Fast Fashion Has a Serious Plastic Problem

Half of clothes analyzed are made from virgin plastic, aka cheap petrochemicals.

sale sign display at fast fashion clothing store in mall

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

That new outfit might be trendy and cute, but if it's made cheaply from virgin polyester fabric and only lasts a few wears, it's not much different from the disposable plastic packaging that is causing such environmental damage to the world.  

A recent survey conducted by the United Kingdom's Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) found roughly half of clothes sold online by major fast fashion retailers are made entirely from virgin polyester. The group analyzed over 10,000 items posted online during a two-week period in May by ASOS, Boohoo, Missguided, and PrettyLittleThing, and it made some alarming discoveries.

The average item is at least half plastic, and as many as 88% of items on the above-mentioned websites contain virgin plastic mixed with other materials. Very few have recycled material, despite brands' promises to move toward more sustainable production. In many cases, items containing both recycled and virgin plastics had the word "recycled" added to the product's title, which is misleading.

The RSA study points out the production of synthetic fabric, driven by the dirt-cheap prices of petrochemicals right now, causes significant environmental damage. It cites an MIT study that found "the average polyester shirt produces 5.5kg of CO2, 20% more than its cotton equivalent, and the same emissions as driving 13 miles in a passenger car. In 2015, polyester production was responsible for 700 million tonnes of CO2, the equivalent of the annual carbon emissions of Germany."

Additional damage is caused by microfiber pollution: Synthetic garments shed tiny plastic fibers in the laundry and these get washed out into waterways, contaminating wildlife and eventually food chains. The RSA reports, "A recent study found that an average 6kg wash releases half a million fibres from polyester fabrics, or 700,000 from acrylic."

Discarded clothes are usually buried in landfills or incinerated; textile recycling rates remain low, due to limited capacity and underdeveloped technology. In the U.K. alone, approximately 300,000 tonnes of clothing are burned or buried annually. Worldwide, 60% of clothing is discarded within a year of purchase. This YouTube video puts clothing waste numbers into perspective by comparing it to global landmarks.

There appears to be a significant "awareness gap" when it comes to shoppers understanding what they're buying. The majority of people (76%) say they want to see less plastic production in general, and 67% are trying to reduce the amount of plastic they consume personally, but that has not translated to a noticeable shift in shopping habits. When surveyed, only half of the people said they buy clothes made from synthetic fabrics, when in reality 88% of items listed by these retailers fall into that category. This suggests that shoppers are unaware of what they're buying.

Despite selling such a high percentage of synthetic clothing, these brands have set (impossibly?) high targets for the near future. Boohoo says it will be using recycled or "more sustainable" polyester by 2025, which isn't that far off. Missguided told The Guardian that "10% of its products would use recycled fibres by the end of 2021, and 25% by the end of 2022." 

ASOS has signed on to the Global Fashion Agenda's call for a circular fashion economy and is working to develop a resale platform and doorstep recycling program; it has also promised to phase out plastic packaging by 2025. It's not the worst fast fashion retailer by any means, but the RSA report says there is "still more to be done to reduce the amount of virgin plastic" used in ASOS' clothing.

Josie Warden, co-author of the report and head of regenerative design, tells Treehugger:

"New synthetic fabrics are part of the oil and gas industries which need to be wound down if we are to prevent runaway climate change. The scale of their use in fast fashion is totally unsustainable. Governments need to take action to disincentivise their use and brands need to shift their business models away from their reliance on these fabrics, which are cheap at the point of sale but come at a high price to society, and away from selling high volumes of clothing designed to last only a season."

Shoppers would do well to start viewing synthetic fabrics as similar to single-use plastic packaging. In order to encourage this mindset, the RSA would like to see a "plastics tax" levied on all synthetic clothes that would discourage fossil fuel extraction for the purposes of clothing. Such a tax might spur shoppers to buy more natural fabrics, which tend to age better, last longer, repair more easily, and not cause as much pollution once discarded. To be clear, the RSA is not opposed to all new plastic in clothing—it just needs to be used more responsibly.

The most effective strategy, of course, is to buy less. We all need to move away from online marketplaces that advertise poorly-made clothing for mere dollars. Clothing must be seen as a long-term investment if we hope to lessen its environmental impact.

View Article Sources
  1. "Fast fashion's plastic problem." United Kingdom's Royal Society for Arts, 2021.