Extracted, refined into petrochemicals, and processed into plastic. Fossil fuels are spun into synthetic fibers – over seventy percent of all fiber production
The addiction to synthetic fibers
Synthetic fibers make up two-thirds of all textiles today, and will rise to nearly three quarters by 2030. Given the overabundance of fossil fuels, plastic and synthetic fibers are cheap, costing half as much per ton as cotton. By capitalizing on the production of huge quantities of cheap fibers from fossil fuels; fast fashion has found its preferred fiber: synthetics have now woven their way into every type of clothing.
Exported around the world and sold for rock bottom prices. Their cheapness and abundance, along with cost cutting from low wages and poor working conditions; is central to the story of fast fashion. This allows brands to accelerate from just a few seasonal collections per year, to a new normal of dozens of lines a year, with production times varying from a few weeks to six months.
At the ultra-fast fashion end of the spectrum – dominated by the likes of Boohoo, Shein and Missguided. We’re witnessing fifty to one hundred micro-seasons a year. With merchandise turned around in as little as a week or two and flogged at impossibly low prices. To take just one example, in its November 2020 Pink Friday sale; retailer Pretty Little Thing slashed prices by up to ninety-nine percent, offering some items for as little as five pounds.
This addiction to synthetic fibers comes at an environmental and social cost. For starters, making synthetic fibers uses as much oil annually as the whole of Spain, and polyester production for textiles alone is responsible for emissions of over 700 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2); or the equivalent annual emissions of 180 coal power stations. Synthetics are a major cause of the fashion industry’s enormous carbon footprint, also enabling the notorious overproduction of the sector. This is set to rise as fossil fuel companies double down on plastic and synthetic production to shore up their revenues.
The issue of textile waste and landfills
As the fashion industry’s reliance on fossil-fuel derived synthetic fibers has grown, so too has the rapid pace at which we throw out our clothes. Just like plastics, which pollute every corner of the planet because they’re so robust; synthetic fibers cause a range of problems such as waste.
Less than one percent of clothing is recycled back into new clothes; the rest is landfilled, dumped or burned at the end of life. Releasing emissions, leaching toxic chemicals and shedding harmful synthetic microfibers into our food chains and bodies, where they can damage cells and inhibit lung development.
By now, you may have noticed a disconnect. If synthetics are environmentally harmful but represent the major materials used by fashion brands, why aren’t we hearing more about them? Why are they not being regulated like plastics? In a world where every brand is proclaiming their commitment to sustainability. How do they reconcile the fact that most of their products are made from oil and gas? To conclude, the answer lies in a series of deft marketing tricks and sleights of hand that mask this truth and keep fast fashion in growing business.
Few companies have full supply chain visibility
Research we carried out at Changing Markets in 2021 investigated the policies of forty-six brands from around the world on synthetics. Despite choosing the most transparent companies from Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index; the majority of companies would not disclose to us what tonnage of synthetics they use per year, what percentage of their collection this makes up.
Whether they have policies on microfibers, reducing reliance on fossil fuels, or shoring up viable fiber-to-fiber recycling options. To get a deeper look, we analyzed 4,000 different products from twelve online brands to see how they talked about synthetics and what sustainability claims they were making on products containing them.
We then assessed these against the draft guidance from the Green Claims Code issued by the Competition and Markets Authority. The UK’s competition regulatory body, to find that nearly sixty percent of claims were misleading or unsubstantiated, in other words: they were greenwashing. The worst offenders were H&M with ninety-six percent of claims being false; ASOS with eighty-nine percent and M&S with eighty-eight percent.
H&M’s Conscious Collection was also found to contain an even higher share of synthetics than the it’s main collection. Seventy-two percent compared to sixty-one percent. Among the products marketed as sustainable were clothes claiming to be mono-material or recyclable.
They were actually made from blended synthetics that are impossible to separate. Garments tagged responsible – with no explanation – yet containing blends of up to seven different types of fiber that are impossible to separate and recycle; and products made from 100 percent fossil-fuel derived polyester; with no sustainability credentials, that were nonetheless included in a sustainability collection.
The need for taxation on virgin synthetic fibers and implementation of policies
What emerges here is careful puppetry by brands to appease their eco-conscious consumers; promising clothing that can be recycled when it cannot, saying it’s made from eco-materials when it’s not, and dressing it up in meaningless, unsubstantiated, fluffy language: responsible, conscious and green. Beyond this, brands were very opaque in their disclosure of the percentage of different materials that they are using and who their suppliers are.
Where does this disconnect come from and why does transparency matter when it comes to materials? Transparency is a pillar of sustainability for setting and implementing meaningful legislation. For instance, It allows us to identify where our blind spots are, to see what environmental indicators may not be being measured, and to take action in addressing environmentally or socially harmful issues.
The reality is that few companies have full supply chain visibility; instead dodging the issue for years, despite significant pressure from civil society and consumers. It is time for legislators to mandate supply chain transparency and to take decisive action to tackle fast fashion. Introducing taxation on virgin synthetic fibers and implementing policies, such as enhanced producer responsibility; to ensure that fashion brands deal with the waste they create.
Sustainability certification schemes: an investigation
What about certification and labels, where brands can back up their green claims through third party initiatives? With companies increasingly reliant on this voluntary approach to assure consumers and governments of their benign intentions. Furthermore, we investigated ten major sustainability certification schemes, labels and initiatives in the textile sector; to assess whether they are creating change, how transparent they are about synthetics, and how brands are using these schemes in their marketing.
Our findings were concerning and point to the failures of self-regulation. These are initiatives and schemes that brands, and by extension you and I, put our trust in to arbitrate what is sustainable and what is not. Yet they are failing on several fronts and contributing to the illusion of sustainability put forward by the mainstream fashion industry.
The lack of sufficient accountability and independence
Many of them are well known in the industry, such as The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index; Cradle-to-Cradle; Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals and The Ellen MacArthur Foundation. We found that, behind the image of robust, third-party sustainability assurance; these schemes are failing to uphold high levels of ambition, and lack sufficient accountability and independence, operating as a black box, with little transparency and no external scrutiny.
Yet they are informing major decisions made by brands about which types of fiber to use for their clothing. On issues related to fashion’s hidden reliance on fossil fuels for fiber; we found that certification is helping to provide cover so that this can continue. In many places, oil and gas derived fibers are presented as environmentally friendly options. This is due to the limited scope of the scheme’s life cycle assessments (used to calculate a fiber’s im- pact), and opaque methodologies that are not open to scrutiny.
The urge for governmental and international regulations
When we looked at how fashion brands are using their membership of these initiatives; we found that they were providing companies with a license to greenwash. Brands readily tout their membership of voluntary initiatives with far-off, non-binding targets as if they were heroic achievements.
Some, such as H&M, ASOS and Burberry, have joined The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. Here they self-report their efforts to reduce plastic packaging and items such as plastic hangers and bags – but ignore the vast volumes of hidden plastic in garments inside those bags.
Elsewhere, we see third-party initiatives such as Cradle-to-Cradle’s certification; used on product pages or labels to give a green glow to garments. Even though our research exposes the serious flaws in such schemes’ methodologies, transparency and track record for creating change.
Worse still, companies have been seen to use their membership of initiatives such as The Microfiber Consortium and WRAP’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan to distract policymakers. In 2018, Boohoo was hauled in front of the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee and managed to get itself off the hook by citing their participation in these voluntary initiatives – a participation that requires little-to-no accountability, mandatory action or real ambition.
Changing Markets work provides a snapshot of the dynamics at play
There are over 100 registered certification labels for textiles, and many more voluntary multi-stakeholder initiatives – and that’s just in fashion. Over the last twenty years, while multi-stakeholder initiatives and certification schemes have proliferated; the fashion industry has become one of the world’s most polluting, resource-intensive and wasteful sectors. In the midst of a climate emergency, the number one raw material for textile fibers is oil and gas; doubling down the industry’s reliance on fossil fuel extraction.
How to reconcile such trends with any declared progress towards sustainability; a question voluntary schemes have successfully dodged for decades. None of the schemes can claim transformational change. Some have even publicly acknowledged their missed environmental targets or admitted that any progress is due to external factors. Not attributable to the actions of the initiative, and some cannot name a single substantive achievement despite years of operation. What we’re seeing is the failure of a decades-long experiment in voluntary sustainability and self-regulation.
True sustainability is a marginal pursuit
As we continue through this divisive climate decade, we have reached a critical juncture in addressing sustainability challenges. Now is the time to take a step back. Scrutinize the ability of certifications and the voluntary approach in fashion – and other industries – to create systemic change.
While voluntary initiatives and certifications can play a role in informing best practices; encouraging those already leading the pack to be more ambitious. they cannot, and should not, replace governmental and international regulations. Looked at through the system’s thinking lens, one of the ways to create rapid change is to alter the rules of the game. At present, while there has been a major shift in what kinds of fashion people say they want to buy and what they expect of fashion brands.
A matter of compliance
The rules of play are still set by companies and their investors with eyes on short-term trends, growth and profits pushing the industry to produce more, faster, and cheaper. True sustainability is a marginal pursuit, while the majority of brands are all aboard the fast fashion express with the final destination of infinite growth at any planetary or social cost.
To change the system, we need rules and legislation for one of the least regulated sectors in the world, to create a paradigm where sustainability is no longer a marketing nice-to-have but a matter of compliance and possible legal action or financial penalty. As long as the fashion industry is allowed to continue making the rules and marking their own homework, the placebo of greenwashing will continue, and the industry’s incentive for greater transparency and systemic change will remain minimal.
Campaigns Adviser at the Changing Markets Foundation. A dutch non-profit formed to accelerate and scale up solutions to sustainability challenges by leveraging the power of markets, and by working in coalition with other NGOs, foundations, researchers and investigators.