The world’s biggest fast fashion brands are misleading customers with flimsy sustainability claims, according to new research, while driving a reliance on fossil fuels and contributing to plastic pollution.
Nearly 60 per cent of industry claims about planet-friendly products are unsubstantiated or misleading, the report said, as researchers accused companies such as H&M and Asos of capitalising on public concern for the environment – or “greenwashing” – as a marketing ploy.
“These are brands that people trust,” George Harding-Rolls, campaigns advisor for the Changing Markets Foundation, told The Big Issue. “They trust that when brands claim something helps sustainability, that it’s actually substantiated.
“But if you look at a lot of environmental branding in fashion, you just have to take that at face value. They’re not giving you any information.”
The investigation scrutinised a selection of 4,000 products from leading brands such as Burberry, M&S and Zara to monitor how companies could be “routinely deceiving” customers with “false green claims”.
Brands claimed customers could recycle clothing made from synthetic fibres despite “no such recycling technology” existing, labelled products as sustainable or responsible with no supporting evidence, and failed to be transparent about how much of an item was made from recycled material, the research found.
Nearly 40 per cent of items had some kind of environmental marketing sentiment attached to them. But 59 per cent of those claims flouted draft guidelines published by the UK Competition and Markets Authority, designed to ensure labelling about a product’s life cycle is truthful and transparent. A consultation on the guidance will close next month.
“There’s an example by Asos where they’re saying this is a ‘modern material’ product, which means that it’s easier to be recycled and remade. But it’s made from 50 per cent nylon and 50 per cent polyester, which means that it’s pretty tricky to actually recycle,” Harding-Rolls said.
Zara and Gucci made the fewest “misleading” claims, according to the report. The worst culprit was H&M, researchers said, with nearly all the brand’s sustainability claims (96 per cent) deemed unsubstantiated or misleading.
H&M’s Conscious collection, pitched as a clothing line made from more sustainable materials such as organic cotton or recycled polyester, was found to contain a higher share of damaging synthetic materials than its main line (72 per cent compared to 61 per cent).
An Asos spokesperson said: “The reality is that there is no silver bullet to this challenge, and a wholesale switch from synthetic to natural fibres can create other impacts – for example, water use or land degradation – so it’s important we work together as an industry to get this right.
“As a Textiles 2030 signatory, we’re committed to collaborating with industry colleagues to find and develop system-wide solutions to build a more sustainable product mix and tackle the use of virgin synthetics.”
The Big Issue also approached H&M for comment.
Synthetic fibres are manufactured using fossil fuels, accounting for 1.35 per cent of global oil consumption – more than the annual oil consumption of Spain – contributing to carbon emissions during the climate crisis. Fast fashion brands were found to use particularly high rates of synthetic fibres, topped by Boohoo at 88 per cent of products.
People need to be aware they are potentially being misled
“While brands are quick to capitalise on consumer concern by using sustainability as a marketing ploy, the vast majority of such claims are all style and no substance,” said Urska Trunk, campaign manager at Changing Markets.
“While they greenwash their clothing collections, they are simultaneously dragging their feet on embracing truly circular solutions.”
Most brands are focusing their environmental efforts on making clothes from single-use plastic bottles instead of virgin polyester, but the researchers dubbed it a “false solution” and a “one-way street to landfill or incineration”.
“About 85 per cent of the brands that responded to us are using downcycled plastic bottles,” Harding-Rolls said. “At first, it can seem like a great thing. Plastic is an issue that’s high on the agenda. And every little counts, right?
“But actually, there are major problems with it,” he explained. “Ideally, we’d create a circular economy, and that involves product-to-product recycling. So a bottle becomes another bottle, clothes are recycled into more clothes, keeping it in a closed loop.
“But big beverage companies have major commitments to reduce their plastic packaging and they have recycling targets. And they’re doing that fairly effectively. But you’re taking the bottles out of that system and turning them into recycled polyester for clothes, which really can’t be recycled into clothes again after that because we don’t have the technology. It means plastic which could have been used sustainably still ends up in landfill or in an incinerator.”
The practice also adds to the global microplastics crisis and introduces an element of competition to plastic recycling, Harding-Rolls said, with the drinks industry and fashion industry competing for the same waste plastic bottles. “It’s really the fashion industry poaching from another industry rather than sorting out their own waste,” he added.
Despite a high prevalence of green claims, not one of the nearly fifty brands surveyed made a clear commitment to phase out the use of synthetic materials, researchers said, leaving the industry with “a long way to go to tackle the climate and plastic crises in a meaningful way”.
Companies were also failing to invest in the future, the report warned, with too little money being dedicated to creating better recycling methods.