Roughly half of the clothing sold online by big fashion brands like Boohoo and Asos is made entirely from virgin plastic materials like polyester, despite the push to reduce the fashion industry’s huge environmental impact.
An analysis of 10,000 items added to the Asos, Boohoo, Missguided and PrettyLittleThing websites over a fortnight in May found that an average of 49% were made entirely of new plastics such as polyester, acrylic and nylon. In some stores, only 1% contained recycled fabric, according to the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) study.
The rise of fast fashion has caused the use of synthetic fibers, which are made with fossil fuels, to double in the last 20 years. These “cheap” materials, said Josie Warden, RSA’s director of regenerative design and co-author of the report, had fueled an “explosion of fast, disposable fashion.”
“These fabrics may be cheap at the point of sale, but they are part of a petrochemical economy that is driving rampant climate change and pollution,” he added. “The production of synthetic fibers uses large amounts of energy.”
The climate crisis has increased pressure on the fashion industry to mend its ways. In the UK, 300,000 tonnes of clothing are burned or buried each year, leading to brands such as PrettyLittleThing and Missguided being criticized for encouraging unsustainable consumption with gimmicks such as 8p dresses and 1 euro bikinis.
Some young shoppers may not be aware of how different types of fabrics are made, the report suggests.
The sheer volume of clothing produced by the websites was “shocking,” said Warden, who suggested that consumers should view these synthetic fabrics as part of the same problem as single-use plastic packaging.
“We can no longer use plastics to create poorly made garments that are designed to be worn only a handful of times. These use large amounts of energy and create environmental damage in their production, and can take thousands of years to decompose, “he said.
“Other materials, such as cotton and viscose, can also create environmental problems, so ultimately it is the scale of production that must change.”
Following disclosures of poor wages and conditions at some of the factories it used, Boohoo, owner of PrettyLittleThing, has embarked on a full review of its supply chain. With 80% of its clothing made from cotton or polyester, it has committed to making these fabrics recycled or more sustainable by 2025.
A Missguided spokesperson said the brand had drastically reduced its use of virgin plastic, but agreed that “there is more to do.” It said that 10% of its products would use recycled fibers by the end of 2021 and 25% by the end of 2022.
The RSA is calling for a per item “plastics tax” on clothing imported or produced in the UK from virgin plastics, although in 2019 the government rejected MPs’ recommendations to impose a 1p per garment tax. More simply, it suggests that consumers buy less and make fewer impulse purchases.