30 June 2021 – Pressrelease
- An analysis of nearly 50 major fashion brands reveals they show no clear commitment to address plastic microfiber pollution from their clothes.
- 59% of green claims by European and Dutch companies including H&M, Zara, Zalando, and Marks & Spencer unsubstantiated or misleading to consumers finds new report.
- The global production of synthetic textile fibers requires as much oil as Spain annually.
- Plastic microfibers have been found falling in the form of plastic rain – mostly from synthetics fibers used for clothing – on protected areas, deposited there by wind and rain.
- Plastic microfibers have been found in the deepest point of the earth – the Mariana Trench -, but also on the peaks of the Himalayas and in the melting Arctic ice.
The world’s biggest fashion brands are fueling the plastic pollution and climate crisis through continued reliance on synthetic fiber made from fossil fuels, finds a new report by Changing Markets, and supported by the Plastic Soup Foundation.
The report, entitled Synthetics Anonymous: Fashion brands’ addiction to fossil fuels, analyzed almost 50 major fashion brands; out of these it assessed 46 of the world’s supposedly most transparent brands, from high street to luxury, including Zara, Primark, H&M, C&A, Adidas and Nike on the amount of fossil fuel-based materials in their collections and commitments to contribute to resolving the global plastic pollution crisis.
A further investigation into the online shops of 12 brands detailed in the report, which analyzed over 4,000 products, reveals that brands including H&M, Zalando and Marks & Spencer are routinely deceiving consumers by deploying greenwashing tactics. An average of 91% of green claims these three brands made for their products were deemed misleading or unsubstantiated. Others were found to hide the fact that their so-called ‘eco-conscious’ collections often contain as much synthetic fiber as their main lines, with H&M’s conscious collection containing an even higher share of synthetics than the main one.
The problem with synthetics
Synthetics represent over two thirds (69%) of all materials used in textiles. This figure is expected to balloon to nearly three quarters by 2030, of which 85% will be polyester, a material produced from fossil fuels such as oil and fracked gas. The production of synthetic fibers currently accounts for 1.35% of global oil consumption, which exceeds the annual oil consumption of Spain and amounts to 1.29 billion barrels of oil a year.
Cheap synthetic fibers are problematic because they enable low-quality clothing, thereby fueling the over-consumption of low-quality fast fashion items, which in turn are more likely to end up in waste and contribute to fiber release into the environment. Even during the climate crisis, the fashion industry is becoming more dependent on the extraction of fossil fuels, which ultimately results in huge volumes of plastic ending up in landfills and incinerators.
Microplastics, a major source of plastic pollution
When manufactured, washed, worn, and disposed of, synthetic clothes release plastic microfibers that are known to pose risks to human health and the environment. Not only have researchers found plastic fibers at the top of the world, but microfibers were also found at the deepest point of the ocean – the Mariana Trench. These particles, mainly coming from textiles such as clothing, upholstery, and carpets, were found in air samples in Paris, London, China, France, and Germany. And even in remote areas of the French Pyrenees, US national parks, and the Himalayas. There is a constant fall-out of textile fibers because they travel all over the world by air, but also by water. We therefore eat, drink and breathe our own clothes. This makes the fashion industry’s heavy reliance on synthetic fibres a threat to human and environmental health.
Recent research has found microplastics in placentas and stools. Plastic microfibers in the air are inhaled and can end up in the lungs of consumers, where they can hinder the development of lung cells in patients recovering from COVID-19 and children, whose lungs are still developing.
Almost 40% of textiles in indoor environments are made of plastic fibers, and we breathe in at least 13,000–68,000 plastic microfibers from our clothing, carpets, curtains and other textiles every year.
Industry asleep at the wheel
The report also proved that microplastics are still a critical blindspot for most brands. Most brands were found to be asleep at the wheel when it comes to microplastics, delaying meaningful action by citing uncertainty and calling for even more research.
In 2018 Plastic Soup Foundation performed tests of four major fashion brands together with IPCB-CNR to find that certain clothes disintegrated only after a few washes. To give the opportunity to the fashion industry to know how polluting the clothes they produce are, IPCB-CNR and Plastic Soup Foundation developed the WOMA benchmark: the first-ever methodology independent from the fashion industry that measures microfiber release from plastic clothes.
It’s time to take responsibility
Not a single brand was assessed to be a frontrunner for their approach to synthetics. Coupled with the greenwashing exposed in the report, this suggests that the industry has a long way to go when it comes to tackling the climate and plastic waste crises in a meaningful way.
The report urges brands to tackle their addiction to fossil fuel-derived synthetics, to commit to ambitious climate targets and invest in truly circular solutions. Fashion brands need to invest in making clothes that last longer through better design and other solutions to reduce plastic microfiber release. The fashion industry has the responsibility to make fashion safe, for the environment and for the health of the next generations.
And time to act for both consumers and politicians
Consumers are encouraged to think twice about their purchases and to question the integrity of the shops they are buying from before purchasing. The model of buying clothes that only last a season should change, therefore, moving from fast fashion to slow fashion trends: quality over quantity.
This industry transformation should be guided by ambitious regulations. For example, ahead of the upcoming EU textile strategy, the report asks legislators to take action to address low quality clothing mass produced by the fast fashion industry and ensure that brands become more transparent and responsible about their supply chains and the end-of-life of their products. In addition, measures are needed to end greenwashing, which the report found to be rampant in the industry.
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