More and more companies are adopting recycled materials as eco-conscious alternatives. From fast fashion giants like H&M to cult athleisure favorite Girlfriend Collective, clothes made from recycled plastic bottles are becoming more common.

When plastic bottles are recycled into fabric, it becomes polyester—the most used textile fabric in the world. According to a report from the Textile Exchange, polyester made up about 52% of fibers produced globally in 2019, and only 14% of that total was made from recycled materials. Unfortunately, to make synthetic fibers and polyester, you need oil.

In 2015, 330 million barrels of oil were used to make virgin polyester and other synthetic textiles.Imagine more than 21,000 Olympic-sized pools filled with oil. It’s no surprise that the fashion industry is responsible 10% of annual global carbon emissions, according to data published by the UNEP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Now, recycled plastic bottles are making brands do a double take. Recycled polyester (rPET) requires 59% less energy to create than virgin polyester and emits 79% less CO2 compared to new material.

California-based promo supplier Tribe Socks began moving away from virgin polyester three years ago. Owner Eric Kami says, “We were impressed with the quality found in Repreve and decided to use their recycled polyester made from plastic bottles in our socks. Since then, all of our customers love the quality, craftmanship and print vibrancy we are producing. We plan on continuing to use recycled synthetics and sustainable cellulose-based fibers in all future development.”

Kami says Tribe Socks’ entire line is sustainable. “Sustainability without compromising quality or experience has always been core to our beliefs at Tribe Socks,” Kami says.“Recycled polyester from brands like Repreve are fashion-forward and premium retail quality. In addition, more and more companies are looking to source responsible swag. Recycled polyester can help you achieve these goals while still delivering on your brand’s promise.” 

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But even when it’s recycled, polyester still creates environmental challenges. Emerging research about microplastics, which are tiny particles that shed from synthetic textiles like polyester every time they’re washed or worn, is one of the biggest concerns. These microplastics are contaminating human food, air and water sources.

Kami says, “Microplastics are certainly a concern. The reality is there is a lot of plastic out there, and the only way, in our opinion, to encourage recycling and slow down new production of virgin synthetic textiles is through supporting the circular economy to ultimately help create an industry around reusing plastics. This will help us reduce the amount of virgin polyester brought to market, which will in turn help us reduce the global microplastics consumption.”

Recycled polyester isn’t a silver bullet for sustainability, but it’s a step in the right direction. Kami says, “It allows our customers to support a circular economy while delivering a really high-quality product.” So, when you go to throw away that plastic Coke or water bottle, remember: You could be wearing it very soon.