Fast fashion retailers are being urged to dramatically increase their use of recycled materials after a new study found that half of the clothes sold on popular websites were made from virgin plastics.
The Royal Society of Arts carried out an analysis of 10,000 items across ASOS, Missguided, Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing and found on average 49% were made of polyester, acrylic, nylon and elastane.
ASOS compares more favourably than its lower-priced rivals with 36% of its clothing made entirely from virgin plastics, while Boohoo fares the worst with 60% of its clothes falling into this category.
In terms of how much plastic, recycled and non-recycled, that goes into the average item listed on each website, ASOS also fares the best at 49%, compared to an average across all four brands of 61%.
The report states that the plastics issue has been exacerbated by the boom in online shopping brought about by the pandemic and points out that the lack of suitable recycling facilities means that much of this plastic-containing clothing would end up in landfill.
“The average polyester shirt produces 5.5kg of CO2, 20 percent more than its cotton equivalent, and the same emissions as driving 13 miles in a passenger car.”
“With dresses being sold for little as £5, and Asos and Boohoo both posting billion-pounding revenues, it’s not difficult to imagine the volume of plastic being created by the fast fashion industry. Online shopping has boomed during the pandemic – Boohoo Group’s sales increased by 41 percent over the last financial year.
“Synthetic textiles are creating significant environmental damage in terms of emissions and waste. An MIT study found that the average polyester shirt produces 5.5kg of CO2, 20 percent more than its cotton equivalent, and the same emissions as driving 13 miles in a passenger car. In 2015, polyester production was responsible for 700 million tonnes of CO2, the equivalent of the annual carbon emissions of Germany,” the report points out.
While some of the brands featured have been producing capsule collections containing recycled polyester for instance, the report says these could be viewed as simply “greenwashing” given the low percentage of recycled fibres used overall by these businesses.
“These small, high-visibility sustainable ranges could even be seen as examples of ‘greenwashing’, misleading the public as to the full environmental impact of fast fashion. 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,” it says.
Overall, just 3.2% of the clothing sold across the four retailers contains recycled plastics with ASOS again outperforming its rivals with 6%.
ASOS was also singled out by the report for having a marketplace to enable customers to resell pre-worn clothing and the retailer told the BBC that it disputed its classification as a fast fashion retailer, saying its price points mean its clothing was not seen as “throwaway” by consumers.
Boohoo, which also owns PrettyLittleThing, has been working on its ethical and environmental credentials of late and said in a statement: “In March this year the boohoo Group launched a brand new sustainability strategy, Up Front, which is a no nonsense, set of measurable targets designed to reduce the Group’s carbon footprint, reduce waste and use our size and scale for good.
“Together, polyester and cotton account for over 80% of the fibres we use and so we are tackling these first. We have set ourselves a challenging target to ensure that all of the polyester and cotton that we use is either recycled or more sustainable by 2025.”
The Manchester group recently launched a new Recycled Collection in partnership with a UK supplier using plastic that would otherwise have gone to landfill.
Meanwhile Missguided has said it is “committed to making sure 10% of our products will use recycled fibres by the end of 2021 and 25% by the end of 2022”.
As a result of the study the RSA is calling upon the Government to consider a per-item “plastics tax” on clothing imported into or produced in the UK containing virgin plastics, in order to disincentivise the extraction of fossil-fuels destined to become clothing. It suggests that income from the tax could be used to invest in new innovations in biomaterials and circular economy infrastructure.
The RSA also suggests that the Government should introduce Extended Producer Responsibility commitments, which are currently being discussed in a Defra consultation, and should incentivise businesses taking steps towards circular economy business models, such as reviewing VAT rates on repair services.
It also urges consumers to ensure they are wearing their clothes more than a handful of times, making fewer impulse purchases as well as sharing, repairing and caring for their current clothing.
However, while fashion e-commerce has boomed during lockdown, so have resale and rental businesses, proving that the message of circularity is gaining traction with consumers.
Young fashion resale site Depop was acquired by marketplace giant Etsy for $1.6bn earlier this month, while at the luxury end of resale Vestiaire Collective attracted high profile investment from Paris-based conglomerate Kering, parent of Saint Laurent and Gucci, which now owns 5% of the business.
Vestiaire Collective began as a peer to peer resale business but is now also working directly with brands and retailers, such as Alexander McQueen and Mytheresa, to encourage consumers to resell past purchases in exchange for credit on new buys.
Selfridges has just launched a luxury fashion rental service in partnership with Hurr Collective while in mid-market both Moss Bros and LK Bennett have teamed up with CaaStle to launch subscription rental services.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s wife Carrie Johnson has also been a high profile advocate for renting clothing and even rented her wedding dress from My Wardrobe HQ, and other online rental services such as By Rotation and Rotaro are also dipping their toes into physical retail by opening pop-up stores to promote their services.