Half of UK fast fashion is made from new plastic – Quartz
Almost half of the items for sale on the websites of UK fast-fashion companies, including Asos and Boohoo, were made entirely from new plastic-based materials, as opposed to recycled materials, according to a new study.
This figure rises to 80% if we consider the share of clothing containing a certain amount of virgin plastic fibers, which are often mixed with other materials such as cotton or wool.
The study (pdf), which has analyzed more than 10,000 clothing items, is from the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, or RSA, a London-based organization that seeks solutions to social problems. He said in the report that he had studied the impact of fast fashion, a topic that has come under increasing scrutiny as the realization of the enormous effect of the environmental industry continues to grow.
Synthetic fibers such as polyester, an industry staple whose increasing volume is frequently cited as a cause for concern, are essentially a form of plastic. They tend to be inexpensive and can, but not always, offer performance benefits, such as durability or elasticity, which is why they have become so important in clothing. Other popular synthetics include nylon, acrylic, and polyamide.
But they’re all made from fossil fuels, making them dependent on a carbon-emitting industry. They do not biodegrade and release microfibers that pollute the world’s oceans and even the air. A recent study by Nature Conservancy in partnership with Bain & Company warned that the mere production of synthetic materials creates microfiber pollution. For around 500 synthetic t-shirts, the equivalent of a fiber t-shirt (pdf) gets lost in the environment, he concluded. The problem of microfiber pollution has made synthetics even more suspect to sustainability advocates, although natural fibers carry their own significant environmental footprint.
New polyester versus recycled
Over the course of a few weeks in May, RSA looked specifically at women’s clothing on the websites of Asos, Missguided, Boohoo, and PrettyLittleThing, which Boohoo owns. Companies are known for their lightning-fast production and low costs. He chose a balance of items in different product categories and assumed that all fabrics not labeled as recycled were made from virgin materials. The clothes were “inundated” with new synthetics, according to the report.
The finding also indicates that companies have been slow to embrace recycled fibers, which RSA says contradicts their sustainability promises.
In statements at the BBC, the companies said they felt they had made progress on these issues, but recognized that there was still work to be done. Missguided stressed its commitment to ensuring that 10% of its products use recycled fibers by the end of the year and 25% by the end of 2022. Boohoo plans (pdf) to make all of its polyester and cotton recycled or “more sustainable” by 2025. Asos took issue with the report’s characterization as a fast-fashion retailer producing “disposable” clothing.
Many fashion companies have made a commitment in recent years to increasing their use of “sustainable” materials, a term that has no formal definition and gets used to it in various ways. However, it is not certain that recycled synthetic materials are much better for the environment.
While it is true that they are not using virgin resources, they have their own problems. Businesses can boast about keeping plastic waste such as discarded bottles out of landfills by turning them into new clothes, but they can compete for this plastic with consumer packaged goods companies who would otherwise use it for packaging. And once the plastic is turned into textiles, the technology and the infrastructure does not currently exist to recycle it on a large scale. Instead of being reused again, it always goes to landfill.
Despite this, RSA’s analysis shows how reliant fast fashion has become on synthetic materials and blends. Blended fabrics are a particular problem because the different fibers have to be separated for recycling and there is currently no way to do this on a large scale either. “We are not calling for the eradication of any new plastic from clothing,” RSA said. “But the cheap, disposable items, likely destined for landfill, are bad for the environment.”