I got an email from Madewell today advertising their new (Re)sourced tote bag collection, made of nylon from recycled materials. Naturally, I’m excited about the prospect of bags made of recycled material, for obvious sustainability reasons. (Yes, I did need to remind myself I do not need a new bag, recycled material or not.)
Of course, as with any corporate marketing around sustainability, I’m wary of greenwashing. Madewell’s product description on their website provides little detail, only indicating the tote bags are “Made of soft and sturdy (Re)sourced recycled material.” The bag is nylon, so my guess is it is some sort of recycled nylon. “(Re)sourced recycled material” doesn’t seem to have a defined content spelled out by Madewell – for example, the bags here are nylon but other Madewell (Re)sourced products like this sweater are listed as made of “100% post-consumer recycled polyester.” I also find it a bit suspect there’s no percentage listed indicating the amount of recycled materials used. Is it 100% or only partially made of recycled material? Since other Madewell products are advertised as 100% recycled material, it leads me to believe the bags are only partially made of recycled material, because that’s a big selling point so it doesn’t make sense to leave it out if that’s the case.
The big recycled nylon product available is Econyl, manufactured by an Italian firm called Aquafil that mainly comes from sources like industrial waste and recycled fishing nets. Using Econyl does have benefits, like reducing plastic waste in the ocean and cutting down on the resource intensive process of manufacturing virgin nylon fibers. Fishing nets, in particular, are a plastic pollution problem because fishermen have to pay to dispose of them properly, which means they often get tossed into the ocean instead. (I’m not slamming the fishermen here; capitalism understandably incentivizes paying them as little as possible for their labor and unfairly foists the cost of recycling on them.) Like all synthetic materials, recycled nylon still poses the problem of microfibers. This is less of an issue for something like a tote bag, since it’s unlikely you’re putting it through a washing machine as often as clothing items and nylon is relatively easy to wipe clean without needing a full wash. (There are also products like the Guppyfriend that can help catch microfibers of all synthetic fabric types, but of course this adds onto your time spent doing laundry.)
Other well-known brands like Patagonia use recycled nylon in their clothing as well. On their own website, Patagonia states 67% of the nylon fabric used in their fall 2020 season contained recycled nylon. (Emphasis on contained, not 67% of their nylon fabric total.) Patagonia also states they’ve found a nylon yarn of 50% pre-consumer, 50% post consumer nylon. It’s not clear if this is the main yarn they use or just a yarn they use; “found” is an incredibly ambiguous term. Regardless, this information leads me to believe Madewell’s (Re)sourced tote bags are not 100% recycled material, since it doesn’t seem like 100% post consumer nylon currently exists as a feasible textile option. (The use of pre-consumer waste isn’t necessarily bad; Econyl sources pre-consumer waste from industrial scraps that may have been thrown out otherwise, so it still diverts material from a landfill.)
So are (Re)sourced bags a legit sustainable product? I’m ambivalent. Compared to a brand new bag made of virgin materials, yes. Thrifting and using what you already have are the best options, as usual. It’s really difficult to compare them to other products made of recycled material since Madewell provides so little information on the amount of recycled content and the type of nylon yarn. I feel pretty confident that the recycled content is less than 100%, so it’s likely not more sustainable than products made of 100% post consumer plastics. If there’s a large percentage of pre-consumer nylon involved, I would also like to know if it’s coming from nylon scraps or if new, virgin nylon is being created for the purpose of making the bags. Obviously there are a lot of factors to consider beyond recycled content percentage. Nylon is pretty durable, so it may be more important to have a bag that will last years and years than just one made of more recycled material.
I have emailed Madewell asking for more information on their (Re)sourced bags and will provide an update if I hear back!