To Fake or Not to Fake: the Responsible Sourcing Dilemma

By Orsola De Castro

4 months ago

With the recent publicity around sustainable oriented fashion new year resolutions we’re revisiting this article centred around ASOS’s announcement to ban all feathers, silk mohair and cashmere last year. The article raises the point that whilst praise should be given to those re considering the attitude towards fashion and their wardrobes, blanket statements towards your future habits are not always the best form of action. We encourage you to think, question and research solutions to your current less favourable buying habits. Moving to sustainable fashion is step in the right direction, however the term is broad, only through research and transparency can we separate the brands genuinely looking to install good practices at every level of the supply chain from those just making a token gesture towards improving practices.

The recent announcement from ASOS that they will be banning all feathers, silk, mohair and cashmere has started a social media furore, quite rightly. Not because the ban in itself is a mistake – it shows that they are indeed taking into account their customers’ concerns in regards to animal welfare; concerns that our insatiable desire for soft, fluffy and silky materials poses a real threat to animals and their environment. The controversy arises from our suspicions that this new policy will not introduce better solutions to replace unethical, environmentally-unfriendly fabrics.

ASOS will need to replace those products with other equally soft, silky and fluffy materials and, inevitably, the fear is that the alternative will increase the production of fabrics made from plastic-based fibres such as polyester which are potentially just as bad, if not more harmful to the natural world and the animals living in it in the long run. And therein lies the contradiction: in order not to harm goats, geese, ducks and silk worms, the risk is that other forms of life, including us, will be harmed in the process. Instead of a blanket ban on these materials, should ASOS instead have focused on innovation and responsible sourcing, such as using Peace Silk or ensuring feathers are sourced under the Responsible Down Standard guidelines?

Polyester is pure plastic, it takes an estimated 1000 years to decompose. It releases microfibres which can enter the bloodstream of marine species, causing reproductive and growth issues and when ingested they cause species to think they are full and consequently become malnourished. Moreover, they can can enter human bodies when we consume shellfish, with currently unknown consequences. It has been estimated that 1.4 million trillion microfibres are currently in the oceans (Leonard, 2016), with some regions releasing up to 281 kilotonnes of primary microplastics per year (Boucher and Friot, 2017). If the fashion industry continues in a business-as-usual scenario, between 2015 and 2050 22 million tonnes of microfibres will enter our oceans (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017).

The fact that polyester is recyclable in circular, closed loop systems is not an excuse because we are still far from having an industry capable of recycling its plastic successfully enough not to produce more plastic overall. We are on the road to circularity, but we are not there yet.

We are nowhere near an industry where materials are recycled or downcycled in a clean, non-toxic, efficient way. The technology to recycle mixed blends such as cotton and poly still requires further injections of polyester to increase quality and functionality and blended fabrics cannot yet be commercially separated at scale in order to recycle the different fibres.

Even biodegradable materials are not completely harmless. Organic waste decomposing in landfill is one of the biggest contributors of atmospheric methane. At the moment, we really are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The debate over ASOS’s announcement is possible because there is now enough information on the negative effects of plastic on our environment. Not enough was done by ASOS to consider the reaction of a better educated audience and not enough reassurances were given on what alternative materials will be used instead. This announcement did look a lot like a nod to the growing animal welfare lobby, rather than a well thought out strategy leading to real and radical changes for the better. Is this a convenient excuse to divert from costly fibres and replace with synthetic alternatives in the name of ethical progress?

The announcement may prove that ASOS, like other brands, are listening but it also shows that they don’t necessarily know where they are going because right now nothing has a simple solution; almost every step comes accompanied by a fair amount of inevitable contradictions.

It won’t be easy or quick to steer these gigantic ships, to change our habits and theirs in favour of fully sustainable alternatives. Of course, the entire fashion industry needs to speed up and adopt better social and environmental practices throughout its complicated, ineffective and exploitative supply chain and what we can keep doing is encouraging debate and dialogue. Be vigilant, scrutinise, keep asking questions. This at least will show brands that we won’t be satisfied by half measures and unresolved solutions. That we expect real change because we want to wear clothes that make us feel good – and exploitation and resource depletion are definitely not a good look.

Photo credits:

Clothing sorted for recycling, Buenos Aires, Carry Somers

Ocean: Ross Miller