Last updated: September 2016
There are some excellent ethical choices when you are buying a fleece. In this guide we look at some of the main ethical issues, including recycled materials, toxics, microfibres, supply chain issues and greenhouse gas emissions.
Patagonia pioneered the idea of making fleeces out of recycled plastic bottles back in 1993. Nowadays, the following companies all make some fleeces out of recycled plastic:
As a result, we gave them all a Product Sustainability mark on the score table.
To transform plastic bottles into fleeces, the plastic is melted and formed into long strands, which is spun into yarn. As well as diverting plastic from landfill, the process uses about a-third-to-a-half less energy than making virgin polyester, and produces about half the greenhouse gas emissions.
As we’ve covered in other clothing guides, Greenpeace is calling on clothing companies to phase out the use of toxic substances, including PFCs and phthalates, both of which are frequently used in outdoor gear. Phthalates are plastic softeners, and PFCs are used to make textiles repel water. They have been linked to a range of health problems including asthma, obesity, breast cancer and endocrine disruption.
The fleece companies do not do well in this area. All companies apart from Fjällräven, Páramo and Howies receive our worst rating on toxics. Páramo was the only one that had a clear policy not to use any of them.
See our 'Toxic Outdoor Clothing' article for more information on PFCs and the Greenpeace campaign.
Over the last few years microfibers have been starting to raise alarm among marine researchers, although it is still unclear on how serious their effects are. Microfibers are tiny threads shed from synthetic fabrics like fleeces during washing. A city of 100,000 people produces 170-441 kilograms of them a day.
The thing that is bothering everyone is the amount that they are turning up in the bellies of aquatic organisms like fish and muscles. It is thought that they may cause them health problems such as gastrointestinal blockages, and as people eat aquatic animals there is also a danger to human health. Furthermore clothes contain large quantities of unpalatable chemicals, and microfibers may transport them into the environment.
It is a lot harder to eliminate synthetic textiles than it is to eliminate microbeads, another source of plastic water pollution that has hit the news recently. Researchers are assuming that it is just not going to happen, and are instead trying to look at ways to mitigate the problem. Patagonia has been funding much of the research into potential mitigation strategies, which include washing machine filters, or different garment construction. But at the moment nobody is clear on what is going to work.
Greenhouse gas impacts of different fabrics
Most fleeces are made of 100% polyester, but as many consumers are choosing between fleeces and jumpers, it is worth comparing its impact to other fabrics.
Full life-cycle estimates of the greenhouse gas emissions of various fabrics, are given in the box below.  The figures include emissions at the fibre production, fabric weaving and end of life stages,
Unsurprisingly, given the greenhouse gas impacts of sheep, wool comes out as a heavy emitter. Flax is known as a low impact plant, and so it is also not surprising that linen comes out so well. Polyester and cotton are in the middle, but it seems that polyester has the edge, at least on this metric.
It is worth noting that the greenhouse gas emissions associated with different fabrics do not definitely reflect the amount of energy used to make them. This is because when it comes to agriculture, CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas that matters. For example, polyester is much more energy intensive than cotton, but its greenhouse gas emissions are lower because growing cotton produces nitrous oxide. And while making wool requires little energy, it is associated with a lot of greenhouse gas emissions because sheep are ruminants (chew the cud) and thus produce methane.
Supply chain issues in the sector- more stable business practices
In 2014 the FairWear Foundation put out a report on the outdoor industry, claiming that the makers of outdoor gear tend to have more stable relationships with their suppliers than is common in the wider clothing sector. If this is true, it is probably because making outdoor gear requires more specialised labour, and also because it is not sold so much on the basis of fleeting fashions so designs change less regularly, and thus it makes more sense to keep going with suppliers who know what they are doing.
The FairWear Foundation looked at a sample of six outdoor companies, and found that they sourced 90% of their clothing from factories with which they had had a relationship for five or more years, which is very different from the bulk of the clothing industry. The outdoor companies also had fewer suppliers– in many cases just one or two- and used longer lead times.
The Foundation did not suggest that this meant that everything was hunky dory. It still found issues, particularly excessive overtime, in factories making outdoor clothing. But it argued that the more stable supplier relationships found in the industry put it in a good position to lead the clothing industry on workers rights in its supply chain.
Our Supply Chain Management rating only assesses explicit policies, rather than sector-wide issues like these. On that front there has been some improvement since we last assessed fleece companies in 2010. Eight of the companies are now receiving our best rating. However, the bulk of the companies are still doing quite poorly.
The exemplar in the supply chain area, however, is Páramo. Páramo is an explicitly ethical company that does over 80% of its production at the Miquelina Foundation in Colombia, which aims specifically to give training and employment opportunities to vulnerable people. You can read more about Paramo on their spotlight page.
Company behind the brand
Patagonia is known for its environmental and social credentials. It is a “benefit corporation” which is an American legal category, and means a company whose legally defined goals include having a positive impact on society, workers and the environment.
Patagonia has supported research into environmental issues (see “microfibers”), pioneered a Traceable Down Standard to eliminate live duck and goose plucking, and closed its New York branch during a climate march to encourage its employees to go on the protest. It provides on-site childcare facilities for its staff, and commits 1% of its total sales, or 10% of its profit, whichever is the greater, to environmental groups. It recently gave $1,164 to Bernie Saunders’s campaign for the US presidency.
Despite this, it still received our worst rating for both Environmental Reporting and Toxics due to its lack of quantified future targets.
In 2015 Patagonia increased its number of Fair Trade products from 33 to 192. After discovering human trafficking in its supply chain in 2012 it also developed a ‘Migrant Worker Standard’ which it now applies to its whole supply chain.
Patagonia produced a supposedly anti-consumerist ad in the US in 2011 that said “don’t buy this jacket” next to an enticing picture of a cosy-looking fleece. The ad prompted a huge spew of online reactions, most of which, for obvious reasons, were quite cynical.
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If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table.
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1.“Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”, by Cherrett et al, Stockholm Environment Institute
2. Bruce et al, 2016, Microfibre pollution and the apparel industry
3. Wrap, 2012, A Carbon Footprint for UK Clothing and Opportunities for Savings
4. FairWear Foundation, 2014, Living Wage Engineering