Newsletter No 26 / 16 July 2021
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Top fashion brands remain reliant on synthetics, guilty of greenwashing – report
A new Changing Markets Foundation study calls out some of the world’s biggest fashion brands for fuelling the plastic pollution and climate crises through their continued reliance on synthetic fibres made from fossil fuels. The report, entitled Synthetics Anonymous: Fashion Brands’ Addiction to Fossil Fuels, also names the likes of H&M and Asos as some of the worst offenders of greenwashing, by promoting unsubstantiated or misleading claims to consumers.
The European report analysed almost 50 major fashion brands; out of these it assessed 46 of the world’s supposedly most transparent brands, from high street to luxury, including Zara, Primark, H&M and Burberry on the amount of fossil fuel-based materials in their collections and commitments to move away from them.
A further part of the investigation – scrutinising 12 brands and over 4,000 products – reveals that brands are routinely deceiving consumers with false green claims. The majority of brands made sustainability claims, with 39% of the products studied having some kind of green claim attached to them. Fifty-nine percent of green claims flouted the UK Competition and Markets Authority guidelines in some way.
The worst offenders were H&M with 96% false claims, Asos with 89% and M&S with 88% false claims. H&M’s Conscious Collection was also found to contain an even higher share of synthetics than the main one (72% compared to 61%).
Few commitments to reduce use of synthetics
The report exposed the extent of the fashion industry’s addiction to fossil fuel-based fibres. While some brands are making commitments to move away from using virgin polyester, they make no such commitment regarding synthetics in general.
Most brands aim to address the fossil fashion problem by replacing virgin polyester with downcycled single-use plastic bottles, a false solution because it is a one-way street to landfill or incineration, says the Changing Markets Foundation.
The brand assessment found that:
• 59% of sustainability claims by European brands were unsubstantiated or misleading, with H&M, Asos and M&S being the worst offenders.
• 85% of Boohoo products contained some type of synthetics, with 60% being 100% virgin synthetics.
• Zara’s group, Inditex, reported one of the highest uses of synthetics by weight – comparable to that of sports giant Nike.
• No company made a clear commitment to phase out the use of synthetic fibres from their collections.
Urska Trunk, campaign manager at Changing Markets said: “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. While they greenwash their clothing collections, they are simultaneously dragging their feet on embracing truly circular solutions, for example by not making the necessary investments to ensure a future in which clothes can be recycled back into clothes.”
Well over three quarters (85%) of companies plan to reach sustainability standards with the false solution of recycled plastic bottles, the study said.
H&M reported that 90% of its recycled polyester comes from single-use plastic bottles. Like H&M, Primark and Zara’s group Inditex rely on the false solution of downcycling single-use plastic bottles. Unlike others, however, Inditex reported that it has invested €3m to fund tech innovation exploring textile recycling solutions, including the MIT-Spain Inditex Circularity Seed Fund.
While this is a first step, it only represents 0.08% of the company’s 2019 net profits, and the report finds that significantly larger investments into true circular economy solutions by brands are needed.
The problem with synthetics
According to the foundation, synthetic fibres represent over two-thirds (69%) of all materials used in textiles. This figure is expected to balloon to nearly three quarters by 2030, of which 85% will be polyester, a material produced from fossil fuels such as oil and fracked gas3. The production of synthetic fibres currently accounts for 1.35% of global oil consumption, which exceeds the annual oil consumption of Spain and amounts to 1.29 billion barrels of oil a year.
Cheap synthetic fibres are not only harmful because they enable low-quality clothing that ends up in waste, but also perpetuate the fashion industry’s dependence on fossil-fuel extraction during a climate emergency.
Microplastics also emerged as a critical blindspot for most brands. Despite the known damage they cause to human and environmental health – including recent research which has found microplastics in placentas, stools and even able to cross the blood-brain barrier – the vast majority of brands were found to be asleep at the wheel when it comes to microplastics, delaying meaningful action by citing uncertainty and calling for even more research.
European brands emerged as some of the worst for greenwashing, with an average of 59% of claims by European companies being unsubstantiated or potentially misleading to consumers.
Examples of brands misleading consumers include claims that synthetic products are recyclable when no such recycling technology exists, where claims are made with no supporting evidence given for products being labelled as ‘sustainable’ or ‘responsible’, or when brands were not specific about the amount of recycled content included in the product.
Of all the brands analysed, Zara and Gucci made the fewest claims deemed to be misleading; on the other end of the spectrum, claims by 96% of H&M (96%), Asos (89%) and M&S (88%) flouted guidelines in some way.
H&M’s Conscious Collection not only uses more synthetics than in its main collection but also one in five items analysed were found to be made from 100% fossil-fuel-derived synthetic materials. M&S has rebranded blended synthetics to seem high-tech, with a line of Cashmillion virgin synthetic faux-cashmere clothing, and relies heavily on discredited certification schemes for cotton.
The 15 worst performing brands assigned minimum to no transparency about their information about the use of synthetics Patagonia, Boohoo, Burberry and Nike.
Despite many well-known sustainability claims, Patagonia refused to respond to the assessment and discloses no information on its website about its use of synthetics, nor does it outline any specific commitment to reduce its reliance on them. While it encourages people to ‘buy less, demand more’ and to ‘join the fight against irresponsible, fast-fashion manufacturing’ it makes no commitment to move away from synthetics altogether.
Additionally, Patagonia advertises ocean plastics and fishing nets as a better alternative to virgin plastic, yet this is an approach that does little to stop the flow of plastics into the environment and only deals with the aftermath of the plastic pollution problem, says the Changing Markets Foundation.
Similarly, Adidas boasts an ocean collection and relies on single-use plastic bottles for most of its products, yet reported that 90% of its apparel articles are made or blended with synthetics.
Not a single brand ranked as a frontrunner for their approach to synthetics; coupled with the greenwashing exposed in the report this suggests that the industry has a long way to go to contribute to tackling the climate and plastic crises in a meaningful way.
The report urges brands to tackle their addiction to fossil fuel-derived synthetics, to commit to ambitious climate targets and invest in truly circular solutions. Consumers are encouraged to think twice about their purchases and to question the integrity of the shops they are buying from before purchasing.
Finally, ahead of the upcoming EU textile strategy, the report asks legislators to take action to address low-quality clothing mass-produced by the fast fashion industry and ensure that brands become more transparent and responsible about their supply chains and the end-of-life of their products. In addition, measures are needed to end greenwashing, which the report found to be rampant in the industry. Bizcommunity
Tunisian garment workers hang on by a thread
By Layli Foroudi
Staff owed months of pay as factories, which mainly supply Eurpean fashion brands, fire thousands of workders amid pandemic
Racking up debts and running out of options, Tunisian seamstress Najeh is pinning her hopes on her employer’s promise to pay four months of overdue wages in August.
The 44-year-old, who declined to give her last name for fear of reprisals, is the main breadwinner in her household and has been commuting every day to her garment factory job of 22 years despite receiving no pay since March.
Tunisian garment factories, which mainly supply European fashion brands, have been hard-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, with thousands of job losses and increasing complaints about labour rights violations in the sector, union leaders said.
“How is there no money? We are working. The exports are going out as they always do,” Najeh, who sews cuffs onto shirts at the Fada factory in the northeastern town of Menzel Temime, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during her lunch break.
Exports have recovered from a drop in shipments to key European markets, but about 4,500 textile and garment workers lost their jobs in the year ending February 2021, according to the Tunisian Federation for Textiles and Garments (FTTH).
Others, like Najeh, have gone for months without pay during the pandemic.
Despite the Fada factory owner’s pledge to pay overdue salaries next month, Najeh said she did not feel reassured about receiving the money she is owed from her monthly wage of 530 Tunisian dinars ($192), and worries about the plant’s future.
Fada’s lawyer declined to comment.
Najeh said the factory makes shirts for Italian brands including the Renato Balestra group, Lancetti and Il Granchio, none of which immediately replied to a request for comment.
In the meantime, Najeh is juggling debts to her local shop, her son’s tutor and the bus driver who takes her to work each day.
Three other Fada workers said they had been evicted from their homes, unable to pay the rent, because of the wage freeze.
The garment and textile industry is the North African country’s second-biggest export earner, official data shows, and contributed €2.1bn to the economy in 2020, according to the FTTH industry group.
More than 150,000 Tunisians work in the industry, mos of them women, and the pandemic has shone a light on widespread labour abuses, said Mounir Hassine, regional director of the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights (FTDES), an NGO.
“Covid has accelerated things, but all of this is related to structural problems in the sector,” he said.
About one in 10 workers belong to a trade union, and while four years of work earns an employee a permanent contract guaranteeing improved conditions such as severance pay, but workers says employers often find ways to skirt the rule.
Hassine said employees are rarely compensated if factories close down because companies try to any property that could be requisitioned after they declare bankruptcy.
During the pandemic, he said there had been a rise in complaints about severance pay and regular wages not being paid.
Withholding payment without reason or notice from workers is illegal under Tunisia’s labour laws, said Mounir Jendoubi, a representative from the Tunisian labour union UGTT in Nabeul.
‘Trying to survive’
About 80% of Tunisia’s textile and clothing plants produce exclusively for Europe, meaning they were badly affected when exports to the EU plunged 15% in 2020 from a year earlier.
In Italy, a leading buyer, fashion stores closed for four-and-a-half months last year due to lockdowns and sales dropped by more than a third, according to the Italian fashion industry federation Confcommercio.
“The companies have been suffering for more than a year; look at the average level of consumption in Europe — businesses are not developing, they are just trying to survive,” said Hosni Boufaden, president of the FTTH.
Manufacturers had continued to pay workers during the first lockdown last year despite the export slump and factory closures, compensating by reducing annual paid leave allowances, Boufaden said.
Such efforts were acknowledged by Ahmed Chahloul, national co-ordinator for the International Labour Organisation’s “Score Tunisia” project, which works with the Tunisian government.
“I have seen more solidarity than confrontation,” Boufaden said, citing employers who had continued to pay salaries when activity stopped and employees who accepted reduced working hours or lower wages.
But he added that there had been “a migration to precariousness” since Covid-19 emerged.
As the pandemic further squeezes wages that average 450 dinars a month, some workers are organising between themselves to fight for their rights.
In Menzel Tamime, Fada workers elected a four-person committee in April to organise protests and co-ordinate with the national union, the UGTT, and to negotiate with their employer.
Talks were initially impossible but after more than 150 employees protested in June in front of the governor’s office in Nabeul, the region’s main city, they secured a meeting with the labour inspectorate and Fada’s lawyer.
During the talks, the factory said the salaries due since March would be paid in August.
“If this doesn’t work, we’re afraid we’ll have to resort to going to court,” Najeh said, adding that the employer had refused to pay them for a two-month furlough last year.
For now, all they can do is hope.
“There are people who have worked here for 25 years,” Najeh said. “This was a tiny factory when we started, it was us that made it bigger and made it successful.” Thomson Reuters Foundation
Mr Price – statement regarding civil unrest
As a business founded and headquartered in Durban, the group is deeply saddened by the civil unrest throughout the province of KwaZulu Natal and parts of Gauteng which has resulted in widespread looting and vandalism causing untold damage to property, business continuity and livelihoods. The catalyst for these events can be attributed to several complex factors that are well documented, however the escalation of the situation into outright criminality is something the group condemns. It has already caused significant damage to its own business and many other businesses in the affected areas.
To date, 109 (approximately 7%) of the group’s 1 592 stores have been entirely looted. In addition, the group has had to temporarily close a further 539 stores across its six divisions. Most of the impact is in KwaZulu Natal with store looting subsiding over the last 24 hours. The group’s two immediate concerns are ensuring the safety of all its people and ensuring further damage and loss is mitigated or minimised. The group of retailers represented by The National Clothing Retail Federation (NCRF) has made a plea for government to take more decisive action, including significantly increasing the level of security personnel in KwaZulu Natal to ensure conditions do not worsen.
The situation remains fluid with many unknowns. The group is performing a thorough assessment of the damage caused to its stores and is quantifying losses to be recovered as far as possible through its insurance policies. The group is confident that the physical losses suffered to date are covered by its SA Special Risks Insurance Association (SASRIA) insurance cover. SASRIA have provided assurance through public statement that it has the financial means to honour claims. However, the group is aware of the potential risks of claims pay-outs being delayed and possibly impaired due to the high volumes and values expected to be submitted by numerous impacted businesses.
The group’s further priorities include the continuity of stock flow to its unaffected stores and the speedy restoration of trade in its damaged stores. The pace at which this can be done will be dependent upon the extent of the damages and external bottlenecks elsewhere in the supply chain including the Durban port, logistics and distribution operations, and the ability of local suppliers to continue production.
The group is grateful that no serious physical harm has come to its associates during the unrest. It expresses its extreme gratitude to its security teams and partners who have worked tirelessly in protecting the business and to all other stakeholders for their understanding and patience during such a challenging time.
The resilience of the group has been tried and tested in the past and it has prevailed due to the incredible partners and people that make up the Mr Price group. The board and management team will continue to make decisions that are in the best interest of all stakeholders and extends its appreciation for your ongoing support.
Did you know……..
Sustainable textile innovations that will change the fashion industry
Stinging nettle fibres
The common stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, is a widely used plant that is easy to grow. For the production of the fibers, the nettles are harvested in the summer and the stalks dried well. This removes the sting. After drying, the stalks are broken to separate the woody parts. Then, the plant is hackled to separate the fibers and to remove the leaf attachments. After that, the fibers are spun wet and then dried. Twisting them increases tear resistance.
Similar to hemp fibres, stinging nettle fiebres are versatile, keep the wearer warm in winter and cool in summer, and can be grown with far less water and pesticides than cotton. Thanks to new spinning techniques and hybrid plant species, nettle plants with super high fiber content are obtained, which are strong and flexible and have a good spinning length. Unlike hemp, there is no legal problem with the cultivation of nettles, which has made the plant a viable and legal market fruit.
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