Sustainable tights? Easier said than done.

Sustainable tights? Easier said than done.

Posted by Sarah, Product Development Assistant at Lab12 on 15th Nov 2019


When we launched our Planet Heist initiative earlier this year, we laid out our promise to develop sustainability innovation across our full tights range.

Let’s clarify what we mean by “sustainable.” For us, it means making a completely circular product – in other words, one that’s made from sustainable materials, and that can also be recycled at the end of its lifetime.

Considering we’ve just launched The Fishnet, which is made from over 86% pre-consumer recycled waste, extending this innovation to the rest of our tights collection should be easy, right?

Wrong. In fact, tights are notoriously difficult to make sustainable, because the way they’re made and their average lifetime makes them inherently unsustainable. Tights are essentially the plastic straw of your underwear drawer, and the challenges in making them sustainable are just as complex.

The biggest issue: how tights are made in the first place.

This the most problematic element, because the materials required to make tights as we know them are intrinsically bad for the environment. Nylon and elastane are synthetic fibres derived from petroleum, and the polymerisation processes involved in making these materials not only require a lot of water and energy, but also produce some of the most potent greenhouse gases.

There is a solution to this in the form of recycled yarns. Unfortunately, quantities of this kind of yarn are scarce to begin with, and demand within the industry isn’t currently high enough to warrant making more at the present time. The Fishnet marks the first step as we begin building demand for sustainable yarns within our own supply chain.

Why we’re going for something circular, not biodegradable.

Biodegradable yarns do exist. So, why aren’t we going down this route instead?

The problem with biodegradable yarns is that, much like biodegradable plastics, they will only break down to a certain degree, and don’t blend entirely back into the earth.

Plus, as they break down, biodegradable materials release toxic substances into the atmosphere. The more biodegradable yarns end up in landfill, the worse the problem gets, which makes aiming to make our core range of tights with biodegradable yarns counterproductive to our goal of circularity.

Innovation and sustainability don’t always get along.

We’re trying to work sustainability into our innovation strategy, but the status quo within the industry makes this challenging for us.

Take our tights’ waistband, one of the primary features of our revolutionary design. It’s made separately to the legs of the tights on a dedicated, circular knitting machine. 25% of the waistband is made of elastane, which we would like to replace with sustainable elastane (one of the recycled yarns we mentioned earlier). But we can’t, because the machine isn’t designed to handle knitting sustainable elastane.

This is why The Fishnet is only made from 86% pre-consumer recycled waste; the elastane in the waistband is, at present, not sustainable. Our next step is to work on finding a solution to this waistband issue.

Since we can’t recycle tights, how are we closing the loop?

You might already know that recycling tights is basically impossible – at the moment anyway – as once the fibres have been twisted together, it’s extremely hard to extract the nylon from the elastane.

In the absence of an immediate solution to this problem, we’re working hard on improving the durability of our existing range. From technical solutions such as implementing ladder-resist technology in our finer deniers, to simply sharing our insider tips on the best way to care for your tights so that they stand the test of time, we’re working to extend the lifecycle of our products as an interim solution until we close the sustainability loop.

Luckily, we’ve found a partner who is willing to work on the extraction process with us, and we’re developing a recycling programme which we’re looking to roll out as soon as possible.

To close the loop, we also need your help.

If closing the loop is easier said than done, it's also because it's not just up to us. Our customers – you! – are part of this circularity, and so we need your help in achieving our #PlanetHeist commitments.

Until we launch our recycling programme next year, we encourage you to recycle textiles as much as possible. You can recycle old clothes at local textile banks, donate them to charity, or drop them off at an increasing number of shops on the high street who have textile recycling programmes (H&M, & Other Stories, etc).

You can also practise our tights care tips to make sure they last as long as possible before you’re done with them.

Whilst you do your bit, we continue to be committed to rolling out sustainability innovation as soon as possible, as well as focussing on our social as well as environmental impact.

Shop The Fishnet, our first sustainable product made from more than 86% pre-consumer recycled waste.