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Big brands ‘knee deep’ in fossil fashion

Many fashion brands promote their products as eco-friendly and durable while failing to follow EU guidelines on sustainability, according to an industry survey by the Changing Markets Foundation (CMF). Some companies may find themselves facing legal action as a result, it says.

CMF checked more than 4 000 pieces of clothing sold online by 46 brands. The brands were classified into four categories – ‘frontrunners’, ‘could do better’, ‘trailing behind’ and ‘red zone’. Despite a high response rate of 83% (38 out of 46 brands), CMF said disclosures about policies, practices and the use of synthetics were ‘underwhelming’. Fewer than half of the companies provided transparency about the use of synthetics by percentage and weight. When they did, the data was not always broken down by individual fibre types.

Vague and hard to prove

The investigation found that 96% of ‘green fashion’ claims by H&M defied marketing guidelines. Bizarrely, H&M’s so-called ‘Conscious Collection’ contains more synthetics than its main collection (72% versus 61%, respectively).

The results were little better for other big brands: Marks & Spencer scored 88% on the greenwashing scale while ASOS.com were on 89%. ‘No company has made a clear commitment to phase out the use of synthetic fibres from their collections, leaving our frontrunner category empty,’ the CMF analysts say. Eleven companies (including Hugo Boss, Esprit, United Colours of Benetton) were in the ‘could do better’ category; 20 ‘trailed behind’ (including Zalando, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger); 15 were in the red zone (11 of which were from North America).

The dozen companies which refused to share any data were:

  • Burberry
  • Gap
  • Gildan
  • Lululemon
  • Patagonia
  • Primark
  • Target
  • The North Face
  • Timberland
  • Uniqlo
  • Walmart
  • Wrangler

CMF says many brands made misleading claims about how they are making products more ‘recyclable’ with neither a take-back scheme nor fibre-to fibre recycling technology in place. ‘Greenwashing is rampant,’ it says, with companies eager to promote their ‘sustainable’, ‘sustainably sourced’ or ‘sustainably made’ materials – when the criteria is typically ill-defined and cannot be proven with hard data.

More investment needed

Most garments at the end-of-life stage end up in landfills or incinerators: fewer than 1% of clothing items are recycled into new clothes. ‘Unfortunately, textile-to-textile recycling is still in its infancy, and the industry has invested very little in making this a reality,’ CMF laments. With today’s best available technology for recycling polyester, cotton and wool fibre, the maximum percentage of fibre-to-fibre recycled material that can be used in new clothing is only 20–30%. ‘The rest is topped up with virgin material.’

At same time, the total share of PET bottles recycled into clothes has increased from 9% to 14% in the last decade. CMF Analysts report that 85% companies in the survey aimed to achieve recycled polyester targets by using polyester from ‘downcycled’ bottles. ‘Of the products analysed across all brands, 6% contained recycled synthetics from recycled PET bottles,’ the report notes.

It would be better to boost the capacity of bottle-to-bottle recycling plants, it says, rather than lose the bottles to the fashion industry. It is estimated that by 2030 synthetic fibres will represent 73% of fibre production, of which 85% will be polyester. This is a continuation of the trend over the past 50 years, during which the production of polyester has grown almost ninefold.

Blind spot

The conclusion is clear; the fashion industry and its prevailing fast-fashion business model rely heavily on the use of cheap synthetic fibres which are produced from fossil fuels such as oil and gas. ‘Since the early 2000s, fashion production has doubled – and so has the use of polyester, which is now found in over half of all textiles,’ CMF observes. 

Micro-plastics also remain a ‘blind spot’ for the fashion industry with most companies sticking to their traditional business model and awaiting more research. CMF says brands tend to consider only end-of-pipe solutions, such as washing-machine filters and wastewater treatment plants, which ‘merely shift the problem elsewhere’.

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