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What does the SA Plastics Pact mean for fashion retail?

by | Feb 17, 2020

When the South African Plastics Pact launched last month most of the buzz was about reducing, recycling and reusing plastic packaging.  Conversation was thin regarding the synthetic fibre content of our clothes, the largest source of micro-plastics in the ocean. 

On 30 January South Africa became the first country on the continent to join the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Plastic Pact. Twenty one South African organisations join those in France, the UK, the Netherlands and Chile working towards a list of goals by 2025. Putting pen to paper might seem airy-fairy but WWF-SA’s Pavitray Pillay says that making a public commitment holds signatories accountable. 

These goals include:

In her opening remarks at the launch event, Lorren de Kock from the WWF-SA Circular Plastics Economy Unit, said that eight million tonnes of plastic leak into the ocean every year. Research conducted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that if we continue with business-as-usual, “by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by weight.”

How responsible is the clothing and textile industry for our plastic mess? And what does the pact mean for signatories such as clothing business The Foschini Group? Lorren explained that packaging cuts across all consumer goods sold and this includes clothing. TFG is the first only-clothing retailer to sign the pact. Lorren says, “They have a significant plastic packaging portfolio that needs to be addressed in order to endorse the vision of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastics Economy and achieve the set targets by 2025.”

Head of Sustainability at TFG, Nyarai Pfend says that they will take action against the linear use of plastic across the supply chain from source to consumer.  This means that as an industry, “we have to consider every part of our supply chain and create new products and processes that serve our commitments”.

TFG has set clear targets that will be monitored and reported on to ensure the company reaches its re-usability goals. 

The Plastic Pact is only one way TFG is rethinking plastic use. The pact’s targets align with TFG’s ZERO waste vision which includes reusable or recyclable packaging by 2022. Last year TFG set its head office employees a challenge to find alternative solutions to plastic. Nyarai says, “The campaign was a huge success and many initiatives will be implemented this year. 

Another retail signatory, Woolworths has already implemented reusable packaging in a bid to eliminate plastic packaging. According to its sustainability communications consultant, Diane Peterson, the retailer introduced the use  of multi-purpose fabric bags for duvet covers. These were covered in plastic previously. You might ask how  Woolworths is addressing synthetic fibres in its clothing. The natural fibre, cotton, is Woolworths’ largest fibre by contribution. By the end of this year, all Woolworths’ cotton will come from sustainable sources.  “We are actively driving the use of recycled polyester and Forest Stewardship Council certified viscose in our products,” says Diane.

According to an article in The Guardian published in 2014, British ecologist Mark Browne released a peer-reviewed study in 2011 which found that the largest source of micro-plastics in the ocean could be coming from our clothing. By sampling wastewater from washing machines, Browne found that 1900 singular microfibres (pieces of plastic or synthetic material 5mm or smaller) can shed from a single synthetic garment which are then spat out into our oceans.

Synthetic materials like nylon (found in garments like swimwear, stockings and clothing labels) and acrylic (found in garments like hoodies and boot lining) accounted for 85% of man-made material along the shorelines studied by Browne.

Woolworth’s Diane says, “while we do use synthetics in our products, we will continue to explore new technologies that help minimise fibre shedding during the domestic washing process as well as ensure package reusability.” But, Diane says, “It is ultimately up to our customers to choose to reuse the packaging.”

While plastic packaging used in clothing serves to protect the garments from damage during transit, distribution and in stores, innovation in the form of textile and packaging redesign is paramount to paving the way to the creation of a circular economy.  “We use FSC certified board or paper, we have removed the plastic packaging from our menswear shirts, replaced certain lingerie header cards with much smaller swing tags, have a hanger return process that allows hangers to be recycled and reused and are rolling our ‘on-pack’ recycling labelling,” says Diane.

Browne writes that without industry and corporate support to “develop synthetic materials that do not shed synthetic fibers – or do so minimally but are still cost-effective, high-performing and, if possible, rely on recycled materials,” fashion innovation is impossible. With the SA Plastic Pact there is potential for collaboration and for innovation. It creates opportunities for industry partners to work together and build solutions with a common goal in mind: the circular economy.

Images: Photos from Unsplash and infographic by Catherine Del Monte / Twyg 

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