New study reveals fashion’s polyester addiction and extensive greenwashing

by | Jul 5, 2021

You’ve probably come across flashy signs in clothing stores that say  “sustainable”, “low impact” or “recycled” and maybe even purchased from these sections and felt proud for doing your part. But how many of these sustainability claims are true? And do they accurately reflect the environmental impact of the clothing? Turns out, not much. According to a recent study, 59% of claims made by fast fashion brands are false.

Brands’ scores varied significantly on this front. The study found that Zara and Gucci made the fewest claims in contravention of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority* green claims guidance; on the other end of the spectrum, 96% of H&M’s claims flouted the guidelines in some way.

This phenomena is known as greenwashing. Greenwashing is the term used when brands falsely claim their products as being environmentally-friendly, meanwhile these claims have little to no substantial evidence.

The study “Synthetics Anonymous: Fashion Brands’ addiction to fossil fuels” researched and compiled by Changing Markets Foundation, is an analysis of 4028 products in the Spring / Summer 2021 of brands including Forever21, Gucci, H&M, Louis Vuitton, Uniqlo, Walmart, Zalando and Zara. The findings, the study reports, “lay bare the proliferation of synthetic fibres in our clothes, with 67% containing some type of synthetics. On average, garments containing these fibres consisted of 53% synthetic composition.”

Over the past two decades, the fast fashion industry has doubled its production and had numerous changes to the quality and value of clothing in our society. The average consumer purchases 60% more clothes and wears them far fewer times before disposing of them. The fast fashion industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters. Further, fashion brands have switched to cheap, fossil fuel-derived and synthetic fabrics to aggressively cut down costs. The most prominent being polyester which from its production to its disposal, has an immense environmental impact. From generating greenhouse-gas emissions, pollutants, shedding microplastics and consuming non-renewable resources, dependence on polyester has, and continues to, create severe environmental damage.

With climate crises becoming a hot topic, many fashion brands have faced the heat of environmental concerns and consumers have put pressure on brands to make radical changes in the way clothing is produced.

But many brands are falsely claiming the clothes to be green, with up to 96% (H&M) of green claims being unsubstantiated. In their research, Changing Markets Foundation contacted 46 brands about their use of synthetic fibre. While 8 did not respond, of the remaining 38, 34 brands had some level of transparency either providing percentage or weight of synthetic fibres. However, none of the brands had any plan to phase out the use of synthetic fibres, yet six brands did indicate a desire to avoid or reduce synthetics to an extent.

Many brands have used downcycled plastic waste as a solution. The process of turning PET bottles into fabric has been hailed as an eco-friendly and seemingly circular replacement of virgin polyester, yet its benefits are paltry. While the process requires 59% less energy than its virgin counterpart and releases less CO2 emissions, the praise ends there. It is a common myth that plastic can be recycled indefinitely. Instead, each time plastic is melted down and made into a new product, the chemical structure changes and it slowly loses its durability. This is often referred to as downcycling, wherein the product has a lower quality than the original. By  downcycling PET bottles to clothes, the fibre loses durability and to compensate for this virgin synthetics are blended with the recycled polyester. Additionally, the recycled fibre cannot be recycled indefinitely whilst PET bottles can be recycled numerous times back into bottles. And so, recycled polyester does little to stop the flow of plastic into landfills.

Another way these claims are misleading is the use of secondary fabrics or blending fibres. While an item could be made of 100% cotton, sometimes its lining uses synthetic fabrics. Also, many brands blend fibres to improve the quality of the fabric. However, blended fabrics are difficult to separate and recycle.

So, what is the future of sustainable fashion?

To utilise the million tons of clothing that are thrown out every year, textile recycling would decrease the dependence on fossil fuel synthetics and uses existing resources. But very few textile-to-textile recycling solutions exist for synthetics. The report claims that, “Recycling will not solve fast fashion’s problems, nor will it curb the exponential growth in the use of synthetic fibres. Currently, less than 1% of clothes are recycled to make new clothes.”

Instead, shifting to a circular, sustainable production of fashion requires significant changes at all levels of the industry. We need to rethink the ways in which fashion is made, bought and disposed. The report recommends the introduction of Extended Producer Responsibility schemes, “with mandatory and ambitious eco-design measures, and brands must become responsible for the end of life of their products – which should be separately collected, reused, repaired and ultimately recycled in a viable, environmentally benign, fibre-to-fibre process”.

It is a long and difficult journey, but it has to begin somewhere.

What can you do?

It’s easy to be misguided by fancy jargon and hard claims, but there are small ways of changing your consumption habits that can have big impacts.

Do your research

Educating yourself on the environmental impacts of fast fashion goes a long way in making change. Make sure the brands you are supporting have evidence to back up their claims and have set plans to shift away from fossil fuel derived synthetics.

Recycle your clothes

Next time an item of clothing becomes unwearable, don’t toss it in the trash. Instead, donate is if it’s still in good condition, or drop it off at your nearest textile recycling centre. Alternatively, find ways to extend the wear of your clothes through mending or upcycling.

Reduce your wardrobe

Restrain from buying everything at the store just because it’s on sale. Instead invest in durable, high quality clothes or swap or buy second hand where possible.

And, what should fashion brands and retailers do?

Move away from the fossil-fashion business model

Establish a concrete, accountable and time-bound plan to move away from the unsustainable fast-fashion model, and reduce reliance on synthetic materials, through a viable trajectory and targets for the uptake of more sustainable alternatives. Prioritise phasing out synthetic fibres from children’s clothing and collections for new mothers, as there is emerging scientific evidence that young children’s health is the most vulnerable to microfibre pollution.

Commit to ambitious and comprehensive climate targets

Set ambitious commitments to rapidly move supply chain away from coal and other fossil fuels by 2030, to achieve the minimum 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, scientists warn is needed to stay within a 1.5˚C degree pathway. These should cover all supply-chain emissions, including factories and mills, transportation, raw-material cultivation and end-of-life disposal. Climate strategy must also include transitioning away from fossil fuel-based fabrics (see point 1).

Invest in true circularity

This should include higher durability of garments, longer warranties, offering repairs to customers and promoting reuse. Instead of promoting recycled materials produced from PET bottles or ocean plastic, invest in viable and environmentally benign fibre-to-fibre recycling technologies. Ensure, too, that any toxic chemicals are eliminated in the design process, as these might get recycled back into new clothes, harming the health of your customers.

Ensure any green claims made are not false or deceptive

Claims must be clear and unambiguous. Do not omit important and relevant information (for example, on the product’s end of life); ensure comparisons made are fair and meaningful, and that claims are substantiated and easily accessible to consumers. Stop making unsubstantiated claims on the recyclability of garments sold, in the absence of any viable fibre-to-fibre recycling technology.

Provide full, publicly accessible, and transparent information on your suppliers

Including all the factories and supply-chain stages from which textiles are sourced –not just ‘tier 1’ and ‘tier 2’ factories. Openly support progressive legislation to improve circularity and transparency in the industry (for example, mandatory EPR schemes), encourage peers to do the same and leave any industry initiatives that oppose, delay, or undermine progressive legislation – including its implementation. Source – Synthetics Anonymous

 

The Changing Markets Foundation Synthetics Anonymous report: SyntheticsAnonymous_FinalWeb

*UK’s Competitions and Markets Place Authority proposed guidance sets out 6 principles that environmental claims should follow.

They:

  • must be truthful and accurate: Businesses must live up to the claims they make about their products, services, brands and activities
  • must be clear and unambiguous: The meaning that a consumer is likely to take from a product’s messaging and the credentials of that product should match
  • must not omit or hide important information: Claims must not prevent someone from making an informed choice because of the information they leave out
  • must only make fair and meaningful comparisons: Any products compared should meet the same needs or be intended for the same purpose
  • must consider the full life cycle of the product: When making claims, businesses must consider the total impact of a product or service. Claims can be misleading where they don’t reflect the overall impact or where they focus on one aspect of it but not another
  • must be substantiated: Businesses should be able to back up their claims with robust, credible and up to date evidence

 

Image: Creative Commons

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