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Fast fashion’s addiction to synthetic fibres

Urska Trunk from the Changing Markets Foundation describes how Fast Fashion has revolutionised how we produce and buy clothes.

Their recent report ‘Fossil fashion: the hidden reliance of fast fashion on fossil fuels’, revealed that the industry has become dangerously dependent on synthetic fibres, such as polyester, which have become the backbone of the 'pile them high, sell them cheap' business model.

Every year the fashion industry churns out billions of items of clothing at rock bottom prices. Where we used to see a few seasons a year, fast fashion brands now launch 50–100 ‘micro-seasons’ annually. Zara produces 20 collections and H&M 16 collections each year, with production times varying from a few weeks to six months. Others, such as Boohoo, ASOS and Missguided, can produce merchandise in just 2–4 weeks, some for as little as a few pennies. For example, in its November 2020 ‘Pink Friday’ sale, retailer Pretty Little Things slashed prices by up to 99%, offering some items for as little as 5p.

For fashion brands to make profits at these low prices means that costs have to be cut elsewhere. The prevailing fast fashion model and current purchasing practices by brands allow suppliers to disregard labour rights and environmental protection. As demonstrated by the fashion industry’s $16 billion debt to garment workers in 2020. This was due to demand shortfalls from COVID-19, and the mountains of discarded clothing pouring into landfill at a rate of one garbage truck per second.

Fast fashion is also a false economy for consumers. The average consumer buys 60% more clothing compared to 15 years ago, yet due to the lower quality of items, wears each item of clothing for half as long. This creates a vicious cycle in which we buy ever more clothes: great for the bottom line of fast fashion brands, bad for our wallets and the environment in the long run.

What is greasing the wheels of fast fashion?

A closer look at clothing stores, and even peering into our own closets, reveals that most textiles today are made from synthetic fibres, which are produced from oil and gas. Our recent report 'Fossil fashion: the hidden reliance of fast fashion on fossil fuels', revealed that the fast fashion industry has become dangerously dependent on synthetic fibres, such as polyester, which have become the backbone of their 'pile them high, sell them cheap' business model.

While this model was born in the 1990s, it is the early 2000s that are regarded as the era when fast fashion flourished – tallying with the moment when H&M first opened in New York, polyester overtook cotton as the most in-demand fibre, and dramatic changes were made in the production and consumption of clothing.

Nowadays, polyester costs half as much per kilo as cotton and allows the fashion brands to crank out more clothing items every year. In the last 20 years there has been a striking correlation between the rise of polyester as the darling of the fashion industry and the explosion in cheap and low-quality clothing.

The use of synthetic fibres in textiles has more than doubled since 2000 and is already present in over two thirds (69%) of textiles we use today. Fashion’s addiction to fossil fuel-based fibres has resulted in runaway consumption, mountains of clothing waste lost to landfill or incineration, and billions of plastic microfibres ending up in our environment and in our bodies.

Recent research by the Plastic Soup Foundation found that both nylon and polyester microfibres – which shed from synthetic clothes – can enter people’s lungs and impede recovery of those with COVID-19, as well as affect children, whose lungs are still developing.

What’s worse, the use of synthetics is projected to skyrocket by 2030, meaning that if nothing changes, in 10 years nearly three quarters of our textiles will be made from synthetic fibres, with 85% of this coming from polyester. If the situation looks dire now, by 2030 it will be disastrous.

Is there a way to slow down fashion?

Fashion brands and retailers want consumers to think they’ve got this problem under control. However, the avalanche of green claims and labels from the industry is merely smoke and mirrors and has failed to create systemic change.

Clothing companies are reluctant to face up to the nexus of the overproduction of synthetics and the current waste and microfibre crisis, and refuse to slow down production and reduce their over-reliance on plastic fibres, which could properly address the root cause of the issue.

Since the industry is not changing its dirty habits, governments need to step in and develop legislation to slow down fashion and decouple it from fossil fuels. An upcoming EU Textile Strategy is a good opportunity to do that, while governments worldwide should follow suit and commit to developing ambitious legislation for the textile sector.

While the ultimate responsibility to break the fast fashion model lies with the industry and policymakers, consumers also have an important role to play, by refraining from compulsive shopping and buying only what they really need.

They can also choose to buy only from brands that have made clear commitments to transparency, sustainable sourcing and production of their clothes, and which have a clear plan to break their dependence on fossil-fuel-based fibres.

Finally, we all have a powerful role to play in raising awareness about exploitative practices, environmental harm and unsustainable consumption - the true cost of fast fashion.