Clothes and fashion, in a clothing store

Fast-fashion plastics tax urged for UK brands ‘fuelling runaway climate change’

Image credit: Prudence Earl | Unsplash

Half of the fast fashion items sold by popular British online brands such as Boohoo and Missguided are made entirely from non-recycled plastics like polyester, a think tank said on Friday as it urged the government to slap a tax on such garments.

Most of the cheap clothes are made with fabrics consisting of synthetic fibres such as nylon, acrylic and elastane. These artificial polymers are typically derived from petroleum and thus are closely associated with fossil fuels and damage to the environment through emissions and waste, including the release of microplastics into the environment, according to the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).

"These fabrics form part of a petrochemical economy which is fuelling runaway climate change and pollution," said Josie Warden, head of regenerative design at the RSA and co-author of the report 'Fast Fashion's Plastic Problem', when speaking to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Britain's throwaway culture means most fast fashion will end up in landfill where it could take thousands of years to break down, said the RSA, which works to find solutions to social challenges.

Published ahead of the start of London Fashion Week, which opens this Saturday, the report said fast fashion companies were too slow to adopt recycled materials.

Only 1 per cent of clothing on PrettyLittleThing's website contained recycled materials, 2 per cent on Boohoo, 4 per cent on ASOS, and 5 per cent on Missguided, according to RSA's analysis of 10,000 items recently listed by the brands.

The study found 89 per cent of merchandise on PrettyLittleThing's site contained new plastics, 84 per cent on Boohoo and Missguided, and 65 per cent on ASOS. Overall, 49 per cent of garments were entirely made of new plastics, rising to 60 per cent for Boohoo.

The RSA accused fast fashion companies of "greenwashing" their images by producing small sustainable ranges, while most of their products were made from petrochemicals whose use must be curtailed to combat climate change.

ASOS responded to the report, claiming that it was not a fast fashion brand, that it designed clothes to last, and educated customers on prolonging the life of garments. Other companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

With the use of synthetic fibres in fashion doubling between 2000 and 2020, the report said Britain – which is hosting the global COP26 climate summit in November – must take action to create a more sustainable fashion system.

"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," Warden said. "The nature of fast-fashion trends means they are not designed to have long lives in our wardrobes."

The RSA said income from a tax on clothing containing virgin plastics could be invested in creating new materials, recycling and boosting more sustainable production.

The report's authors said most shoppers were unaware of the scale of plastic use in fast fashion. They called for brands to publish regular statistics on how much plastic goes into their garments and explore ways of promoting second-hand clothing.

The high environmental cost of fast fashion is inversely proportional to the low cost of the garments, the latter aspect being a major part of their appeal to consumers. However, there is increasingly a heightened awareness and appreciation of the former, too.

In April 2020, University of Manchester researchers warned that the fashion industry must make urgent and fundamental changes in order to prevent devastating environmental damage, noting in a study that British people buy more clothes per person than any other European nation, with only a limited amount of used clothing being reused or recycled.

While sustainability is now firmly on the agenda for the fashion industry, big brands are still struggling to deliver fully on their customer's demands and expectations.

In terms of political action, in March this year the UK government unveiled plans to reduce waste across multiple sectors, including proposals for measures that will ramp up action on fast fashion production and hold manufacturers accountable for textile waste.

Meanwhile, technology can also play a part in reducing clothing waste. In April, E&T spoke to French start-up Euveka about its robotic mannequin, which it believes could help make the fashion industry become greener while simultaneously aiding styling and sampling demand.

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