Effective Legislative Solutions Needed to Put Fashion Industry on a More Sustainable Track

20 Dec 2022 Blog

Urška Trunk, Campaign Manager, Changing Markets Foundation

The state of fashion industry today is defined by fast and mass-production of low-price, disposable, and quickly changing fashion. But the cheap, fast and mass soon becomes obsolete and ends up creating piles of waste, bearing no accountability by the fashion industry. While the plethora of green claims and initiatives give the impression that the industry is dealing with this problem, the reality shows a very different picture. The future of fashion is at risk of being built on fast and ultra-fast fashion brands like Shein, which adds around 1,000 low-quality items daily to their site. Shein currently outperforms most of its competitors and is worth more than H&M and Zara combined. In other words, if Shein is the bellwether of the fashion industry today, it means that the industry is on a destructive path of persistent overproduction of cheap clothing. It also means that without systemic change, fast fashion’s quest for cheap clothing will create untenable volumes of waste, toxic microfibres and emit more carbon than the planet can handle.

What lies beneath this model is an elephant in the room the industry is disinclined to address – fashion has a plastic problem. The fashion industry is addicted to plastic-based fibres or synthetics, such as polyester and nylon. Since overtaking cotton as the most used fibre in early 2000s, synthetics have become a key enabler of the business model driving today’s overconsumption of fashion. Produced and sold cheaply, synthetic-dominated fast-fashion items are often discarded after just seven or eight uses, ending up in landfills, incinerators or dumped in nature. As synthetic fibres represent over two-thirds (69%) of textiles, a share that is projected to skyrocket in the future, they have become a huge cause of fashion’s ongoing waste crisis, which shows no sign of dwindling. Cheap synthetic fibres are also harmful because they enable shedding of microplastics that are ending up in our environment and bodies and perpetuate the fashion industry’s dependence on fossil-fuel extraction in the midst of a climate emergency.

Nevertheless, our report Synthetics Anonymous 2.0 reveals that, the fashion industry is blind to the fact that synthetics are a significant problem and shows no sign to curb its addiction. Analysis of 55 clothing brands’ policies and strategies unveiled that one fourth of the largest fashion companies are recording a heavier reliance on plastic-based fibres. For some brands, such as Boohoo, synthetics account for more than half of fibre use (64%), while Nike and Inditex reported heaviest volumes of synthetics used; 166,343 tonnes and 131,548 tonnes, respectively. That means that they together annually use the volume of synthetics thirty times as heavy as The Eiffel Tower.

Only one company, Reformation, committed to phasing out virgin synthetics by 2030 and reducing all synthetics (virgin and recycled) to less than 1% of total sourcing by 2025. Most of companies are however still dragging their feet with little to no transparency about their strategy on synthetic fibre use.

Doubling down on recycled polyester

Instead of addressing the root of the problem such as phasing out their addiction to synthetics, fashion brands are turning to greenwashing tactics such as increasing the use of recycled polyester. Today, 99% of recycled polyester comes from downcycling PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles, meaning that brands rely on the waste of another sector instead of dealing with its own waste. Moreover, clothes made from PET bottles cannot be recycled back to new clothes and are destined for landfill. 81% of brands in our research have set targets to increase their recycled synthetic content, namely polyester. This false solution is boosted by voluntary initiatives such as the Textile Exchange’s 2025 Recycled Polyester Challenge, which aim to have the industry share of recycled polyester increase from the current average of 14% to 45% by 2025. Another incentive for brands to increase their share of recycled synthetics may also be companies’ climate targets. While recycled polyester requires 59% less energy to produce, but still more than cotton, it emits less carbon dioxide than its virgin counterpart. However, these figures do not consider the impacts of the original virgin plastic bottle production.

Lastly, in the absence of commercial scale fibre-to-fibre technologies and lack of incentives from regulators to invest in truly circular solutions, recycled polyester provides an easy solution for brands to say they are doing something to deal with their synthetics problem.

Time is running out for self-regulation

For too long, certification and membership in voluntary initiatives has been the only option for fashion brands and retailers to address the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry.  As the number of voluntary initiatives in the sector increased over the last five years, it appears that the industry is addressing concerns regarding sustainability. However, our research found that voluntary approach has fundamentally failed to create progress or enhance sustainability in the sector and may even be serving to block systemic action by presenting the illusion that change is happening.

Findings of our report Licence to Greenwash show that some of the biggest schemes, including WRAP and The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, are helping to cement the fashion industry’s reliance on fossil fuels, and are largely silent on the issue of fast fashion. Many are focused on what garments are made from, but completely ignore how many pieces are made annually. Moreover, the level of influence exercised by fashion brands in these initiatives and the lack of any independent oversight, inevitably means that they end up promoting industry interests. Most of the voluntary schemes were not able to claim transformational change and have publicly acknowledged lack of substantive achievement or missed environmental targets, despite years of operation.

The slow pace of change on social and environmental issues indicates a failure of a decades long experiment in voluntary sustainability and self-regulation that have for so long provided a smokescreen for the fashion industry. It is more evident than ever that the fashion industry’s plastic problem, waste and climate crisis needs a long-overdue injection of legislation.

The EU Textile Strategy and the regulation that will follow represent an important opportunity to put fossil fashion in reverse by slowing down runaway consumption and decouple fashion from fossil fuels. Surprisingly, the fashion brands show significant levels of support for several of the policies that were proposed in the EU Textile Strategy; with large majority of brands in favour of polluter pay principle which would be enforced through the Extended Producer Responsibility, of strong legislation to put an end to greenwashing and regulation on supply chain transparency.

The resounding support for legislation signals that even even brands think the time is running out on self-regulation and the oversight of the sector needs to be placed in the hands of policymakers. It is now up to the latter to step up and find effective legislative solutions to put the fashion industry on a more sustainable track.

My opinion piece on Texfash: 

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