Photo credit: The Sustainable Sequin Company
There’s no denying that sequins are synonymous with the holiday season. If like many of us, you’ve had a few years of subdued celebrations, you might find yourself tempted to add a statement sequined outfit to your shopping basket. While they’re undoubtedly a surefire way to add a festive sparkle to your wardrobe, what impact are sequins having on the planet?
The Environmental Impact of Sequins
Sequins have been around in one form or another throughout history. Made from polished metal coins, reflective metal discs, and even beetle wings that were handsewn into clothing, they were originally used to display wealth. These days, sequins are stamped out of sheets of plastic (usually PVC) that are finished in metallic or chemical coating for that signature shine.
According to Oxfam, 33 million sequined garments and accessories were bought and 1.7 million were binned during the 2019 UK holiday season. Considering it takes thousands of non-recyclable shiny discs to cover your average sequin dress, it’s no surprise that they create environmental havoc, both in production and landfills.
The plastics used to make sequins are derived from fossil fuels. Hazardous chemicals like phthalates are added and toxic waste is created in the production of PVC, which is considered one of the most dangerous plastics for both environment and human health. Phthalates give sequins durability and flexibility, but are hormone-disrupting chemicals, and have been linked to a wide variety of diseases, fertility issues and cancer.
When discarded, sequins will break down, release microplastics and leach toxic chemicals into the natural environment, which are then consumed by plankton, fish, and other marine life. They’re just one of the types of microplastics that we ingest and breathe in—some people could ingest up to one credit card’s worth of plastic a week. While researchers are concerned about the human impact of microplastic ingestion, this topic is currently understudied and speculative.
In December 2021, Boden became one of the first British high-street brands to remove sequins and glitter from its products, citing concerns over their contribution to microplastic pollution. But few brands have followed suit.
So if you’re not ready to give up sequins, what are your options?
More Sustainable Sequins
Partially recycled sequins: Available
Biodegradable sequins: In development
Started as a university project by founder Rachel Clowes, this company produces partially recycled sequins using 20% rPET and 80% virgin polyester. Clowes is also part of a project to develop biodegradable sequins funded by the UK’s Future Fashion Factory, working in partnership with the University of Leeds, the Royal College of Art and the London-based designer, Paula Knorr. They’re working to create a clear and shiny film that will have all the properties of a regular sequin but can be composted and/or recycled at the end of its life.
“The project aims to optimise UK-manufactured, commercially viable biodegradable sequins made from renewable materials including waste and by-products,” says Clowes. “The overall aim is maximum sparkle with minimum adverse environmental impacts.” Throughout the development process, Clowes is also tracking and comparing the impact of biobased, biodegradable sequins to conventional sequins. The team hope to have prototypes ready by mid-2023.
Plant-based-sequins: In development
Designer Elissa Brunato developed bio-iridescent sequins made entirely from plant cellulose while studying for her master’s at Central Saint Martins. Recently, she founded Radiant Matter, a company that aims to create “glittering and vibrantly coloured materials” that fit within a circular economy. Brunato is currently developing biodegradable materials with microscopic structures that can reflect light. “The colour is a result of the material nano-structure, so no dyes or colourants are added, and we don’t use metals or minerals to create the shimmering effect,” she says.
Called BioSequins, Brunato’s prototypes are made through a zero-waste process, preventing the estimated 30% of waste left over from typical sequin production. In February 2022, Brunato was awarded a material innovation fellowship by The Arts Foundation Futures Awards 2022, and the start-up recently received funding from the European Research and Development Fund to scale BioSequins for commercial application, though Brunato was unable to provide an estimate of when BioSequins might be available.
Bio-based sequins: Not available
Fashion designer Philim Lim and interdisciplinary designer Charlotte McCurdy teamed up as part of the Slow Factory’s One X One design incubator in 2020 to create bioplastic sequins made from algae. Algae can remove and sequester carbon from the atmosphere, so the resulting sequins are carbon negative and biodegradable. The duo discovered that when algae is heated, it binds together and can be poured into moulds to solidify. “We were inspired by shades of green and how photosynthesis happens, how light reflects and refracts,” said Lim. “You would never know it was made from algae if no one told you – that was the most amazing part of that project.” The sequins were created solely as a research project and were sewn into a bespoke a-line dress for Lim’s label. These sequins aren’t commercially available.
If you’re looking for a perfect eco-friendly swap for sequins, we have bad news. There aren’t any viable non-plastic options on the market yet. However, there is clearly a lot of interesting innovation happening in this space, so hopefully, in the next few years, it’ll start to appear on a shop floor near you.
=In the meantime, recycled sequins are your best bet for a slightly less environmentally damaging option. Keep in mind, recycled sequins aren’t recyclable. So if you do choose to buy sequins, consider whether the garment is something you will want to wear year after year to keep it out of the landfill for longer.
Sequins certainly aren’t going to make or break your festive get-up. Boden, the sequin-banning brand from the UK, has a partywear selection full of velvet, silk, lurex and dramatic jewellery. Embroidery, glass beading, and bold prints can also add an embellished flair, proving you can still nail the holiday dress code, sans-sequins.