Brands are still knee-deep in fossil fashion and try to hide this dirty secret best possible. These are the sobering key findings of the latest study by the Changing Markets foundation.
The report titled “Synthetics Anonymous’ investigates the behavior of some of the biggest fashion brands and retailers regarding their use of synthetic fibers and transparency about doing so. To find out Changing Markets reached out to 46 brands – including Uniqlo, Nike, Boohoo, Zalando, Zara, H&M and Gucci among others – with a questionnaire and conducted desk research into their policies and public disclosure of relevant information on this topic.
As already known, the fashion industry and its prevailing fast-fashion business model rely heavily on the use of cheap synthetic fibers, which are produced from fossil fuels, such as oil and gas. Since the early 2000s, fashion production has doubled – as has the use of polyester, which is now found in over half of all textiles, it says in the report. While other companies and sectors are decarbonizing and aiming for a circular economy, Changing Markets notes, that given its “addiction to synthetic fibers, the fashion industry is heading in entirely the wrong direction.”
The results of the analysis of 46 clothing companies show that fashion brands are still largely ignoring growing plastic pollution and the waste crisis stemming from their addiction to synthetic fibers.
In addition to a significant lack of transparency about the amount and source of synthetics in their collections, fashion brands resort to greenwashing tactics – such as downcycling polyethene terephthalate (PET) bottles to clothes – rather than moving to truly circular solutions, in which products are designed to be more durable, reusable, repairable and recyclable, Changing Markets claims. Instead, fashion brands have no systematic approach to addressing the environmental and health risks pollution.
Despite a high response rate of 83% (38 out of 46 brands), only about half (26 brands) provided some level of transparency about their use of synthetics by percentage and weight – although this was not always broken down fiber by fiber.
Most of the sports brands analyzed (Adidas, Asics, Nike and Reebok) reported that the majority of their collections is based on synthetics, and expressed no plans to curtail this. Only Puma indicated that synthetics represent ‘just’ half of their total fabric material, and said it is endeavoring to gradually reduce the proportion of polyester used, showing that a lower reliance on synthetics is feasible in sportswear.
Of the worst-performing brands, 15 are a combination of sports, high-street, luxury and department-store companies, the majority of which (11) are North American-based (US or Canada) – including Nike, Target and Walmart. Their complete lack of engagement, commitments or even transparency clearly shows that the issue of fossil fashion is not on their agenda, the report states.
Patagonia also performed surprisingly poorly considering that the brand has built its reputation on sustainability. “It has failed to publicly disclose any meaningful information about its use of synthetics and plans to phase them out nor did it engage with us on the questionnaire”, the authors say.
Instead, the report mirrors, that many brands still make misleading claims about how they are making their products more ‘recyclable’, despite having neither a takeback scheme nor fiber-to fiber recycling technology in place: “Greenwashing was rampant across the targets the brands disclosed to us, including claims of using ‘sustainable’, ‘preferred’, ‘sustainably sourced’ or ‘sustainably made’ materials, the criteria for which were often ill defined and constitute unsubstantiated claims that mislead consumers” and reveal that “greenwashing is clearly this season’s hottest trend.”
Consequently, the authors vote for policymakers to step up and find effective legislative solutions to put the fashion industry on a more sustainable track: “Policymakers must take measures to break the vicious cycle of cheap, synthetic material reliance and ensure the industry shifts to responsible production based on the principles of a truly circular economy.”
You can find the full report on https://changingmarkets.org/portfolio/fossil-fashion/.
The Changing Markets Foundation was formed by Joakim Bergman and Paul Gilding – both campaigners on environmental and social issues to finance and support campaigns that accelerate and scale up solutions to sustainability challenges by leveraging the power of markets. The central organization is registered in the Netherlands as Stichting Changing Markets.