Almost half the items for sale on the websites of UK fast-fashion companies including Asos and Boohoo were made entirely from new—as opposed to recycled—plastic-based materials, according to a new study.
The number rises to 80% when looking at the share of clothes containing some amount of virgin plastic fibers, which are often blended with other materials such as cotton or wool.
The study (pdf), which analyzed more than 10,000 articles of clothing, comes from the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, or RSA, a London-based organization that seeks solutions to social issues. It said in the report it has been researching fast fashion’s impact, a topic that has drawn increasing scrutiny as awareness of the industry’s tremendous effect on the environment continues to grow.
Synthetic fibers such as polyester—a staple of the industry whose rising volume is frequently raised as a cause for concern—are basically a form of plastic. They tend to be cheap and can—though don’t always—offer some performance benefits, such as durability or stretch, which is why they’ve become so prominent in clothing. Other popular synthetics include nylon, acrylic, and polyamide.
But they’re all made from fossil fuels, making them dependent on a carbon-spewing industry. They don’t biodegrade, and they shed microfibers that are polluting the world’s oceans and even the air. One recent study by the Nature Conservancy in partnership with Bain & Company warned that just producing synthetic materials creates microfiber pollution. For roughly every 500 t-shirts made from synthetics, one t-shirt’s worth of fibers (pdf) is lost into the environment, it concluded. The issue of microfiber pollution has made synthetics even more suspect to sustainability advocates, though 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. The companies are known for their hyper-fast production and low costs. It chose a balance of items across different product categories and assumed any fabrics not labeled as recycled were made from virgin materials. The clothing was “awash” in new synthetics, the report said.
The finding also indicates the companies have been slow to adopt recycled fibers, which the RSA suggested contradicts their sustainability promises.
In statements to the BBC, the companies said they feel they’ve made progress on these issues but recognize more work needs to be done. Missguided pointed to its commitment of ensuring 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 its polyester and cotton recycled or “more sustainable” by 2025. Asos disputed the report’s characterization of it as a fast-fashion retailer producing “throwaway” clothing.
Many fashion companies have pledged in recent years to increase their use of “sustainable” materials, a term that has no formal definition and gets used in a variety of ways. It’s not clear that recycled synthetics are much better for the environment, though.
While it’s true they don’t use virgin resources, they have their own issues. Companies may boast they’re keeping plastic waste such as discarded bottles out of landfills by turning it into new clothing, but they may compete for that plastic with consumer packaged goods companies that would otherwise use it for packaging. And once the plastic is made into textiles, the technology and infrastructure don’t currently exist to recycle it at scale. Instead of being reused again, it still goes into a landfill.
Even so, RSA’s analysis shows how dependent fast fashion has become on synthetic materials and blends. Blended fabrics are a particular problem since the different fibers need to be separated to be recycled and there’s currently no means of doing that at scale either. “We are not calling for the eradication of all new plastic from clothing,” RSA said. “But cheap, throwaway items, likely destined for landfill, are harming the environment.”