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The world's biggest fashion brands remain reliant on plastics

By Don-Alvin Adegeest


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Image: Plastic and waste, courtesy Pexels

Despite bold pledges to create a more sustainable future, global fashion brands continue to rely on plastics by using synthetic fibres in their collections. According to a report by Changing Markets these fibres are fueling plastic waste and the climate crises due to the fossil fuels needed to make them.

Rampant greenwashing

59 percent of claims by European and UK companies including H&M, ASOS and M&S are unsubstantiated or misleading to consumers finds new report. Entitled Synthetics Anonymous: Fashion brands’ addiction to fossil fuels, analysed almost 50 major fashion brands; the report assessed 46 of the world’s supposedly most transparent brands, from high street to luxury, including Zara, Primark, H&M and Burberry on the amount of fossil fuel-based materials in their collections and commitments to move away from them. In summary there appears to be no clear commitment to ending their addiction to fossil-fuel based fibres.

A further part of the investigation - scrutinising 12 brands and over 4,000 products - reveals that brands are routinely deceiving consumers with false green claims. The majority of brands made sustainability claims, with 39 percent of the products studied having some kind of green claim attached to them. 59 percent of green claims flouted the UK Competition and Markets Authority guidelines in some way.

The worst offenders were H&M with 96 percent false claims, ASOS with 89 percent and M&S with 88 percent false claims. H&M’s Conscious Collection was also found to contain an even higher share of synthetics than the main one (72 percent compared to 61 percent). 85 percent of Boohoo products contained some type of synthetics, with 60 percent being 100 percent virgin synthetics.

Livia Firth, Eco-Age co-founder and creative director, said: “For us at Eco-Age this report comes out precisely at the moment we need it most. There is so much greenwashing regarding circularity – a much needed business model we all need to adopt, but made nearly impossible in the fashion industry by the vast amount of synthetic fibres used. In this regards, we have also been working at EU level to make sure that the proposed PEF label uses the correct methodology, and we hope the EU Commission will take this groundbreaking report into consideration to ensure the correct legislative way forward.

The report also exposed the extent of the fashion industry’s addiction to fossil fuel-based fibres. While some brands are making commitments to move away from using virgin polyester, they make no such commitment regarding synthetics in general. Most brands aim to address the fossil fashion problem by replacing virgin polyester with downcycled single-use plastic bottles, a false solution because it is a one-way street to landfill or incineration.

Urska Trunk, Campaign Manager at Changing Markets said: “While brands are quick to capitalise on consumer concern by using sustainability as a marketing ploy, the vast majority of such claims are all style and no substance. While they greenwash their clothing collections, they are simultaneously dragging their feet on embracing truly circular solutions, for example by not making the necessary investments to ensure a future in which clothes can be recycled back into clothes.”

Single-use plastics

High-street retailer H&M reported that 90 percent of its recycled polyester comes from single-use plastic bottles. Like H&M, Primark and Zara’s group Inditex rely on the false solution of downcycling single-use plastic bottles. Unlike others however, Inditex reported that it has invested 3 million euros to fund tech innovation exploring textile recycling solutions, including the MIT-Spain Inditex Circularity Seed Fund.

The problem with synthetics

Synthetic fibres represent 69 percent of all materials used in textiles. This figure is expected to balloon to nearly three quarters by 2030, of which 85 percent will be polyester, a material produced from fossil fuels such as oil and fracked gas. The production of synthetic fibres currently accounts for 1.35 percent of global oil consumption, which exceeds the annual oil consumption of Spain and amounts to 1.29 billion barrels of oil a year.

Cheap synthetic fibres are not only harmful because they enable low-quality clothing that ends up in waste, but also perpetuate the fashion industry’s dependence on fossil-fuel extraction during a climate emergency.

Microplastics also emerged as a critical blindspot for most brands. Despite the known damage they cause to human and environmental health – including recent research which has found microplastics in placentas, stools and even able to cross the blood-brain barrier – the vast majority of brands were found to be asleep at the wheel when it comes to microplastics, delaying meaningful action by citing uncertainty and calling for even more research.

The report also called out Patagonia and Adidas, who are often considered leaders and innovators in the fashion sustainability space. Patagonia, according to the report, while encouraging people to ‘buy less, demand more’ and to ‘join the fight against irresponsible, fast-fashion manufacturing’, makes no commitment to move away from synthetics.

Patagonia, in a statement to Vogue Business said synthetic fibres are needed for outerwear and protection against the elements. They said “there is a reason that cotton cannot be used for everything,” especially in technical apparel. With the fur industry now in its twilight years, innovation in heat tech, performance and arctic weather protection urgently need further investment to find new sustainable solutions.

No fashion brands are leading the change against synthetic fibres

Not a single brand ranked as a frontrunner for their approach to synthetics; coupled with the greenwashing exposed in the report this suggests that the industry has a long way to go to contribute to tackling the climate and plastic crises in a meaningful way.

Article source: "Synthetics Anonymous: Fashion brands’ addiction to fossil fuels" by Changing Markets
Sustainable Fashion