‘Synthetics Anonymous’ is the latest report published by the Changing Markets Foundation which delves into fashion’s addiction to cheap, petroleum-derived fabrics.

The research, that covers 50 of the world’s largest brands, exposes the ubiquity of plastic fabrics used in garments, evaluating the environmental degradation they cause, as well as the greenwashed marketing deployed to sell them. From its online shop sweep of 12 leading European brands, it found that over two thirds of garments from Spring/ Summer Collections contained synthetics. Striking findings also uncover how nearly 60% of the environmental claims made, fall short of greenwashing draft guidelines authored by the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority.

Fossil fashion is a blind spot for brands and investors  

Whilst the war on single-use plastics has resulted in taxing of plastic bags and the banning of plastic straws, plastic fashion remains unabated and un-regulated. This is problematic, given that the production of synthetic fibres currently accounts for 1.35% of global oil consumption, a total that exceeds the annual consumption of Spain, according to the Changing Market’s first Fossil Fashion report in January. Brands’ heavy reliance on polyester, nylon, acrylic and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), has driven estimates that by 2030, synthetic fibres will represent 73% of total fibre production, of which, a startling 85% will be polyester.

These materials have rightly garnered much critique from environmental groups, given the chemically intensive processes used to create them and the profuse shedding of microfibres that occurs throughout a garment’s life cycle.

Scientific studies have located these microfibres in the Atlantic ocean and even more disconcertingly, these plastic particles have been identified in samples of precipitation. The environmental damage caused throughout production is not only harmful for eco systems but for actors working upstream of the supply chain, exposed to levels of toxicity in breach of international health and safety standards.

This represents a danger zone for brands across their value chain who have not mapped the stages of synthetics production adequately. Such a blind spot makes a precarious situation for investors too, who are increasingly attuned to factoring environmental risks in line with ESG frameworks into their decision making.  

More transparency is needed on fashion’s use of synthetic fibres

To gain a coherent picture of the fashion industry across different market segments, the research collected survey responses from a total of 46 brands including the likes of H&M Group, Huge Boss, Zalando and Primark, about their use of synthetics. Three quarters (34 out of 46) provided a degree of transparency about their use of synthetics, whether that be as a percentage of their total collection or by weight. From classifying the data, the report spotlights the worst 15 performing brands who shared little to no information about their use of synthetics, including communication on their websites. Surprising candidates were found in this red zone including Burberry, Lulu Lemon and Patagonia – often considered the archetype of a sustainable fashion brand. George Harding-Rolls, Campaign Manager at the Changing Markets Foundation notes his disappointment at their lack of engagement on the issue: “These brands have a reputation for transparency, yet have failed to respond to our communications, so may have something to hide.”

Synthetics are synonymous with athleisure categories given their material requirements for durability, stretch and weather proofing. Sports giants like Adidas, Puma and Nike were evaluated to have room for improvement. For example, Nike is one of the biggest users of synthetics by tonnage and the brand publicly disclosed using a whopping 152,723 tonnes of polyester for the financial year of 2020. 

The results indicate brands are keen to keep shtum about their extended supply chain networks for synthetic production. A mere 4 out of 46 disclosed information on their tier 3 spinning mills. What will encourage fashion players to lift the lid on their suppliers’ operations? Harding-Rolls believes that radical transparency requires pressure from all stakeholder groups. “We need upward pressure from consumers, to tell brands they need and want this information. Secondly, downward pressure in the form of regulation and legislation is essential. Brands have a lot to gain by responding.”, he adds.

Indeed, supply chain opacity is a common thread that links the findings of various audits conducted on the industry. The results of the Fashion Transparency Index 2021 which evaluates 250 major brands, established that whilst 62% of organisations publish their carbon emissions in their own facilities, only 26% disclose information at processing and manufacturing levels and a meagre 17% do so at raw material level. The lexicon of transparency however, is by no means an indicator of authentic sustainability practices or progress and has in recent years been hijacked by fast fashion brands, who are keen to attach themselves to a sustainability narrative.

‘Sustainable’ fashion collections promote false plastic solutions

The second dimension of the report interrogates the volume of synthetics used across 12 European brands including H&M Group, Inditex’s Zara, Boohoo and Louis Vuitton via their ecommerce platforms.

A staggering 67% of over 4000 garments contained fossil-fuel based fabrics including polyester, polyamide, spandex, nylon, acrylic, PVC and metallised fibres. The composition of each clothing item was analysed and discovered that the average garment comprised of 53% of synthetics. To no surprise, the repeat worst offender was U.K. based fast fashion company Boohoo, where 85% of the collection contained synthetics, averaging a significant 73% of synthetics per each individual garment.

This plastic fashion phenomenon was not exclusive to main collections, but also surprisingly present in collections marketed as sustainable. For instance, 48% of ASOS’s Responsible Edit was found to contain synthetics and 61% of the H&M Conscious Collection garments contained polyester, be that virgin or recycled.

The overzealous labelling and marketing of pollutive materials as ‘better’ for the environment or more sustainable, is wholeheartedly misleading citizens. One particular example, is the omnipresent use of recycled synthetics like recycled polyester (rPET) which is being promoted to the public as viable ‘circular’ solutions. Often, a dress, shirt or jacket, tagged as green due to recycled synthetics properties will only contain a minority portion of rPET but then be mixed with virgin synthetics. Such use of recycled materials does not guarantee that the garment is biodegradable, circular or recyclable, and often it will end up in landfill alongside clothing from conventional main collections. 

The manipulation and promotion of false plastic pollutants like rPET, is a recurring theme in the Changing Market’s Talking Trash campaign. Harding-Rolls laments that “Recycled synthetics are being used as a classic distraction tactic to delay progress as we cannot recycle our way out of the waste and plastic crisis”. He remarks that the rise of recycled synthetics is simply a virtue signal for easy brand marketing, without doing the real work.  

Despite their limitations, industry initiatives like the Textile Exchange Recycled Polyester Challenge continue to encourage brands to increase their volumes of recycled synthetics. Whilst many organisations included in the report have committed to the aforementioned programme, not one fashion company coupled their goals to increase quantities of rPET with the long-term aim to reduce their overall level of synthetics.  

Shoppers are lost in a sea of unsubstantiated, greenwashed claims

How much longer can fashion brands continue to distort the truth about these materials? Citizens who are keen to align their spending to their values are becoming lost in a sea of false green claims. However, greenwashing faces a major obstacle in the form of European regulations including the draft guidelines on greenwashing published by the U.K. Competition and Market’s Authority (CMA) in May.

The Changing Markets Foundation evaluated the 4000 items from these 12 fashion brands against the CMA’s guidance and the findings are startling. Over 39% of garments, ranging from coats to loungewear and dresses, made a green claim of some kind. Yet, from the investigation, 59% of these statements were misleading, unsubstantiated and defied the policies in some capacity. 

Cecilia Parker Aranha, the Competition and Market’s Authority’s Consumer Director warns thatBusinesses must consider carefully whether they need to make changes to their practices to comply with the law.” The draft document is intended to help businesses comply with consumer protection laws and has six key areas which cover everything from accuracy, through to accounting for the full life cycle of the product and not hiding important information. These principles have been designed specifically to help businesses consider how their customers will interpret the information provided. “This is especially the case when it comes to carefully cherry-picking the information included in advertising. Shoppers need the full picture to make informed choices.” says Parker Aranha.

For Harding-Rolls, who worked on the campaign, the most alarming area of deceptive greenwashing is the continued use of PVC by brands. “Nothing about PVC is sustainable, given the chemical intensity and level of toxicity with substances used like phthalates.” he states. Bold unsubstantiated claims about garments that are 100% synthetics, are particularly troublesome and the publication pulls out key examples, including faux leather PVC coated leggings retailed by Zalando that have been generously labelled with the green ‘sustainability’ tag because it used ‘At least’ 20% recycled polyester. How justifiable such a statement is, is open to scrutiny.

Misconceptions about ‘sustainable’ synthetic material alternatives

The promotion of synthetic ‘sustainable’ materials requires urgent redressing, not only from consumer protection agencies like the CMA, but more broadly from all stakeholders, including suppliers and brand’s headquarters.

Recent scientific research conducted by the FILK Freiburg Institute has analysed the chemical compositions of vegan leather alternatives like Desserto, Piñatex and Appleskin. Alarmingly, the findings reveal that a number of these materials, commonly lauded as sustainable, also contain polyurethane (PU), PVC, or polyamide microfibres.

What’s more – findings published by The Circular Laboratory identified that plant-based leathers like Desserto have only a minimal proportion of natural materials in their composition, with the remainder being synthetics like PU. Falsehoods relating to biodegradable properties of these materials indicate that the conversation about sustainable material alternatives requires more nuance to prohibit the spread of fake news.

Material lessons from small fashion brands

Global fashion brands have a lot to learn from smaller labels who have found a competitive advantage in using less harmful materials and communicating their sourcing strategies transparently. For Sabinna Rachimova, founder of London and Vienna based SABINNA studios, the responsible use of materials is a sacrosanct principle of the brand to ensure an environmentally sound end of life phase for the item.

The designer has committed to a minimum use of synthetic fibres.  “As our studio grows, we have the opportunity to work towards a 0% synthetics approach, experimenting with 0% plastic products.” says Rachimova. This pledge has played out in practice with recent launches that use organic natural fibres for primary materials and secondary details including buttons, labels and threads. This is in stark contrast to the findings of the Synthetics report which found that many larger fashion brands default to polyester for linings, trimmings and sequin embellishments.

Fashion’s road to recovery and rehabilitation requires legislation and investment

This compounding evidence points to the fact that the fashion industry’s addiction to harmful petroleum-derived materials requires the equivalent of a 12 Step Recovery Programme. Could the EU Textile Strategy lay the groundwork for a fossil-free fashion future? The Changing Markets Foundation sets out recommendations for the strategy to maximise its potential. In particular, it endorses policies that would tax virgin synthetic fibres, set higher production standards and thresholds for the number of microfibres released throughout the life cycle too. This approach would saliently put the responsibility where it is due; on the shoulders of producers, not consumers.

Ultimately, to advance progress of viable alternatives to synthetic fibres, Harding-Rolls underscores the need for further investment into research and development, as well as the scaling up of infrastructure for fibre-to-fibre recycling technologies. He observes that “The industry must put its money where its mouth is, as the current levels of investment are not consummate with the level of synthetics.”



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