A recent study shows that 80% of items on popular fast fashion sites are made from plastic-based materials.
| All products featured on The Wellness Feed are independently selected by our editors for their environmental and ethical impact. However, we may earn an affiliate commission when you buy something through our retail links. |
Fast fashion is cheap, and apparently nothing is cheaper than clothing made from crude oil, no matter the cost to the environment. A recent report from the Royal Society for Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce (RSA) reasonably called ‘Fast Fashion’s Plastic Problem‘ found that most clothing found on the websites of fast fashion retailers like Boohoo, Asos, and Pretty Little Thing are all plastic-based materials like nylon and polyester. So why is fast fashion bad? It turns out that one of the many answers is its plastic problem.
What most consumers don’t realize is the scale of plastics in their clothing. According to the study, approximately 80% of the items that you’ll see on these websites are made from plastics. The RSA reviewed 10,000 items of clothing from these fast fashion brands and found that a majority of those items are made entirely from virgin plastic-based materials. A few other highlights from the report are:
- Up to 88% of recently listed items contain new plastic-based materials on the website.
- As low as 1% of recently listed items contain recycled materials.
- Brands like Boohoo have set goals like 100% of sustainable materials by 2025. But, 60% of its recent listings are made entirely from virgin plastic materials.
The problem isn’t just that these brands produce most of their clothing using the most environmentally unfriendly materials. It’s also that these brands do it while marketing themselves as sustainable.
In 2021 Boohoo launched a campaign inviting customers to view its factories after slave labor allegations. It turns out it wasn’t an open invitation but a limited invite to pre-screened customers. The company also lacked transparent plans about how they were addressing slave labor issues. This sort of marketing is greenwashing because it’s a carefully curated image rather than the truth.
When it comes to sustainable materials, Boohoo has made changes. The website states, “All polyester and cotton will be recycled or more sustainable by 2025.” To date, they’ve begun to use recycled materials. Under the ‘sustainability’ section are the brand’s cult items like biker shorts and other athleisurewear basics made from 50% recycled polyester. However, that’s still 50% of a plastic-based fabric for an item that still promotes a buy-and-throw-away culture. The other problem lies with the fact that the items are on sale for as low as $6 per garment. And, an item priced that low is unlikely to be made by paying workers living wages.
If you think other fast fashion brands are better, it turns out that they’re similar. Asos has 7,000+ products in its ‘sustainable edit’ section with prices as low as $5. This excess of clothing again feeds the -buy-and-throw-away culture while also raising questions about fair and living wages.
Why Are Plastic-Based Fabrics So Bad?
Choosing the right fabrics is no small matter when it comes to minimizing your environmental impact, whether you’re a designer or consumer. Did you know that a polyester shirt emits 20% more CO2 emissions than a cotton shirt of the same design? A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that the average polyester shirt emits 5.5 kg of CO2 which is equivalent to driving 13 miles in a passenger car.
Plastic-based fabrics like nylon, polyester, and spandex are usually made from the non-renewable resource petroleum. For fabrics like polyester that amounts to 342 barrels of oil yearly. Extracting and manufacturing emits CO2 and has a detrimental environmental impact. During the extraction phase for oil, there is damage to the soil and issues with wastewater contamination. There are also oil spills that can further damage the environment by leeching heavy metals like lead and chromium into the soil and water. In 2019, nearly 2,900 oil spills were reported in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming alone.
“The consumption of PET garments thus compromises the quality of land, water, and air, destroys ecosystems, and endangers human health.” Environmental Sciences Europe
Alternatives To Virgin Plastic Fabrics
Sometimes there isn’t one answer. In terms of sustainable alternatives to plastic fabrics, there are multiple ways that brands can minimize their environmental impact.
Note that the title of this section says ‘virgin’ plastics. These man-made fabrics were made for a reason. They’re stretchy, durable, have silky textures, repel water, and are versatile enough to be used in your favorite sundress or puffer coat. While the environmental impact of these materials is known, technology hasn’t quite caught up to offer alternatives which leave many fast fashion brands too cautious to stop using these plastic-based materials. Some brands have turned to recycled nylon and polyester. These alternatives focus on recycling and reusing post-consumer waste materials like plastic water bottles to make new fabrics. That solves the waste and one side of the negative environmental impact of production issues.
Other alternatives involve going the natural route to embrace plant-based fabrics like organic cotton, bamboo, and linen. These materials have a smaller environmental impact and are renewable. Tencel and viscose are other plant-based alternatives that are made by dissolving wood pulp.
It’s interesting to note that these alternatives are embraced by fast fashion brands. Pretty Little Thing, Asos, and Boohoo all use recycled fabrics in their collections. Asos has featured viscose clothing made from wood pulp sourced from responsibly managed forests. Yet, while these brands are taking one step towards sustainability, they are still slow at fully addressing their plastics problem. On average, these sustainable alternatives represent only 20% of their product listings. And, these brands still have yet to address how their $5 ‘sustainable’ tops are made ethically.
As consumers sometimes the best and most sustainable option is to invest in sustainable brands. There are several great brands like Whimsy + Row and Kotn that offer affordable basics in organic cotton and clean dyes. Brands like these also find other ways to minimize their environmental impact like recycling customers’ old clothing or moving away from plastics altogether.