Today’s fashion industry has become synonymous with overconsumption, a snowballing waste crisis, widespread pollution and the exploitation of workers in global supply chains. What is less well known is that the insatiable fast fashion business model is enabled by cheap synthetic fibres, which are produced from fossil fuels, mostly oil and gas. Polyester, the darling of the fast fashion industry, is found in over half of all textiles and production is projected to skyrocket in the future. Our campaign exposes the clear correlation between the growth of synthetic fibres and the fast fashion industry – one cannot exist without the other. The campaign calls for prompt, radical legislative action to slow-down the fashion industry and decouple it from fossil fuels.
Take-Back Trickery: an investigation into clothing take-back schemes
Between August 2022 and July 2023, Changing Markets tracked 21 items from 10 fashion brands through their take-back schemes. Garments were donated to H&M, Zara, C&A, Primark, Nike, The North Face, Uniqlo and M&S stores in Belgium, France, Germany and the UK, or posted them to a Boohoo scheme. Despite the slogans, three quarters of items (16 out of 21 or 76%) were either destroyed, left in warehouses or exported to Africa, where up to half of used clothing are quickly shredded for other uses or dumped. A pair of trousers donated to M&S were scrapped within a week. A pair of jogging trousers donated to C&A were burned in a cement kiln. A skirt donated to H&M travelled 24,800 kilometres from London to waste ground in Mali, where it appears to be dumped. Three items ended up in Ukraine, where import rules have been relaxed due to the war. Only 5 items, around a quarter of the original 21, were reused in Europe or ended up in a resale shop.
Trashion: The stealth export of waste plastic clothes to Kenya
The amount of second-hand clothing flowing to Kenya from global sources has grown significantly in recent years, a torrent that amounts to 17 items of clothing every year for each Kenyan, up to 8 of which are waste from the start. The system of used-clothing trade is currently at breaking point, with over 900 million items sent to Kenya from around the globe in 2021. Out of these, nearly 150 million items came from the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK). Of the 112 million items of used clothing shipped directly from the EU to Kenya each year, up to one in three contain plastic and are of such a low quality that they are immediately dumped in the environment or burned. This toxic influx is creating devastating consequences for the environment and communities. Currently, over two-thirds (69%) of textiles are made from plastic, and this is expected to grow to 73% by 2030.
The implementation of the EU textile strategy is an important leverage to put the textile industry on a more circular trajectory and also to hold brands and retailers accountable for their textile waste. The upcoming revision of the Waste Framework Directive should introduce a well-designed Extended Producer Responsibility with mandatory eco-design requirements, which will hold fashion companies accountable for the end-of-life of the products they put on the market. In addition, governments must regulate the proliferation of cheap plastic fibres, which is a key driver of the fast fashion industry, through a virgin plastic tax. This will ensure that those who profit from cheap fast fashion also bear the cost of managing its waste.
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Synthetics Anonymous 2.0: Fashion’s persistent plastic problem
Synthetics Anonymous 2.0 uncovers the lack of progress that has been made by the fashion industry to kick its synthetics addiction. One year on from Synthetics Anonymous: fashion brands’ addiction to fossil fuels, this follow-up report assesses where global clothing companies stand in reducing reliance on synthetic fibres and their transparency on usage. We reached out to 55 brands with a questionnaire and conducted desk research into their policies and public disclosure of relevant information on several topics, including use of synthetic fibres, synthetic suppliers, use of recycled fibres, commitments to phase out synthetics fibres, policies to address end-of-life management of synthetic fibres, policies to address microfibre release, climate targets and company position on elements of the European Union (EU) legislation proposed in the EU Textile Strategy. Analysis of the responses to our questionnaire signals fashion’s synthetic fibre addiction has not undergone any significant rehabilitation over the last five years. Thus, amidst an accelerating climate emergency, one in four of the largest fashion companies are recording a heavier reliance on fossil-fuel-derived fabrics. On a positive note, survey results indicate that fashion brands show significant support for several of the policy elements proposed in the EU Textile Strategy. The European Commission must step up and implement these legislative solutions to reduce the negative environmental impacts of the fashion industry.
Dressed to Kill: Fashion brands’ hidden links to Russian oil in a time of war
This report exposes the hidden supply chain links between major global fashion brands and retailers and Russian oil used to make synthetic clothing. The investigation focuses on two of the world’s largest polyester manufactures, Reliance Industries in India and China’s Hengli Group. We found evidence that Russia has become the largest oil supplier to Reliance Industries and its polyester manufacturing, and evidence that Hengli Group is also purchasing Russian oil to make its polyester-based products. Polyester from both companies are then sold to garment manufacturers around the world, who in turn produce clothes for many of the world’s largest brands. Our research has linked 39 of the 50 (78%) brands included in this research directly or indirectly to the Hengli Group or Reliance Industries supply chains, illustrating how widely polyester-based clothing made from controversial fossil fuels can spread through the global fashion industry. This stands in contrast to the sustainability commitments and high-profile green claims made by many of the same brands. Even though over 25 of these brands have suspended or withdrawn their operations in Russia after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, through their reliance on synthetics, they continue to contribute to the Russian economy, therefore indirectly funding the war. The report calls for complete transparency with regard to the use of synthetic fibre use and a commitment to phase them out due to their contribution to plastic pollution, climate breakdown, and now war.
Licence to Greenwash: How certification schemes and voluntary initiatives are fuelling fossil fashion
This report provides an in-depth investigation into 10 major certifications, labels and voluntary industry initiatives in the fashion sector (Higg Index and SAC, BlueSign, Oekotex, Cradle to Cradle, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Textile Exchange, The Microfibre Consortium, ZDHC, WRAP and the EU EcoLabel). It finds that the majority of these schemes are acting as sustainability decoys for brands, enabling greenwashing on a massive scale. No scheme was found to be fit for purpose, with issues such as a lack of transparency, no accountability, and compromised independence common across the initiatives – some even rate fossil-fuel derived fibres as the more sustainable choice and are silent on critical issues such as overproduction and microfibres. Moreover, as fashion’s toll on the environment has worsened, these schemes have proliferated and have become part of the problem by giving the illusion of sustainability in the sector whilst being unable to show any evidence of change created. Brands are also freely using their membership of such initiatives to greenwash and even escape government scrutiny.
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A New Look for the Fashion Industry:
EU Textile Strategy and the Crucial Role of Extended Producer Responsibility
The European Union is a huge market for textile products: in 2020 8.7 million tonnes of finished textile products with the value of 125 billion EUR were imported into the EU, and the average European spends 600 EUR on clothes and 150 EUR on shoes. Since 2000, with the rise of fast fashion, which relies on the use of cheap synthetic fibres, the industry has been responsible for growing mountains of textile waste and other negative environmental impacts. For this reason, the European Commission has promised to develop an EU strategy for sustainable textiles. This policy briefing focuses on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), a powerful market-based policy tool that is expected to be at the centre of the upcoming Textiles Strategy. An EPR scheme is a regulatory measure which involves setting fees so companies pay for the costs associated with the end-of-life management of their products. The technical study by Eunomia Research & Consulting finds that each EU Member State should implement its own EPR for textiles, while certain key elements, such as performance targets, defining which producers are to be obligated, and the criteria for eco-modulation of fees based on environmental criteria related to product design, should be harmonised at the EU level. Harmonisation of these elements will ensure clarity for producers selling across multiple Member States, reduce administrative burden in respect of reporting requirements, and increase the effectiveness of fee modulation in driving design changes. In addition, supporting policy instruments will be needed to increase the effectiveness of EPR schemes, and complement them by addressing essential issues for end-of-life management – notably a ban on hazardous chemicals and the introduction of minimum eco-design requirements for products placed on the EU market.
Synthetics Anonymous: fashion brands’ addiction to fossil fuels
This report investigates the behaviour of some of the biggest fashion brands and retailers regarding their use of synthetic fibres and transparency about doing so. We reached out to 46 brands with a questionnaire, finding that the majority of brands are dragging their feet on reducing their reliance on fossil-fuel based fibres, with some well-known brands landing in the red-zone for heavy use of synthetics or lack of transparency. No brand was deemed to be a frontrunner on the issue of synthetics. We also conducted meticulous online research of over 4,000 products, seeking to establish what brands are doing on the ground. Our findings not only expose fashion brands’ heavy addiction to synthetics but also demonstrate rampant greenwashing across their voluntary commitments and products, with as much as 59% of green claims for the products we assessed being unsubstantiated or misleading. Whilte ultra-fast fashion brands Boohoo and Forever21 used synthetics in the vast majority of their clothes, 91% of green claims by H&M, ASOS and M&S were found to be unsubstantiated or misleading. H&M and Zalando were also found to have more or almost as much synthetics in their ‘sustainable’ collections as their main collection.
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Fossil fashion: the hidden reliance of fast fashion on fossil fuels
This report reveals the hidden reliance of the fast fashion industry on fossil fuels. It demonstrates how the historical and projected growth of synthetic fibres, such as polyester, has become the backbone of the prevailing unsustainable fast fashion business model, which is driving runaway consumption and presents a major obstacle to a circular economy. It also uncovers how, in light of the fashion industry’s growing dependence on fossil fuels, the oil and gas industry are betting on production of plastic, including plastic-fibres, as a growing share of their revenue. The production of polyester alone is leading to annual GHG emissions equivalent to 180 coal power plants and this is projected to nearly double by 2030. In addition to the climate crisis, fashion’s addiction to fossil fuels is also driving the waste crisis – from ubiquitous microfibre pollution to mountains of textile waste ending up in nature, landfills and incinerators. The report calls for a considerable slow-down of fast fashion and highlights the upcoming EU textile strategy as a good opportunity to introduce sweeping legislation that should change the course of the industry.
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