For decades, fashion brands have been shipping every garment they make in individual plastic bags. The hundreds of millions of plastic poly bags have been credited with keeping garments neatly packaged when they are shipped, but retailers, fashion brands and even governmental groups have been calling these bags dirty.
Last week, 32 fashion companies joined a G7 Fashion Pact that calls for phasing out single-use plastics by 2030. The companies that signed the pact also vowed to achieve zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 and restore biodiversity by helping to rejuvenate ecosystems. Brands signing on to the pact include Chanel, Prada, Ralph Lauren, Nike, H&M Group, Gap Inc. and Nordstrom Inc.
Recently, to create a more-sustainable supply chain, major corporations in different product categories have joined the campaign to reduce plastics. On Aug. 20, toy manufacturer Hasbro also announced that it was going to cut shrinkwrapping from its products.
Sustainable packaging lands surfside
California’s surf industry has been part of this global wave to reduce plastics. On Aug. 19, the trade group Surf Industry Manufacturers Association announced guidelines to reduce plastics used in apparel poly bags, said Sean Smith, the Aliso Viejo, Calif.–based group’s executive director.
“The amount of plastic is mind-boggling. It is estimated that hundreds of millions of poly bags are used by our industry and thrown away each year,” Smith said. “The ultimate solution is to get rid of poly bags, but it is not that simple. We need a bagging system. Garments must be kept clean. As an industry, we’d like to solve that issue. How do we reduce that plastic? How do we make it more sustainable?”
With the announcement, SIMA distributed the guidelines on poly bags to its 75 members, approximately 30 of whom are focused on apparel. It’s part of a wider campaign by the trade group to develop a cleaner supply chain. The statement on poly bags came a few days after SIMA recommended that its members stop publishing and distributing print catalogs in favor of digital versions.
The announcements were followed by a sustainability seminar Aug. 22 at the black-and-white-checkered headquarters of the Vans brand in Costa Mesa, Calif. More than 160 attendees learned about plastic reduction methods, fair-labor practices and ways to build a sustainable company. In attendance were SIMA President and Billabong President Shannan North; Vicki Redding, Vans’vice president of apparel; Kevin Meehan, RVCA’sgeneral manager; Rob McCarty, a Vissla vice president; and Kari Johnson, O’Neill’s chief creative officer.
With guidance from the Surfrider Foundation, SIMA recommended two sustainable poly-bag brands, L&E and Mainetti. The companies make bags from recycled materials and use no virgin plastics. Smith estimated that eliminating use of virgin-plastic poly bags and using recycled poly bags would not boost costs and would perhaps even reduce supply-chain spending.
The campaign started with SIMA’s Business Sustainability Alliance, which began this year to develop trade-group responses to environmental issues. This campaign is the first activist initiative that SIMA has taken on in its 30-year history. Smith said that one reason this trade group endorsed a campaign against poly bags made from virgin plastic is that most of its members are surfers who frequently see this type of waste in waterways. “This is easier to do with an enthusiast group,” he said.
While manufacturers across industries are making commitments to reduce the environmental impact through initiatives that include abandoning plastics, some voices from the plastic-production side are offering caveats regarding the shift.
In 2018, the Retail Industry Leaders Association worked with the Plastics Industry Association on a series of webinars aimed at recycling plastics and reducing use of virgin plastics, said Kim Holmes, vice president of sustainability for the Plastics Industry Association.
She urged brands to make rational strategies to cut waste. “Where it makes sense to reduce, we’re in favor of it,” she said. “Plastics do an important job very efficiently. You have to ask, ‘Are you advancing environmental goals or are you replacing plastics with materials that have a higher environmental cost?’”
Holmes said that there have been cases of companies abandoning plastics in favor of alternatives, such as aluminum, which use more resources to create.
A response to plastics pollution
Dealing with plastic waste and pollution has weighed heavily on retailers such as Randy Brewer. He runs Aiken, a group of four stores in the San Francisco Bay Area that focuses on sustainable fashions.
“Our customers don’t see how much we throw away at the back of the store,” he said. “For more than 10 years, I’ve been going to companies and asking them to change things. It always fell on deaf ears. But it seems to be getting easier. There are more voices coming up.”
Aiken stocks the Outerknown brand, headquartered in Culver City, Calif. When shipping garments purchased through its e-commerce channel, Outerknown has eliminated use of poly mailers, said Megan Stoneburner Azim, the company’s director of sustainability and sourcing. In its place, it uses a 100 percent recycled-paper mailer.
To ship to retailers, Outerknown uses Avery Dennison poly bags that are made from a non-GMO sugarcane instead of traditional oil-based products.
“It’s not a perfect option—that’s where we have to be frank and honest,” she said. “We have to determine that it is breaking down and decomposing and not breaking down into microplastics.”
In 2018, former California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law two bills that seek to develop strategies to eliminate microplastics from drinking water and the marine environment.
“The biggest issue is to find the right materials that help us to solve problems without building another problem that we’re not aware of,” Stoneburner Azim said.
Derek Sabori, a sustainability expert who spoke at the Aug. 22 sustainability seminar, said that poly bags are only one step in a campaign against plastics pollution.
“The bigger elephant in the room is that almost every fiber that we are wearing is plastic. The plastic bag is what you see the most. What is harder to see are brands relying on the same plastic polymers in our fabrics,” he said of synthetic fibers and fabrics such as polyester, nylon and elastane.
Sabori is co-founder of a brand called Kozm, which makes clothes from a natural-fiber alternative. While he encourages apparel brands to explore natural-fabric options, he was optimistic regarding responses—such as SIMA’s—to the plastics pollution crisis.
“The community is rallying, saying that we have to take this on,” he said. “We’re seeing progress and some good commitments.”