Several weeks ago, Billy McCall watched the Brooklyn Navy Yard flood. The borough’s sewer system can withstand 1.75 inches of rain per hour before water pools above ground. Roughly 2.5 inches of rain fell in a single hour. Brine threatened the shoreline and rain rushed past McCall’s laboratory, which is worthy of a supervillain even though McCall is exactly the opposite.
McCall, just shy of 35 and a lifelong surfer, watched small waves break against cobblestones.
The founder and CEO of Kintra Fibers, McCall is a major player in the sustainable fabrics game, which he’s about to shake up (again). He and his team are on the verge of rolling out “bio-based, biodegradable” polyesters that can be used as an alternative to the most widely-used clothing fiber on the planet, which also happens to be a major pollutant. (Synthetic fibers are responsible for 35% of the microplastics contaminating the oceans and more than half of all synthetic fibers are polyester.) Kintra is already making yarn made of polybutylene succinate (PBS), an eco-friendly polyester substitute, for the hoodie-heavy brand – and early Kintra investor – Pangaia, as well as the dress brand Reformation. But this next play is bold. They’re betting that people will eventually want to pay more for sustainable clothes and change their expectations about the longevity of the clothes they pay for. And H&M, polluter extraordinaire, recently invested $8 million in McCall and his two big ideas.
The first big idea is this: Clothing companies will stop just talking about sustainability (a study last year found that nearly 60% of sustainability claims by major clothing brands were unproven) and do it for real when sustainable fabrics hit price parity.
The polyester found in everything from jackets to boxer briefs costs roughly $1 per kilo; PBS is about $3 per kilo right now. But the holdup isn’t the tech. It’s the chicken and egg problem of scale. McCall needs to produce 60,000 tons of yarn a year to hit parity. For context, 50 million metric tons of yarn are produced per year worldwide and the vast majority is polyester.
Polyester is bad for the environment for a number of reasons: it requires petroleum (a fossil fuel) to produce, roughly 70 million barrels a year, it takes at least a few decades (and potentially hundreds of years) to decompose, and microfibers come off of polyester as a form of plastic, essentially. One 2017 report estimates that about half a million tons of plastic microfibers are shed into the oceans every year from routine washing.
“As we’re sitting here, fabrics are coming off of our clothes and dispersing and going into the waterways,” McCall says in his lab.
But polyester is cheap. Because it stretches to expand manufacturers’ margins, companies are reluctant to ditch it despite its problems. It also doesn’t crease or shrink easily, and is lightweight enough for heat-trapping in cold weather – that’s why it’s in everything from track pants to Canada Goose parkas.
More than 70% of companies are increasing sustainability spending this year, according to a report from Honeywell. Companies that advertise themselves as sustainable are certainly selling better, but it’s more expensive to actually be green than to greenwash, the latter of which brands are inclined to do. Doing the former means giving up on the sweet package that polyester offers a bottom line.
In order for McCall to scale, consumers and the companies he supplies need to get comfortable with his second big idea: Well-designed clothes should last for roughly as long as they are worn and no longer. Not everything gets passed down for posterity. Not everything should.
Kintra is advertising a product that decomposes much faster – a sort of planned obsolescence. Part of the calculus involves figuring out how long they can assume consumers want their clothes before they’re okay with them decomposing. That’s an unusual value proposition and McCall knows it.
“We want people to get comfortable with this being degradable,” McCall says. “Garments have a finite lifespan anyway,” McCall says. “Why not design stuff to match that?”
It seems like an oxymoron: the upside to paying more to avoid fast fashion is that the stuff is better quality, which goes back to the labor behind it being better paid and generally more ethical. Ask anyone on StyleTok boasting about a hidden gem; holding up a Gap jacket from the ‘80s or a pair of Levi’s from the ‘90s, they’ll proudly tell you their cheaper, vintage grail seems to last forever.
Greenwashed “sustainable” clothing has also maybe warped people’s vision of what a sustainable garment can be. McCall says that a lot of the time, a base garment can be pretty environmentally friendly before a brand decides to waterproof it, for instance, a process that makes it hard to decompose later. A 100% cotton sweater can get as bad as polyester with that kind of coating.
McCall clarifies, though, that Kintra’s garments won’t literally dissolve off your body: just that they might start to degrade in 20 years or 50 years – and under certain temperatures – depending on what they decide. He compares their fibers to cotton, which breaks down quicker than polyester as a naturally-occurring material.
“Garments have a finite lifespan anyway,” McCall says. “Why not design stuff to match that?”
The goal, McCall explains, is to make polyester into a better version of cotton, a natural material that doesn’t release weather-resistant microplastics. In the future, even form-fitting athleisure outfits will die the same happy death as T-shirts. This appeals immensely to the young, noticeably good-looking fashion and chemistry nerds that work for McCall, but it’s unclear if Gen Pop is ready to ride that wave.
For now, the polyester fibers from the water that flooded the Navy Yard will linger in the cracks of the asphalt and slosh in the waves crashing between the docks. It will be everywhere McCall looks even if he can’t see it.