Every time you wash your clothes, your washing machine releases plastic microfibers into the ocean. This is because fashion brands use synthetic materials such as polyester fiber that are cheap and known for being stretchy and providing garments with breathability.
So, which fashion brands use a lot of these plastic materials? Using RETVIEWS, we looked at the materials they use and the results are interesting.
THE DAMAGE POLYESTER DOES TO THE OCEANS
Polyester and other synthetic fabrics are cheap and versatile materials that fast fashion loves to use to keep prices down, as well as offer a large range of items. Sportswear brands also use them a lot because they provide a certain stretchability for athleisure. However, there is a big problem with these materials.
When washing synthetic fabrics like polyester, acrylic and nylon, thousands of plastic microfibers are released down the drain of your washing machine. These microplastic fibers are so small that they pass through the sewage treatment works and make their way to the rivers and then the oceans. They tend to accumulate and act like sponges, soaking up all the toxic elements around them. Many fishes and other aquatic animals swallow them, and if those animals eat them, we do too. This combined with pollution emitted during the production process makes fashion one of the most polluting industries in the world.
« About 35% of the microplastics present in the ocean come from synthetic textiles. »
In 2016, The University of Plymouth conducted a study to find out more about this. They added a special filter to a washing machine to evaluate how many microfibers were shed in a wash. Three fabrics were tested: a cotton-polyester blend, acrylic and polyester. All of them released more fibers during the first wash. The results showed that in subsequent washes, acrylic shed the most microfibers (more than 700,000), followed by polyester (almost 500,000) and then the polyester-cotton blend (more than 100,000).
These numbers are hard to measure precisely because there are many factors that need to be taken into account, like water temperature, speed, garment construction and detergents used. Regardless, this is a serious ecological problem that the fashion industry must face.
WHICH BRANDS ARE THE MOST RELIANT ON POLYESTER?
One solution for reducing plastic waste in our oceans is obviously to avoid using synthetic fabrics like polyester. For each brand, we looked at the number of dresses containing polyester, which is the most widely used plastic material for fashion items. Each bar represents the share of dresses that have polyester in their material composition.
Uniqlo does not use much polyester, with only 14.3% of its dresses containing this material. Global leaders H&M and Zara that have a massive impact on the fashion industry also do not have much plastic material in their dresses. At the other end of the chart, a large proportion of Vero Moda’s dresses (60.5%) and C&A (55.7%) have polyester in their material composition.
THE EMERGENCE OF NEW MATERIALS
The data shows that famously criticized fast fashion brands like Zara and H&M are actually making more effort than others to preserve our planet. Indeed, Zara and H&M have been looking for more sustainable options for several years. For example, they both have their own eco-conscious collections: H&M Conscious and Zara Join Life. Join Life, created in 2016, uses sustainable fabrics like organic cotton, lyocell or recycled materials. There is also less water used during production and fewer emissions thanks to new production processes. H&M Conscious, launched in 2011, uses the same responsible fabrics, but also uses garments collected from its customers in stores. Today, this collection represents about 4% of H&M’s range.
Both companies have their own set of goals for preserving the planet. In addition, H&M now allows you to use its website or app to trace the journey some garments make from factory to store, including providing information about the production country, factory names and supplier names
Still in the H&M Group, one of the most desirable brands at the moment, Monki, aims to have a fully sustainable supply-chain by 2030. To achieve this, Monki recently announced that from now on all their denim will be organic and sustainably sourced. This is very good news as denim is one of the largest categories of clothing produced, and its production is extremely harmful to the environment.
Other brands have decided to go all the way for sustainability. Reformation is a great example of this. The LA-based brand uses eco-friendly materials and reuses offcuts from fabrics already used. They try to manufacture items close to the shops and all their packaging is made from compostable materials or recycled paper (even the tape is bio-based).
Talking about eco-friendly fabrics, lyocell provides an interesting alternative. Just like viscose, lyocell (or tencel) is made by mixing wood-pulp with a solvent to create a viscous material. Then, the material is shaped into fibers that will become thread. Unlike for viscose, the solvent is not harmful to the environment and is recycled many times using a closed loop process. Lyocell also needs less water than cotton to grow. Plus, it is biodegradable.
So, are brands starting to use this innovative fabric? Using RETVIEWS, it is easy to check. Here is a chart showing how much lyocell some brands use:
32 FASHION BRANDS SIGN THE G7 FASHION PACT
There is more good news concerning pollution and the fashion industry. Ahead of the G7 summit in Biarritz this August, the French President Emmanuel Macron invited François-Henri Pinault, CEO of Kering and famous for his conscious clothing business practices, to gather fashion and textile industry leaders together and ask them to sign a Fashion Pact. 32 companies (representing roughly 150 brands) have committed to a set of goals to preserve our planet. This pact is historic as it unites some well-known competitors. It also proves that the private sector can act independently from governments to push for change. Pinault said that it is indeed hard to make progress alone, despite all the effort made. Among the signatories: fast-fashion leaders Inditex (Zara, Bershka) and H&M Group, sportswear pioneers Nike and Adidas, as well as luxury brands including Burberry, Hermès, Prada Group, Chanel, Armani, and eco-friendly fashion designer Stella McCartney.
Three topics are on the agenda: climate, biodiversity and oceans.
For climate, they have agreed to reduce and avoid carbon emissions, and offset through verifiable programs, with the goal of achieving a net-zero in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. They have committed to using 100% renewable energy throughout the entire supply chain by 2030.
For biodiversity, the aim is to use approaches that restore soil, support production systems that respect animal welfare and use materials that have no negative impact on key species and ecosystems. Aligning to the current news about the fires in Amazonia, they promised not to contribute to the loss or degradation of natural forests.
Finally, with regard to oceans, they have decided to stop using single-use plastics by 2030. Another key goal considering this article: the support of innovation to eliminate microfiber pollution from the washing of synthetic materials and source materials that do not result in the chemical pollution of rivers and oceans. Also, they wish to support new technologies to safeguard the rivers and oceans from chemicals released through the fashion production supply-chain.
THE BOTTOM LINE
All this shows that the fashion industry is conscious of the impact it has on the environment. It is trying to change in order to slow the damage that it makes. It is uncertain how these fast fashion (and some high end) brands, whose business models rely on the fast pace of seasonality and the disposability of garments, will manage to make affordable ethical clothing. What is certain, however, is that this Pact will raise awareness among consumers and make way for the innovations transforming this huge industry.