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Prioritizing Responsible Fashion: The “Radical” Idea to Ban Polyester from CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Applications

–Katya Moorman

These models may or may not be wearing polyester–it doesn’t matter as they are AI generated.
In the real world it’s a different story.

In the ever-evolving world of fashion, one thing remains constant: the need for change. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) is a clear leader in the industry. Part of its mandate is to cultivate talent, and they do this in part through the Vogue Fashion Fund, which rewards emerging designers with money and mentorship.  

While this has undoubtedly propelled designers to success (past winners include Proenza Schouler, Alexander Wang, and Telfar, to name a few), the CFDA needs to acknowledge the damage of plastic based textiles, mainly polyester, to our planet and ban its inclusion from any collection presented for consideration to the CFDA /Vogue Fashion Fund. 

If you live under a rock, you might wonder why I’m so against polyester. Let me explain. 

Approximately two-thirds of our garments are made from this or other fossil fuel-derived synthetics. This leads to several serious issues, including the extractive production process, microplastic shedding, reliance on harmful dyeing chemicals, and the inability to be effectively recycled. According to nonprofit Changing Markets, Synthetic fiber production uses the equivalent amount of oil per year as the whole of Spain, and polyester production alone produces the equivalent emissions of 180 coal-fired power stations annually. And we’re on track to increase production in the coming years –not decrease it.

While some advocate for the use of polyester from plastic bottles, it’s utterly disingenuous to pretend this is a solution. It diverts plastic bottles from recycling loops and shifts the environmental damage from extraction to disposal. It’s essentially greenwashing and major brands know it. The fact is the majority of synthetics are unrecyclable and often used in complex textile blends that stand in the way of circularity.

A recent aerial view of clothes in the Atacama Desert

Furthermore, the argument that polyester’s durability allows for more wears overlooks the mountains of existing polyester that should be worn before new production is even considered. Have you seen the images from the Atacama Desert of mountains of discarded clothing? Spoken with Liz Ricketts of the OR Foundation about how our secondhand clothes are literally choking Ghana? You might want to. 

Is this an “impossible” ask?

They banned smoking from NYC nightclubs and restaurants and it didn’t stop people from going out.

I suspect the idea of a definitive “no polyester” rule will seem too radical and perhaps even “impossible”. But let’s remember the same sentiments when they announced the smoking ban in New York City restaurants and bars. There was panic and predictions of the death of nightlife. We (and our nightlife) survived, and our world is undeniably healthier for it. 

Copenhagen Fashion Week demonstrated that enforcing sustainability requirements for participation is possible. Similarly, the British Fashion Council recently incorporated sustainability criteria into its funding application process. 

Models at Copenhagen Fashion Week where they’ve incorporated a series of sustainability requirements.

Meanwhile, Thom Browne, the current President of the CFDA, has suggested that designers should be left to make their own choices regarding sustainability. However, this passive approach and refusal to use his position to drive positive change is negligent at best.  

If the CFDA were to ban polyester from funding applications, it would send a powerful message to designers that the future will be different – and better.

These aren’t fast fashion brands but designers who aspire to create “heritage” brands known for their quality. How does polyester possibly align with this vision?

I would go so far as to argue that luxury brands, precisely because they are luxury, have a moral obligation to find alternatives to polyester.

Encouraging emerging designers to make responsible fabric choices from the outset could lead to fewer but higher-quality productions. This shift might also stimulate innovation in textiles, supporting startups working on alternative solutions –companies that frequently share with me their struggle to scale due to lack of funding. 

Of course, banning the use of polyester in this specific instance doesn’t single-handedly solve the plastic crisis. But it would shift mindsets, further motivating designers to make thoughtful fabric choices from the beginning. And change the mindset of those studying fashion at school.

And these are the designers, the ones just establishing their businesses, who are best poised to start correctly. Require that they give up polyester to get funding and mentorship and watch what happens. The question is: Would the CFDA (which has partnerships with the shopping behemoth Amazon) choose to live up to its stated commitment to sustainability, and encourage creativity to flourish that doesn’t compromise our planet’s well-being? 

When Thom Browne assumed his role as the leader of the CFDA, he eloquently stated, “…As designers, it is our responsibility to provoke…to educate… to entertain…to make laugh and to make cry…and, most importantly, to make beautiful clothes and to succeed in nurturing the next generation of American design.” 

Yet, in the current climate crisis, we cannot ignore an increasingly pressing question: how can the next generation of designers craft beautiful clothes as our planet inexorably heats up? By mandating using alternatives to polyester, the CFDA can catalyze a wave of innovation and foster a climate of alternative fabrication. This, in itself, would nurture and empower emerging talents seeking to redefine the fashion landscape. It’s an essential departure from the business-as-usual approach, which has proven detrimental to our planet’s health and incompatible with the future we want to create.

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