Steve On… Polyester

Hi, I’m Steve. I’m a director at Commen Athletics. This is going to be the first in a series of opinion pieces I write and post here. How often will I do it? Probably not too often, because seriously, who wants more opinions thrown at them?

But hopefully they’ll give you an insight into our business, running myths, dieting nonsense, and maybe some other bits. I haven’t really thought too much about what I’m going to write in the future, but if you do like this article, hate it, or have anything you want us to talk about, let us know!

Today I want to talk to you about the elephant in the room. Polyester.

Polyester is the common term for fabrics made from polyethylene terephthalate yarns. Essentially boiled down to two words, it’s plastic.

I’m sure you’ve seen, there’s a lot of info out there showing the damage that plastic (and therefore polyester) does to the environment.

We currently use polyester in all our running clothing. Why do we do it? Is it because it’s cheap? Or is it simply because we don’t give a shit about the world? Well we kind of like the world, and trust me, the polyester we use ain’t that cheap. The actual answer isn’t that straight forward.

Every now at then we do get messages or FB comments about it, so I thought it was high time I cleared things up a bit.

Polyester vs. Single Use Plastic

We don’t use single use plastic in our packaging. I’m proud of this, it’s a small change we can make that has a good impact. The more companies that refuse to use single use plastic the better. This will lead to demand for these plastics dropping, in turn meaning less needs to be made. Manufacturers will then begin to focus on other alternatives which are more in demand.

Although on a chemical level, the polyester in our clothes is similar to the plastic in single use plastics, it doesn’t mean they’re equal. Ideally, you’d wear our shirt more than once (hopefully a lot more), and then once it’s good and worn out down the line you’ll either recycle it, re-purpose it, or donate it. A large percentage of single-use straws, on the other hand, just go straight into a bin after being used for 5 minutes, then to a landfill where they stay for hundreds of years, striving for a bio-degradation of which we don’t know the outcome.

Removing single-use plastic from your life is a good goal to have (check out the Plastic Free Challenge), but currently removing plastic entirely would be impossible. Things are changing but these things take time and fully suitable alternatives need to be created by people with much bigger budgets and brains than us.

Is polyester perfect? No, but equating it to single-use plastic is incorrect, and by lambasting its use could push people and companies to move to alternatives which are currently no better on the wider scheme of things. Which brings us to our next point…

It’s not as simple as “Polyester bad. Natural good”

Let’s take cotton as an example. It’s a natural fabric, and theoretically a better alternative to polyester right? Well, just as one point, it has been reported that although cotton production only takes up 2.5% of agricultural land, it consumes 16% of all the insecticides and 6.8% of all herbicides used worldwide. These pesticides are washed out of soils, and pollute rivers and groundwater, having a detrimental impact on the water we use.

In terms of running clothing, cotton is also arguably less suitable due to its performance as a fabric. Sweat causes it to lose shape, wears out quickly & needs replacing more often. This is bad for us as consumers because we must spend more, and it’s bad for the environment because production increases, damaging the water further.

Recycled polyester is looking like a good option for the future, but it’s still not perfect. Often chlorine is used to make the fabric white again prior to dyeing, this chlorine can leach back into water systems.

They also still release micro-plastics when washed. This is a relatively new discovery and fully conclusive evidence onto their effects isn’t really available, but the currently available evidence suggests micro-plastics aren’t great, to put it lightly. (If this is a concern for you – check out the Guppy Friend wash bag).

As well as this, I feel like there’s still some way to go until these fabrics match the quality & performance of other polyester fabrics, bringing us back to the point about needing replacements more often. I run a lot myself (as is, perhaps, to be expected) and have personally tested recycled polyester samples we’ve received, and sadly a lot of them simply aren’t up to scratch.

Any recycled polyester manufacturers that think they’ve hit the nail on the head – hit me up, yeah? Just slide on into those DM’s.

We’re not going to fake the funk

If we wanted to, we could source some polyester from an unreliable source telling us it was recycled, not looking into the manufacturing process fully, and just marketing to the beat of that drum.

A few years ago, I saw a Human’s of New York post from a guy who said “Too many people are faking the funk”. He was talking about people posting stuff on Instagram but that sentence has always stuck with me.

I never want to fake the funk in anything I do, and I don’t want Commen Athletics to either. In this context, I mean I don’t want the company to pretend to be a bastion of environmental good, “greenwashing” if you will. On a personal level it means I don’t want to be at the helm of a company that essentially lies.

There are massive companies out there (naming no names) that have lines of “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” clothing. As these words don’t really have a set definition in the industry, they’re an absolute dream for these companies but when you dig a bit deeper, they’re actually doing sod all except capitalising on our want as consumers to do better for the planet.

Seriously, next time you’re out shopping check the label of that dress or shirt made partly from sustainable wool and you might be in for a shock when you see how low the percentage is. (Also check out this episode of The Patriot Act – it covers this pretty well).

This of course does not apply to all companies, and there are some fantastic ones (especially indy ones) making awesome clothes out of great fabrics.

Polyester is Pretty Good For Running Gear

The characteristics of polyester make it perfect for running gear. Because it wicks away moisture, it means chafing is minimised. Because it’s durable, it means it can stand up to being put through the ringer, race after race. Because it’s breathable, it means your performance isn’t negatively impacted.

In a characteristics-only comparison, there’s a lot that suggests polyester would win hands down against a lot of other fabrics. And this goes back to the point that if something is not fit for purpose it will need replacing much earlier. I guess in the same way our electrical wiring is still coated in plastic rather than glass.

The environment is an issue I care about – but I also care about making the best running clothes possible. It’s something I can do to get people out there running more often – and find the joy I found all those years ago.

When we can source a fabric that I am 100% confident will result in an improvement on all fronts, we will make the switch. Which leads me on to this lovely metaphor…

This is Just One Crust of a Kinda Depressing Sandwich

Okay, so let’s say that whilst I was typing this sentence, we found a manufacturer that makes an eco-friendly fabric that is perfect for running gear, is durable, doesn’t fade quickly, can be made in the amounts we need, and is available.

This isn’t where the eco-discussion ends for us. We then need to consider the factory itself, are their machines operating efficiently, and do they print responsibly with minimal waste.

We then need to consider their location, and how they will ship the fabrics to us. Not just this but where do they get their raw materials from, and how are they shipped to them.

These things, among others, will change the carbon footprint of our clothing massively and can turn something that is, on the outside, greener into something that arguably isn’t any better in the grand scheme of things.

When we changed our packaging, moving away from standard plastic, it took us a while because I had to make sure it was an improvement across the board, and before we can move forwards with changing our fabrics to a natural/eco alternative, we need to do the same.

I actually want you to buy less clothes

It might sound counter intuitive, but it’s the truth.

Part of the big problem with the clothing industry is that so much clothing gets churned out. Constantly. Whereas us small companies are working on one or two drops a year, there are giant behemoths pumping out 10 or more new items every week – sometimes low quality and often with ridiculous turnover times in order to latch onto celebrity trends. This could create some serious waste, even if only 10% of new items don’t sell well. And even if they do, if they don’t stand up to more than a few wears we’re still in a bad position.

In Britain, on average we each buy a large suitcase worth of clothing per year – much of it is what is often referred to as “fast fashion”. One of the things we can all do to better the environment is to buy less, but quality clothing that’s fit for its purpose so you can wear it more.

And if you want to get something quick and a bit cheaper, check out the local charity shops.  If we buy just one item a year second hand, over 200 MILLION kilos of waste can be saved worldwide.

I took the decision to write this, not to explain that polyester is the fabric of the future, but because I feel it’s important for us to say that our fabric choices weren’t a thoughtless decision. It is a complex issue that doesn’t have an instant answer for us as a running clothing company.

It’s something I think about all the time and am constantly on the lookout for new fabrics and technologies that can make our business greener, but I want it to be proper greener, not just on the face of it. I am confident that in the future we will move onto new fabrics, and we will do this by looking at the whole picture and ensuring we are making a meaningful change, rather than capitalising on a hot topic in a devious way.

Until then we will continue to work responsibly by minimising waste, ensuring all of our manufacturers comply to our health and safety & employee welfare standards, and making clothing that is fit for purpose and built to last.

Thanks for reading, happy running!!!

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