Fresh analysis of more than 10,000 clothes reveals the colossal amounts of plastic going into the clothes we wear.
Fast Fashion’s Plastic Problem, a new report from the royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce (RSA), looks at some of the biggest online brands in ‘fast’ fashion: Asos, Boohoo, Missguided and PrettyLittleThing, analysing 10,000 recently-listed items, balanced across different product categories.
The research shows that while many fashion websites are keen to market environmentally-friendly clothing, the vast majority of items listed on these sites contain new plastics, with half being entirely made from petrochemically-derived polymers such as polyester, acrylic, elastane and nylon.
These use large amounts of energy and create environmental damage in their production, and can take thousands of years to break down. Combined with a ‘throwaway culture’, the RSA warns the bulk of these garments will end up in landfill.
Proportion of clothing entirely made from new plastics:
- Asos: 36%
- Boohoo: 60%
- Missguided: 42%
- PrettyLittleThing: 57%
- Average: 49%
The numbers differ by outlet: Asos uses comparatively less new plastic and marginally more recycled plastics than other websites. The study found that on average, just 3% of clothes which contain plastics use recycled plastics – although this rises to 6% among items from Asos.
Percentage of plastic-containing clothing that use recycled plastics:
- Asos: 6%
- Boohoo: 2%
- Missguided: 4%
- PrettyLittleThing: 1%
- Average: 3%
Other websites fare less well: the study finds that just 1% and 2% of items recently listed on PrettyLittleThing and Boohoo respectively contain recycled materials.
Proportion of clothing containing recycled materials:
- Asos: 4%
- Boohoo: 2%
- Missguided: 5%
- PrettyLittleThing: 1%
- Average: 3%
Using the data, the researchers estimate that the average item listed on these websites is 61% plastic. Asos is one of the UK’s most valuable fashion brands, and online shopping has boomed over the pandemic - Boohoo have recently reporting a 41% jump in sales, with Asos reporting sales of £2bn for the last financial year.
Boohoo – whose parent company also owns PrettyLittleThing – set a target of using 100% recycled or more sustainable textiles in their manufacturing by 2025. The report’s authors warn that they have a ‘mountain to climb’ if they are to meet this, and must reduce their overall volume of clothing sold. A 2019 enquiry found that Boohoo and Missguided are among the least sustainable companies in the entire UK fashion industry.
Percentage of clothing containing new plastics:
- Asos: 65%
- Boohoo: 84%
- Missguided: 84%
- PrettyLittleThing: 89%
- Average: 80%
These large amounts of plastic are creating significant environmental and social problems, including:
- Emissions: An MIT study found that 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.
- Waste: Deficiencies in the UK’s recycling system means that a large majority of this will likely end up in landfill. Some of it will reach our environment before then: petroleum-derived fabrics make up a large amount of the trillions of microfibres that are showing up in our rivers, oceans and food systems – a recent study found that an average 6kg wash releases over 7 million microfibres.
- Poor labour conditions: In 2019, Boohoo came under fire after it was revealed that Leicester-based suppliers to the brand were operating under ‘sweatshop’ conditions, and last year it was alleged that many of these remained open despite a city-wide lockdown, with workers reporting having to work while sick with Covid-19.
Consumers seem to be unaware of the issue. In February, polling by the RSA only 49% of fast fashion consumers say they regularly purchase clothing that contains plastics, despite up to 88% of recently listed items on some websites containing petrochemical-derived materials. But 76% of the public at large are in favour of reducing the amount of petrochemicals in clothing.
In response to these findings, the RSA is calling for new measures to curb fashion’s plastic usage, including:
- For the government to consider a per-item ‘plastics tax’ on clothing imported into or produced in the UK using virgin plastics, in order to disincentivise the extraction of fossil fuels destined to become clothing. Income from the tax could be used to invest in new innovations in biomaterials and circular economy infrastructure.
- For fast fashion websites to explore new ways of promoting second-hand clothing, following the model of Depop and Asos’ ‘marketplace’, and to regularly publish statistics on how much plastic goes into their clothing.
- For consumers to buy less and buy better when it comes to their clothing – shopping for more durable clothes, making fewer impulse purchases as well as sharing, repairing and caring for their current clothing.
Josie Warden, co-author of the report and head of regenerative design at the RSA, said:
“The sheer volume of clothing produced by these websites is shocking — we should see many of these items, which go for rock-bottom prices, as akin to other short-lived plastics. The nature of fast fashion trends means they are not designed to have long lives in our wardrobes.
“Fast fashion has boomed on the availability of synthetic fibres. These fabrics may be cheap at the point of sale, but they form part of a petrochemical economy which is fueling run away climate change and pollution. In the year that the UK hosts COP 26, we need to see action from the government and industry to create a more sustainable fashion system.
“This doesn’t mean eliminating the use of plastics in clothing entirely — but it does mean using it carefully. We can no longer use plastics to create poorly-made garments which are designed to be worn only a handful of times. Other materials, such as cotton and viscose, can also create environmental problems, so ultimately it is the scale of production that needs to change.”
Will Grimond | Media and Communications Officer | RSA | [email protected] | 07795 660 353
Data was collected from the websites of Asos, Boohoo, Missguided and PrettyLittleThing between 11 and 29 May. The study looked at over 2,500 recently added items from each website, balanced across different product categories, to provide a snapshot of current clothes production. Information on the composition of clothes was taken from descriptions on each website.
The RSA (the royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce) is an independent charity, committed to a future that works for everyone. A future where we can all participate in its creation.
The RSA has been at the forefront of significant social impact for over 260 years. Our proven change process, rigorous research, innovative ideas platform and diverse global community of over 30,000 problem solvers, deliver solutions for lasting change.
Legally, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (‘RSA’) is a Royal Charter Company and registered charity in England and Wales (charity number 212424) and in Scotland (charity number SC037784).
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