribution centers or to cosset online orders as they traverse vast distances by truck, ship or plane to someone’s porch. The polybag is so ubiquitous, in fact, that it “unites every fashion brand”—from fast fashion to luxury—“regardless of whether the customer sees it or not,” said Kathleen Rademan, innovation director at Amsterdam-based sustainability initiative Fashion for Good. Bags made from low-density polyethylene are “technically recyclable,” yet their rate of uptake remains fairly dismal, particularly since inks, paper labels and stickers—all hallmarks of online orders—can foul up existing recycling technologies, Rademan says. And though packaging represents a “very small part” of garment production’s overall impact, the problem has grown more acute with the pandemic-driven e-commerce boom. IBM’s U.S. Retail Index predicts online sales to swell by 20 percent in 2020 in the United States alone, accelerating pre-Covid-19 retail trends by nearly five years. The appeal of the polybag is clear. It’s an effective way of shielding shoes, clothing and accessories from moisture, which can promote mold and cause damage. Even better, it’s cheap. But plastic, made from nonrenewable resources such as crude oil and natural gas, contributes to climate change at all stages of its life cycle. It takes centuries to break down, and despite long-running ad campaigns extolling the benefits of recycling, most plastic waste is landfilled, incinerated or left to clog up rivers, lakes and oceans. This is a worrisome situation across the board—not just in fashion. Of the 86 million tons of plastic packaging produced globally every year, less than 14 percent is recycled. But fashion isn’t doing the issue any favors. With the industry’s colossal waste and climate footprints facing mounting scrutiny, tackling the polybag has become an imperative for many businesses. “There’s a real threat to the social license to use plastic packaging,” said Adam Grendell, associate director of the Sustainable 50
Packaging Coalition, a Virginia-based organization whose members include 3M, Avery Dennison and DuPont Biomaterials “It’s more visible than ever before [and] people are being more visceral about it than ever before.” With no universally agreed-upon solution, however, fashion’s efforts to cut down on plastic has manifested itself in various, often disparate ways. One tentpole initiative is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, which has rallied more than 450 brands, retailers and organizations, including household names such as Asos, Burberry, Stella McCartney, H&M and Zara owner Inditex, to pledge to eliminate “unnecessary and problematic” plastic packaging, ensure that remaining plastics are reusable, recyclable or compostable, and circulate all plastic items “in the economy and out of the environment” by 2025.
T H E R E ’S A R E A L T H R E AT T O T H E S OC I A L L ICE N S E T O U S E P L A S T IC PACK AG I N G ,” —A DA M G R E N D E L L , S U S TA I N A B L E PACK AG I N G COA L I T IO N Together, brands have promised to increase the recycled content of their packaging from a current global average of 2 percent to 25 percent. Annette Lendal, project manager for the New Plastics Economy, would like to see less of a focus on recycling and more on elimination and reuse, though she understands why it’s so difficult for brands to quit the polybag entirely. “I was talking to a big brand and they said, for example, that the reason they used polybags was because the factories were so dirty,” she said. “[My first thought was] we can actually clean the factory. Of course, it’s usually more complicated than that. You need a holistic perspective when you’re thinking about packaging; there is often a reason why it’s there.”