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How Reformation is Holding Itself Accountable For Fashion’s Synthetics ‘Addiction’

Reformation is acknowledging what environmental campaigners have dubbed fashion’s “elephant in the room.”

Since its inception in 2009, the It Girl brand has adopted a “strong stance” on avoiding virgin fossil-fuel fabrics, which make up a tiny fraction of its fiber usage today, said Kathleen Talbot, its chief sustainability officer and vice president of operations. Still, it hasn’t been able to wean itself off them entirely. Like most clothing purveyors, Reformation still uses synthetics in “small quantities” to help with performance and stretch in a few of its fabrics.

This Talbot hopes to change. Before 2025 rolls around, Reformation aims to reduce all synthetics—recycled versions included—to less than 1 percent of its total sourcing. By 2030, the L.A.-based firm will employ no virgin petrochemical-based fibers whatsoever.

Most brands, jostling to frame their offerings as better for the planet, have turned to recycled polyester made from castoff plastic bottles, something that critics decry as a “false solution” because it deprives functioning recycling systems of a feedstock that can be turned into new plastic bottles multiple times. Once turned into clothing, reclaiming that plastic is much harder.

Reformation wants to do something different. It’s investing in scalable fiber-to-fiber recycling solutions such as SuperCircle, a burgeoning tech platform and reverse logistics system that taps into a network of recyclers to squeeze the highest-value use from unwanted garments and footwear. It’s also “actively developing” with recycled polyester fiber innovators, particularly for product categories with high-performance requirements, such as swim and activewear.

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“We believe the future of fashion is circular, and therefore should make every effort to keep the massive amounts of polyester clothing already in existence in the textile system,” Talbot said.

By setting these commitments, the Canada Goose collaborator is “holding ourselves accountable” to pour money into R&D and emerging technologies that will “eventually help us break up with virgin synthetics for good,” she added. Critically, they will encourage it to curb its own use of recycled synthetics in ready-to-wear categories that “frankly don’t need to be made from plastic.”

Reformation’s pledge may be a “small win” in the broader scheme of things, but it provides a “template” for other brands to follow, said George Harding-Rolls, campaign manager at the Changing Markets Foundation. More important, he said, it “shows it can be done.”

The Hailey Bieber and Taylor Swift fave was also the only one out of a cohort of 55 brands that made such a sweeping promise, according to a report by the corporate watchdog group, which surveyed fashion’s biggest names, from Adidas, which previously vowed to use only recycled polyester by 2024, to Zara owner Inditex, which has promised to transition to “sustainable” and recycled polyester by 2025. The results, which the Changing Markets Foundation published earlier this month, were pretty bleak. Despite the “plethora of ‘green’ claims,” brands show a “near-complete lack of progress” in kicking their addiction to fossil-fuel-based fibers, it said. Neither are they demonstrating “credible action” on climate.

Of the 33 companies that disclosed their synthetics volume and percentage, Boohoo earned the ignoble honor of having the heaviest reliance on synthetics as a percentage of its total annual fiber use, or 64 percent. The e-tail giant was also found to have the highest percentage of polyester (54 percent) in its textile products. Nike and Inditex reported the highest volumes of synthetics and polyester in their products at 166,343 metric tons and 131,548 metric tons, respectively.

Boohoo, Nike and Inditex did not respond to requests for comment.

One year after Changing Markets Foundation’s first “Synthetics Anonymous” report—this one is aptly called “Synthetics Anonymous 2.0—brands continue to “mask their addiction” to synthetic materials under the guise of commitments to increase their use of recycled polyester and nylon, the organization said. This includes the aforementioned reliance on recycling plastic bottles, which could come under regulatory scrutiny as policymakers increasingly crack down on misleading environmental statements. In short, greenwashing.

While 45 of the 55 brands, or 81 percent, have established targets to increase their recycled synthetic content, only a “handful” of brands are investing in fiber-to-fiber recycling technologies, the report noted. Just 30 brands, or a little over half of the group, had any evident policies on microfibers.

“We are disappointed about the deepening reliance of fashion brands on dirty fossil fuels in the midst of a climate emergency,” said Ursa Trunk, campaigns manager at the Changing Markets Foundation. “Fashion needs to clean up its act and cut its addiction to synthetic fibers, as their negative impacts are now widely documented: from microplastic pollution leaching into our rivers and oceans to piles of clothes dumped in the landfills of countries in the global South. The report findings highlight an alarming disconnect between [the] fashion industry’s sustainability claims and targets and the lack of real measurable progress on the ground.”

But if brands aren’t making the change just yet, there is at least a growing awareness of the need for change as laid out in the European Union’s Textile Strategy.

Some 81 percent of the brands the Changing Markets Foundation polled voted in favor of extended producer responsibility. Another 87 percent were in favor of promoting eco-design, and 94 percent threw their support behind legislation to reduce the risk of false green claims. Significantly, 83 percent were behind a mandatory increase in supply chain transparency, which the EU strategy hasn’t proposed.

Given that only four companies shared their synthetic supplier lists in response to the questionnaire, this indicates a significant “intention-versus-action gap” that could benefit from regulation, the report said.

“With the recently proposed EU strategy, the era of companies marking their own homework is over,” said Emily Macintosh, senior policy officer for textiles at the European Environmental Bureau, the continent’s largest network of environmental citizens’ organizations.

“Brands are showing strong support for legislation, and the commission must now
ensure that brands take responsibility for wasteful fast fashion and stop the free-for-all on marketing claims that convince us products are ‘green,’” Macintosh said. “But it also needs to go much further to shed light on shady supply chain practices and set strong rules to tackle overproduction.”