Major High Street brands accused of greenwashing

H&M, Primark, and Zara have been accused of greenwashing after research released on Thursday reveals that polyester clothes made from recycled plastic bottles are damaging to the environment.

A new video released today from the Changing Markets Foundation and plastic pollution campaigning organisation City to Sea claims that the use of recycled bottles for clothing is actually an environmentally destructive practice which “allows brands to greenwash their collections.”

Greenwashing is a phenomenon in which companies mislead consumers to think that their products are more environmentally friendly than they are.

The research is released weeks after the UK’s competition watchdog warned businesses that they have until the beginning of next year to make sure their environmental claims comply with the law, as the organisation published a new ‘Green Claims Code’ in September to help companies abide by the rules.

According to the Changing Markets Foundation, H&M reported that 90 per cent of its recycled polyester comes from single-use plastic, while most companies examined indicated they aim to achieve their ‘recycled’ polyester targets by using polyester from downcycled PET bottles.

The foundation claims that retailers like Nike, H&M, Primark, and Zara’s parent group, Inditex, all rely on the false solution of downcycling single-use plastic bottles to meet its demand for synthetic polyester.

“With their carefully marketed green credentials unravelling fast, brands are clinging to recycled bottles for clothes to distract consumers from their inherently unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels for fibre,” said George Harding-Rolls, campaigns adviser at the Changing Markets Foundation. “If fashion brands are serious about reducing their environmental impact, they should stop the charade of downcycling plastic bottles into clothes and instead focus on cutting their addiction to fossil fuels and curbing overproduction.”

The research highlighted a number of reasons why turning PET plastic bottles into clothing is greenwashing.

Once turned into clothing, the plastic cannot be recycled further, which means these items will eventually be thrown away, sent to landfill, or incinerated.

The video says that turning plastic bottles into clothes also removes them from circular recycling loops where they can be made into new bottles again. Plastic bottles can be collected to be recycled multiple times, reducing the amount of virgin plastic needed, or to be refilled which helps to cut reliance on single-use plastic.

It explains that recycled plastic going into synthetics does nothing to help stop the wider problem of microplastics.

The research also claims that brands' use of recycled synthetics is "a drop in the ocean" compared to the industry's reliance on virgin plastics.

The Changing Markets Foundation warns that production of these fibres has exponentially increased over the past 20 years and "shows no signs of slowing."

"Use of recycled synthetics distracts consumers from the deeper problem of fashion brands’ entrenched reliance on fossil fuels – production of which uses as much oil per year as the whole of Spain and produces as much emissions as 180 coal-fired power stations," said the organisation.

Jo Morley, head of marketing and campaigns at City to Sea, said: “This new video exposes two problems here and one solution that no one is yet talking about," "The environmental impact of fast fashion is huge, as is our obsession with single-use plastics like water bottles.

“The solution for consumers though is simple; buy less, and when you do buy, support the reuse economy. For water bottles this means carrying reusable bottles and refilling them, and for clothes this means buying, when you need to, second-hand pre-loved clothing.”

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