How will the pandemic change fashion? It’s the question we’ve been asking ourselves for nine months. Some of the answers out there are too general—that we’ll wear sweatpants forever or, conversely, dress up in sequins and heels every day. A more realistic prediction is that our clothes will become softer, more comfortable, and more versatile.

That will inevitably require some stretch. The retail analytics firm Edited has reported that brands are “easing customers back” into regular clothes by adding more stretch fabrics and elastic waists. Premium denim labels are swapping vintage-inspired rigid jeans for stretchy ones blended with polyester, spandex, and Lycra. We’re seeing the influence on the runways too: In the recent spring 2021 collections, designers shot elastic through the waists of dresses, styled tuxedo jackets with track pants, and cut suits in performance jersey.

It isn’t a bad thing that our clothes are getting comfier. As my colleague Laird Borrelli-Persson pointed out, “History suggests that women are often most liberated in periods when clothes work with the body rather than create armor for it.” Natalie Kingham, the buying director for, put it this way to Vogue’s Mark Holgate: “Fashion in 2020 is what makes us feel better, instead of dressing for approval from other people.”

Those are undeniably positive shifts. But the irony is that as fashion gets softer, stretchier, and more personal, it’s also getting further away from its sustainability goals. For years, the most basic thing a brand could do to reduce its environmental impact was phase out synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon, and elastane—all of which are derived from plastic, which is derived from oil. Yet most of our leggings, stretch jeans, and techy athleisure pieces are made of precisely those materials.

For the uninitiated, they start with fracking, followed by a series of chemical reactions to transform crude oil into a fiber. The fibers don’t biodegrade, which means a polyester legging may sit in a landfill for hundreds of years before eventually breaking into smaller and smaller microplastics. Those later contaminate the soil, harm wildlife, and enter our food and water. Washing polyester and other plastic-based synthetics in the laundry releases microplastics too (including recycled polyester). You’ve heard the statistics, no doubt: That by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. But yesterday’s news is a real wake-up call: Researchers announced that microplastics have been found in the fetuses of unborn babies.


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