At the start of this year, I read Alden Wicker’s piece for Vox about polybags. If you don’t know what a polybag is, it’s the bag made of thin plastic that many of our online orders arrive in, including most clothes. Chances are something you’ve ordered, even when it’s a sustainable option, has unexpectedly turned up in a polybag. It’s super annoying.

Polybags also don’t score well on the sustainability scale. They’re made from polyethylene, the most common plastic that is said to make up around 34% of the global plastics market, which is the same material used for traditional plastic bags in stores. Theoretically, polyethylene is recyclable (although not kerbside recyclable). The problem is that this type of plastic is so low-value that there really isn’t the market for it (this is the same in recycling systems across the world), so it doesn’t end up getting recycled. Instead, it sits in landfill or litters the streets, eventually ending up in waterways and natural environments where it doesn’t break down.

The source of the problem

Wicker’s deep dive on this issue was interesting. The problem, it seems, begins in the supply chain. When production ends garment factories, no matter their size, ship their finished products to brands in polybags in order to protect them from moisture and damage. If you do receive an item that hasn’t come in a polybag, it’s often likely that this bag was simply removed before it was shipped to you.

Even Patagonia, a company that is famously vocal about environmental issues and has been selling clothing made from recycled plastic bottles since 1993, currently ships its garments individually wrapped in polybags. Elissa Foster, Patagonia’s senior manager of product responsibility, has been diligently working on this problem since before 2014, when she published the results of …

Patagonia’s own stores and wholesale partners take the product out of the polybags, stuff the polybags into shipping cartons, and ship them back to their Nevada distribution center, where they are pressed into four-feet cubed bales and shipped to the Nevada location of Trex, which turns them into recycled decking and outdoor furniture. (It seems that Trex is the only US business that actually wants these things.)

Patagonia has done its best with a bad situation, but it’s still not ideal. I find it particularly interesting that just in order to recycle polybags Patagonia has to ship them two more times. It does bring into question the argument that producing plastic bags creates fewer greenhouse gases than paper, which can be composted/easily recycled closer to home.

Regardless, it seems that polybags are the only option to protect clothes coming in from garment factories. Asides from Patagonia’s effort, Wicker details the work of other brands to use polybags made from recycled plastic or home compostable materials, but large issues also arise when the bags reach customers. Customers should take these bags to collections points but they often end up putting them in their kerbside recycling bin, blocking up the machines at recycling centres. And honestly, who can be surprised? Not many people are hugely incentivised to seek out a collection point if it’s not accessible or easy for them, and many probably incorrectly assume that it will end up in the same place if they stick it in their recycling bin. I think it’s likely, therefore, that issues may also arise with placing the responsibility on customers to compost their bags, if it becomes too complex. Ultimately, the change needs to happen at a systemic level rather than placing onus onto the individual.

The Natural Edition’s solution

Polybags are definitely an industry-wide problem, but this only really came to my attention recently, when I started working with The Natural Edition. When they sent me some of their pieces to try there was one thing I immediately noticed: there wasn’t a polybag in sight. Of course, it could be the case that their pieces had once been in polybags and had since been removed, but it wasn’t.

As their own website states:

We have reimagined garment packaging to remove all plastic from our supply chain. Nearly all clothing is packed in a plastic bags before leaving factories, which end up in landfills, or worse, in the oceans! We couldn’t find an off-the-shelf alternative to plastic so we created our own recyclable kraft pouch packaging that looks great too!

Instead of using polybags, The Natural Edition were determined to be plastic-free from the beginning. Originally the factory they worked with only offered the option of transportation to their warehouse in polybags, so The Natural Edition created their own packaging instead. After trialling many options they settled with the kraft card pouch, which could be recycled but would also quickly disintegrate if it did somehow end up in a waterway. The pouch is designed in a triangle shape with a sealable flap (it seals in the same way as an envelope); the triangle both allows for more to fit into shipping cartons at once and packs in a way that means items don’t get squashed inside. Designing the packaging ended up requiring as much effort as designing the actual clothes, but for The Natural Edition is has been worth the effort.

When it comes to the main points that lead brands to polybags, The Natural Edition have, so far, been completely fine. They haven’t had any issues with moisture, which they mainly attribute to the fact that their products are stored with a UK-based fulfilment company that manages moisture, removing issues that might arise in more tropical climates.

Beyond this, their products are a streamlined collection of seasonless basics, which means they don’t remain in storage for long. If a brand creates more seasonal pieces they are often left with stock after the selling period of that season, which can take more than a year to clear through other means (for example sales or outlet stores). With longer storage periods comes larger risk of water damage, hence the need for polybags. Essentially, if more businesses opted to be smaller and seasonless, it would make plastic waste less of an issue, while also being more sustainable for the brand and helping the buyer build a more sustainable and long-lasting wardrobe. The Natural Edition both offers the plastic-free option while also showing the benefits of supporting smaller businesses instead.

That being said, I did ask The Natural Edition if they felt they’d been able to implement this solution because they are smaller. They pointed out that scaling paper packaging shouldn’t be affected by size when it comes to production, because recycled paper/card is readily available. The issue lies in the supply chain: distribution needs to re-engineered, which requires commitment from larger companies for the transition. Nicole (TNE founder), has been meeting suppliers who are looking for plastic-free options and, having received such positive feedback from her own customers for removing plastic, she’s hopeful for future developments in the industry.

I guess the final point with ditching the polybag boils down to fashion basics: the aesthetics. With paper packaging, the package can get slightly squashed by a courier en route, and items usually aren’t as neatly folded.

We do a roll to get into our packaging so product would look marginally better in plastic… it’s a small scarifice to avoid single use plastics

This Breton was rolled in its packaging instead of folded… can you notice a difference?

As someone who has opened more than one of The Natural Edition’s packaging options I’ll be honest, I didn’t even notice that my item wasn’t folded. I know that may not be the norm for everyone, but go back a century and the norm was buying fabric and making your clothes at home. We’ve moved on, but we’ve been told what we should value in how our pieces arrive with us. That means this also isn’t set in stone, and we can change our perspectives on this too. If receiving a piece rolled instead of folded is a sacrifice to remove countless amounts of plastic from our fashion supply chains, then it’s a sacrifice I’ll willingly accept. Here’s hoping more brands share my sentiments and follow The Natural Edition’s lead.

To learn more about The Natural Edition, you can check them out here

(Disclaimer: I am a brand ambassador for The Natural Edition, however this blog post isn’t specifically sponsored. I decide when/where/how I would like to feature TNE, when I feel like it already fits what I’m writing about)