The state of fashion industry today is defined by fast and mass production of low-price, disposable, and quickly changing fashion. But the cheap, fast and mass soon becomes obsolete and end up creating piles of waste, bearing no accountability by the fashion industry. While the plethora of green claims and initiatives give the impression that the industry is dealing with this problem, the reality shows a very different picture.
The future of fashion is at risk of being built on fast and ultra-fast fashion brands like Shein, which add around 1,000 low-quality items daily to their site. Shein currently outperforms most of its competitors and is worth more than H&M and Zara combined. In other words, if Shein is the bellwether of the fashion industry today, it means that the industry is on a destructive path of persistent overproduction of cheap clothing. It also means that without systemic change, fast fashion’s quest for cheap clothing will create untenable volumes of waste, toxic microfibres and emit more carbon than the planet can handle.
What lies beneath this model is an elephant in the room the industry is disinclined to address—fashion has a plastic problem. The fashion industry is addicted to plastic-based fibres or synthetics, such as polyester and nylon. Since overtaking cotton as the most used fibre in early 2000s, synthetics have become a key enabler of the business model driving today’s overconsumption of fashion. Produced and sold cheaply, synthetic-dominated fast-fashion items are often discarded after just seven or eight uses, ending up in landfills, incinerators or dumped in nature. As synthetic fibres represent over two-thirds (69%) of textiles, a share that is projected to skyrocket in the future, they have become a huge cause of fashion’s ongoing waste crisis, which shows no sign of dwindling. Cheap synthetic fibres are also harmful because they enable shedding of microplastics that are ending up in our environment and bodies and perpetuate the fashion industry’s dependence on fossil-fuel extraction in the midst of a climate emergency.
Nevertheless, our report Synthetics Anonymous 2.0 reveals that, the fashion industry is blind to the fact that synthetics are a significant problem and shows no sign to curb its addiction. Analysis of 55 clothing brands’ policies and strategies unveiled that one-fourth of the largest fashion companies are recording a heavier reliance on plastic-based fibres. For some brands, such as Boohoo, synthetics account for more than half of fibre use (64%), while Nike and Inditex reported heaviest volumes of synthetics used; 166,343 tonnes and 131,548 tonnes, respectively. That means that they together annually use the volume of synthetics thirty times as heavy as The Eiffel Tower.
Only one company, Reformation, committed to phasing out virgin synthetics by 2030 and reducing all synthetics (virgin and recycled) to less than 1% of total sourcing by 2025. Most of the companies are however still dragging their feet with little to no transparency about their strategy on synthetic fibre use.