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Almost Half of Women’s Fast Fashion is Made of Virgin Plastic

Nearly half of women’s clothes offered for sale by some of Britain’s most popular fast-fashion brands are made entirely of virgin plastics such as polyester, acrylic and nylon that are rarely recycled and end up polluting the environment, according to new research by a London think tank.

Some outlets use more synthetic fibers than others, said the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, which analyzed more than 10,000 garments from popular e-tailers like Asos, Boohoo and Missguided.

Asos used less plastic than other outlets, the study found, with 65 percent of its clothing containing new petrochemicals. Boohoo and Missguided tied at 84 percent and PrettyLittleThing, which is owned by the same Boohoo parent company, topped the list at 89 percent.

In terms of clothing made wholly from new plastics, Boohoo and PrettyLittle Thing continued to “fare poorly,” with some 60 percent of items recently listed on the sites derived exclusively from virgin petrochemicals. Asos and Missguided fared better at 36 percent and 42 percent respectively.

“Fast-fashion shoppers may not be aware of the amount of plastics they are buying,” noted the report, which urged the British government to slap a “plastics tax” on clothing produced by or imported into the United Kingdom in order to “disincentivize” the extraction of fossil fuels for “fast, throwaway” fashion. The use of such fibers, which require large amounts of energy and are part of an industry that is fueling climate change, has spiked in recent years, doubling between 2000 and 2020, it added.

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“With dresses being sold for little as 5 pounds ($7), and Asos and Boohoo both posting billion-pound revenues, it’s not difficult to imagine the volume of plastic being created by the fast-fashion industry,” the RSA said.

Because such garments aren’t designed for longevity—and few scalable options exist for reclaiming and recycling used clothing into new ones—most of them quickly become waste. In the United Kingdom, 300,000 metric tons of clothing are burned or landfilled every year, according to the Waste & Resources Action Programme, a local nonprofit.

To tackle this problem, the Environmental Action Committee at the House of Commons recently held a hearing about a possible extended producer responsibility scheme, modeled on France’s. But even before clothing reaches the end of its life, trillions of microfibers shed by petroleum-based fabrics show up in rivers, oceans and food chains. For every 500 T-shirts manufactured; one is lost as microfiber pollution, according to an analysis published last week by Bain & Company.

Fast fashion, pressured by growing consumer awareness, has tried to clean up its act—or at least appear to—yet it remains slow to wean off virgin materials, the report said.

Despite Boohoo Group’s “ambitious” goal to transition all its polyester and cotton to recycled or more sustainable versions by 2025, it has a “mountain to climb,” the RSA said: Only 1 percent of clothing on PrettyLittleThing’s website and 2 percent on Boohoo’s contained recycled fibers. Asos, a signatory of the Ellen McArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, which aims to eradicate plastic waste, had recycled content in 4 percent of its garments on its website. For Missguided, which has committed to using recycled fibers in 10 percent of its products by the end of 2021 and 25 percent by the end of 2022, the number was 5 percent.

“These companies are ‘greenwashing’ their images by producing small sustainable ranges, while the bulk of their output is still made from petrochemicals…misleading the public as to the full environmental impact of fast fashion,” the study said. “Whether these environmentally-friendly ranges can be scaled across websites at large, and make real change to the production and afterlife of products, remains to be seen.”

Asos says it’s been working to pivot to more sustainable materials as part of its broader Fashion with Integrity initiative, and that it’s using its platform to help educate its customers on how to care for their wardrobe in a more environmentally friendly way.

“That said, we of course—like the rest of the industry—recognize there is much more work to do, and continually review and develop our programs to ensure we minimize our impact on people and the planet,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “We’ll be announcing further targets on this later this year so look forward to sharing more then.”

Boohoo and Missguided did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A poll conducted by the RSA earlier this year found that the British public wants greater action and transparency on the use of petrochemicals in the fashion supply chain. Most people are also reluctant to say they actually buy synthetic fibers, with just one-third admitting to regularly buying garments made with polyester, acrylic and nylon despite plastics accounting for the majority of textiles on the market.

Even so, 76 percent of respondents said they wanted to see fewer plastics and petrochemicals used in the production of clothing. And more than half (59 percent) said both government regulation and consumer choices play roles in tackling the environmental impacts of clothing.

“The eye-watering levels of plastics in our environment can at times seem insurmountable—it will be a generational challenge to undo the damage caused by fossil fuels and the careless disposal of synthetic textiles,” the RSA said. “By learning from positive steps in packaging and consumer goods, a coalition of government regulation, consumer action and a commitment from the industry to change their practices could start to stem the tide of cheap, disposable plastic in the fashion supply chain.”

There’s no need to eliminate the use of plastics in clothing entirely, since durable synthetic fibers could serve as part of a future circular fashion system, the RSA said. More crucially, it is our relationship with our clothing that needs to change. Consumers should commit to buying less and buying better, making fewer impulse purchases and engaging in resale, rental and repair.

“We can no longer use plastics to create poorly made garments which are designed to be worn only a handful of times,” it said. “Other materials, such as cotton and viscose, can also create environmental problems, so ultimately it is the scale of production that needs to change.”