Synthetics Dominated Spring 2021 Collections, So What About Sustainability?

Plastic Free July, a month-long campaign against plastic use, is off to an interesting start for fashion.

Nonprofit Changing Markets Foundation, with support from the Clean Clothes Campaign, Ethical Consumer and Fashion Revolution, launched an in-depth report on synthetics use within the industry called “Synthetic Anonymous” on Wednesday.

The report evaluated brands on their overall reliance on synthetics in their total material mix as a pulse of industry progress. Brands were categorized as “frontrunners” (do not use synthetics), “could do better” (synthetic use is under 25 percent of total material mix), “trailing behind” (limited transparency about use and high percentage of synthetics or rising percentage) and “red zone” (little to no transparency at all).

There were 46 brands evaluated, based off of a questionnaire sent out in March 2021 as well as desk-side research into brand policies and public disclosure.

In a signal to transparency, 83 percent, or 38 brands, responded to the questionnaire. Only eight companies failed to provide answers including Gap, Gildan, Nike, Patagonia, Target, The North Face, Timberland and Walmart, according to the report.

In the last decade, recycled polyester production has increased from 9 percent to 14 percent according to Textile Exchange. Recycled polyester production often obscures the impact of making the plastic bottles that enable it, as well as the microplastics, shed later down the line. The majority of companies (or 85 percent) indicated their aim to achieve recycled polyester targets by using polyester from downcycled PET bottles, which the report called a “false solution.”

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“Our report clearly demonstrates that the fashion industry’s addiction to synthetics is glaring — and will inevitably worsen, as no brand has made a clear commitment to changing course…Policymakers must take measures to break the vicious cycle of cheap, synthetic material reliance and ensure the industry shifts to responsible production based on the principles of a truly circular economy. The upcoming EU textile strategy presents a significant opportunity to do this,” the report noted.

Additionally, researchers examined a cross-section of brands’ spring 2021 collections to represent the industry — analyzing 4,028 products from ultra-fast fashion to outdoor and luxury brands — as well as “those keen to advertise their sustainability credentials.”

Synthetics were included in 67 percent of the clothing analyzed, or 53 percent on average. The sweep included Asos, Boohoo, H&M, Louis Vuitton, Walmart, Zara and others. Every brand analyzed used at least some synthetics.

Amid the European Commission’s pledge to address greenwashing and the recent guidance from the U.K.’s Competition Markets Authority on environmental claims, legal repercussions may soon thwart brand aims. Using the new guidelines on green claims, the report found that, of the 39 percent of products accompanied by a sustainability claim, 59 percent flouted green-claims guidelines in some way.

Some brands held through the claim-testing, with Zara and Gucci making the fewest claims in contravention of the guidance while, according to the report, the majority of claims by H&M, Asos and Marks and Spencer flouted the guidelines in some way.

H&M’s Conscious Collection was flagged for containing a higher percentage of synthetics against its main collection, (72 percent versus 61 percent). Collections that rely on polyester, even if recycled, were flagged by the report for greenwashing, as were clothes that marketed being recyclable or monomaterial but contained hidden synthetics which mar the chance of recycling.

Language around “sustainable,” “preferred,” and “sustainably sourced” materials also drew criticism for being “ill defined” which is why regulation is happening around textiles.

Many brands today still refrain from disclosing material mix by percent tonnage — despite consumer requests for transparency. Companies like Gap, Gildan, Lululemon, Nike, Patagonia, Target, The North Face, Timberland and Walmart were classified in the “red zone,” for “failure to disclose reliance on synthetics.”

Boohoo, Walmart and Uniqlo had the most items by volume employing synthetics. A handful of brands stated intentions “to avoid or reduce synthetics altogether,” those being Reformation, Hugo Boss, Esprit, Dressmann, Puma and United Colors of Benetton.

Saying the report came at the right moment, Livia Firth, Eco-Age cofounder and creative director, hopes to see more regulation.

“There is so much greenwashing regarding circularity — a much needed business model we all need to adopt, but made nearly impossible in the fashion industry by the vast amount of synthetic fibers used,” Firth said in a statement. “In this regard, we have also been working for few months at EU level to make sure that the proposed PEF label uses the correct methodology, and we hope the EU Commission will take this groundbreaking report into consideration to ensure the correct legislative way forward.”

The week Synthetics Anonymous published coincided with a series of circularity milestones. Patagonia announced its investment in Infinna fiber made from textile waste, Timberland touted its closed-loop Timberloop Trekker hiking shoe and take-back program and Aquafil celebrated the launch of its d-to-c Econyl regenerated nylon shop. A spokesperson for Patagonia said the recent moves on Infinna were motivated by an ongoing vision of circularity and “being responsible for the end of life with the cotton products we put out into the world.”

The Synthetics Anonymous report noted the growing number of brands (among them Adidas, Inditex, Monsoon, Nike and Puma) implementing take-back options for used clothes, but reiterated that circular design principles and infrastructure are still catching up.

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