Low-carbon and longer lasting materials
Brand scores in this area
Reconceptualising fashion through fossil-free fabrics and closed-loop circularity
This category assesses company efforts to phase out fossil fuel based fabrics, wood-based materials and leather linked to deforestation, as well as non-organic or non-regenerative cotton. Company efforts to shift toward closed-loop recycling and longer-lasting products made to be repaired, reused, and recycled, are also assessed.
Breaking away from the dependence on fossil fuel based materials is a key step in the sustainable transformation of the fashion industry. Synthetic fabrics account for 69% of all materials used in textiles and are projected to account for 75% by 2030. Considering the high environmental footprint of synthetic fibres such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic, using plant-based and longer-lasting materials and reducing demands on synthetic fibres, is key to creating sustainable fashion. The 2023 Scorecard, therefore, takes a close look at brand sustainability strategies from the perspective of material use.
More brands are taking early steps toward improving circularity, but the fashion industry is still a long way away from reducing the negative impacts of its raw materials. Linear business models are still deeply entrenched. With an average grade across the 2023 Scorecard of a disappointing D, the sector has a lot more work to do to cut out fossil fibres and increase circularity.
Eileen Fisher scored highest with B in this category, showing leadership through its minimal use of fossil fuel derived fibres, long-standing take-back and resale program, regenerative approach to agriculture, and commitment to textile recycling innovation.
In contrast, ultra-fast fashion brand SHEIN scored lowest and was awarded F. It is not discernible that SHEIN is taking any meaningful steps to increase circularity or reduce the impact of its raw materials. Its business model is a major driver of throwaway fashion trends.
Industry still heavily addicted to fossil fuel fabrics
A review of the data shows that companies have made little progress in moving away from fossil fuel based materials over the past 18 months. No company has yet publicly committed to phase out polyester and other synthetic materials. Given that the majority of brands rely heavily on synthetic fibres in their material mix, the global synthetic fibre market is expected to grow at a lucrative compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.1% from 2022 to 2030. This means more fossil fuels will be sourced to meet the demand and needs of increased production.
Only a few companies – Eileen Fisher, Hugo Boss, Levi’s, and Ralph Lauren – have come close to eliminating fossil fuels from their raw materials, reporting only a small amount of fossil fuel fibres in their material mixes. To see meaningful progress in this area, more brands need to emulate these companies and reduce the amount of synthetic fibres, both virgin and recycled, in their material mix.
rPET in textiles isn’t recycling – it’s downcycling
In the 2023 Scorecard, almost 70% of brands reported increasing or planning to increase their use of recycled polyester made from plastic bottles (rPET) or ocean plastic waste rather than recycled textiles. This fails to address polyester’s environmental footprint including high energy consumption, long degradation time, and microfibre shedding.
Given these detrimental impacts, recycled polyester is not a sustainable solution but rather risks becoming a false solution when the industry promotes it as a low-carbon green alternative. As explained earlier in the Background section, textiles are not themselves currently being used as a source for recycled garments. This means that once the item of clothing containing recycled polyester is finished being used, it will be thrown away, continuing to feed the demand for virgin fossil fuel feedstocks, which relies ultimately on more fossil fuel extraction.
Circularity is gaining momentum, but there is still a long way to go
Closed-loop recycling for synthetics, the use of plant-based materials, and regenerative agriculture in cotton farming are gaining attention as options for achieving greater circularity and sustainability. Compared to the 2021 Scorecard, companies have made some progress in using low-carbon materials and increasing circularity by using the above-mentioned methods. However, efforts from the entire industry remain insufficient.
Only 11 brands – ASICS, Eileen Fisher, Inditex, Kering, lululemon, Mammut, New Balance, On Running, Patagonia, PUMA, and VF Corporation – have committed to increasing closed-loop apparel-to-apparel recycling for synthetics by investing and working with textile recyclers. This is essential to scale closed-loop recycling into a workable solution. The Hey Fashion textile recycling initiative founded by Eileen Fisher estimates that, if scaled across the industry, existing recycling solutions could drive 80% circularity. However, currently, just 0.5% of the global fibre market comes from recycled textiles. Promoting textile recycling through design, material choices, and investment is an essential part of driving circularity in the fashion industry. Brands must recognise and act responsibly to reduce their waste, engaging in closed-loop circular recycling instead of misleading, false or partial solutions.
Since the 2021 Scorecard, nine more brands have made commitments to sustainable raw materials sourcing. Currently, 14 brands have committed to reducing the impact of their raw materials sourcing by switching to 100% organic cotton or cotton sourced from regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture seeks to mend the environmental and social harms that highly intensive and extractive conventional cotton farming has caused.
Regenerative agriculture requires brands to form closer ties and longer-term relationships with their Tier 4 suppliers, with the intention of building more equitable and less extractive relationships. The remaining 29 brands should follow suit and commit to natural fibres from organic or regenerative sources.
Promisingly, more than half of the companies have taken some measures to break away from the problematic linear ‘take-make-dispose’’ system and encourage reuse, resale, repair, and recycling to extend the life of products. These measures include: designing for durability and recyclability, offering in-house maintenance and repair services, and launching take-back and resale programs.
Brands who are leading the sector with their efforts to reduce the environmental footprint of fabrics
- Patagonia has pledged that every cotton T-shirt they produce will be made within a circular system. It is participating in regenerative farming pilots and 100% of the virgin cotton in its clothes is grown organically. In addition, Patagonia is working with a company to chemically recycle pre-and post-consumer polyester textiles into new clothing. This diverts waste and supports circularity.
- On Running is working to increase its use of recycled cotton fibre and has set a priority to increase fibre-to-fibre recycled content sources. This will include collaborating with Carbios to develop bio-recycling technology. On Running has also committed to using 100% cotton fibres sourced from organic, recycled, or fossil fuel free sources by 2024.
- Eileen Fisher has taken action to increase the use of closed-loop materials by largely using regenerated cellulosic fibre or natural fibre. It has established a well-established take-back and resale program, committed to improving the repairability of its products, and launched the Hey Fashion textile recycling initiative in 2021, to promote textile circularity across the industry.
- Kering is investing in innovation to increase closed-loop apparel-to-apparel recycling for synthetics and plant-based materials through its Materials Innovation Lab. It also created a new climate fund that will go toward biodiversity preservation and regenerative agriculture.
Caution is required as these measures represent just a small step; not all measures taken by companies are equally effective in improving circularity. It is unclear how, or even if, brands intend to use these measures to reduce production or extend product life, both of which are essential to ultimately address the problem of waste from overproduction. Unless textiles and apparel generated by the fashion sector become the source of the recycled content feedstocks and remain in circulation – reworn, repaired, and resold for longer – overproduction and the resulting environmental problems will continue to worsen.
Fashion feeding deforestation
In November 2021, Stand.earth released the Nowhere to Hide Report demonstrating how the fashion industry was pushing the Amazon rainforest closer to the tipping point of irreversible ecosystem collapse. Of the 43 companies assessed here, 21 were found to be linked to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest through the sourcing of leather products linked to deforestation. The release of that report prompted New Balance, for example, to reflect on its negative impact on forests and to take measures to reduce negative externalities. However, until brands have concrete sourcing policies and complete and public mapping of their Tier 4 supply chains – or phase out leather entirely – they will still risk sourcing leather from deforestation.
Materials transparency improving but still needs to offer insights into circularity
Since the release of the 2021 Scorecard, 13 companies have increased transparency of their material mix. Currently, roughly 44% of brands are publicly reporting the materials they use and around one fifth (18%) of brands are also reporting the volume of materials used. In addition, around one-third of companies are reporting how they manage or dispose of deadstock to reduce waste, which none of the companies were doing 18 months ago. Only PUMA is also reporting on the volume of pre-consumer waste material from its core Tier 1 and 2 suppliers. Going forward, to avoid claims of greenwashing about the impacts of their materials, brands should provide transparency into the materials that they are buying, wasting and producing, as well as their volumes. They should also set clear benchmarks for the impact that take-back programs and circularity initiatives are having on their production.
In summary, synthetic materials produced from fossil fuels have negative environmental impacts, including high energy consumption, high GHG emissions, and large amounts of solid waste production. Companies should demonstrate more meaningful commitments and efforts to reduce their reliance on high-carbon fossil fuel based synthetics. While many brands have increased the transparency of their material mix and made claims about switching to more sustainable fabrics, in reality too few companies are cutting out fossil fuels and driving true circularity. The enormous negative impact of the fashion industry’s raw materials production on people and communities, the environment, and the climate will continue unless brands change course. They need to act responsibly with respect to their sourcing practices and address issues linked to overproduction. Brands must break away from fossil fuel based synthetics, reduce the impact of their raw materials, and focus on making less and making it last.
- “Overconsumption in the Fashion Industry.”
- “The Fabric for Our Lives.”
- “Global Synthetic Fiber Market Report 2022: Shifting Fashion Trends Coupled With the Rising Urban Population Creates Opportunities,” September 21, 2022, https://www.globenewswire.com/en/news-release/2022/09/21/2519999/28124/en/Global-Synthetic-Fiber-Market-Report-2022-Shifting-Fashion-Trends-Coupled-With-the-Rising-Urban-Population-Creates-Opportunities.html.
- “How the Fossil Fuel Industry Is Pushing Plastics on the World,” February 1, 2022, https://www.cnbc.com/2022/01/29/how-the-fossil-fuel-industry-is-pushing-plastics-on-the-world-.html.
- Fibres from polyester textiles and apparel are shed and enter waterways and oceans as microplastic fibres when washed.“Briefing On Polyester.”
- “Accelerating The Transition To A Circular Economy In Fashion Requires Substantial And Urgent Action From All Stakeholders,”, https://www.heyfashion.org/.
- Negative externalities of conventional cotton farming include the heavy use of pesticides, high water consumption, the conversion of habitat to agricultural use, and serious labor rights injustices.“Environmental Sustainability in the Fashion Industry,” January 20, 2023, https://www.genevaenvironmentnetwork.org/resources/updates/sustainable-fashion/; “Regenerative Agriculture 101,” November 29, 2021, https://www.nrdc.org/stories/regenerative-agriculture-101.
- “Nowhere to Hide: How the Fashion Industry Is Linked to Amazon Rainforest Destruction” (Stand.earth, November 29, 2021), https://stand.earth/resources/nowhere-to-hide-how-the-fashion-industry-is-linked-to-amazon-rainforest-destruction/.
- New Balance worked with over 600 nominated Tier 2 material and component suppliers in over 20 countries and started mapping beyond Tier 2 for key raw material commodities to eliminate deforestation in its supply chains. As of now, 12 companies have made a public policy to ban the sourcing of leather from the Amazon Biome or taken measurable steps to ensure that Amazon leather is not contributing to deforestation; 14 companies have processes in place to avoid leather sourced from deforested regions; and 13 companies have a general policy against contributing to deforestation through other materials including cellulose-based fabrics.