The report, Fossil Fashion: The Hidden Reliance of Fashion on Fossil Fuelsi, charts how the use of synthetic fibres, especially polyester, has doubled in textiles in the last 20 years, and is likely to continue growing to reach nearly three quarters of total global fibre production in 2030, with polyester accounting for 85% of this share.
Textiles are used in all sorts of products like clothing, shoes, carpets or furniture, though the fashion sector is the largest consumer of textiles, accounting for more than 70% of the global textiles market as of 2019.
Today, polyester is already found in more than half of all textiles. While the footprint of polyester production in 2015 was the equivalent of 700m tonnes of CO2, comparable to the total annual emissions of Mexico or 180 coal-fired power stations, that figure is expected to nearly double by 2030.
In addition, the oil and gas industry is betting big on plastics, from which polyester and synthetic fibres are made, as revenue from other sectors, such as transport and energy, declines. Much of the future growth in demand for oil is projected to come from the production of plastics, with BP estimating the share could be as high as 95%. Production of synthetic fibres is also getting dirtier, with feedstock coming from fracked gasiii and multi-billion-dollar investments from a major Chinese polyester producer to convert coal into polyester yarn.
The report also finds a striking correlation between the rise of polyester and the explosion of cheap, low-quality clothing that is causing a mounting waste crisis. Some brands are now churning out as many as 20 collections per year, and people are buying 60% more clothes than 15 years ago, yet wearing them for half as long. This trend is projected to worsen as global fashion production leaps from 62 million tonnes in 2015 to 102 million tonnes in 2030. Surveys show that these trends are at odds with what Europeans want from the sector. One survey from 2019 found almost nine in ten people wanted longer-lasting clothes (88%).
Urska Trunk, Campaign Manager at the Changing Markets Foundation, said: “Not many consumers are aware that fast fashion is fossil fashion. The addiction of fashion brands to cheap polyester and other oil-derived fibres is coming at a time when the world is moving away from fossil fuels. But instead of moving away from synthetic fibres, which are causing an ecological disaster, brands want you to think they’ve got this under control and they can keep producing ever more clothes.”
Fashion’s addiction to synthetic fibres and runaway consumption of cheap clothes is leading to untenable quantities of clothing waste, with 87% of clothing material either incinerated, landfilled or dumped in nature. During use, washing and disposal, synthetic clothes also leach tiny fibres that are invisible to the eye. These ‘microfibres’ do not biodegrade, meaning they stay in the environment forever.
As a result, microfibres are now found everywhere, from the Arctic oceans to our food chains, lungs and stomachs. Microfibres are also present in 80% of our tap water and have even been found in the placentas of unborn babies. The health consequences are still emerging, but microfibres are known to harm sea creatures and preliminary studies show they could disrupt lung development.
Laura Díaz Sánchez, Campaigner at the Plastic Soup Foundation, said: “This is an urgent wake up call. We are already eating and breathing what we are wearing because our clothes are constantly shedding microfibres. Since microfibres do not break down naturally, we are going to have to live with them forever. This could have devastating consequences for our health, but it also effectively saddles our future generations with a problem that the fast fashion industry has the tools to solve.”
Despite the grand statements, pledges and a multitude of misleading green labels and initiatives, the fashion industry has failed to make headway in reversing its catastrophic impact on the environment, or in reducing its dependence on fossil fuels.
As the largest importer of textile and apparel in the world, the EU has the opportunity to show leadership through action. With the European Commission currently preparing its textile strategy, due later this year, the Changing Markets Foundation urges it to lay out a comprehensive plan to slow down the rate of consumption of clothes. This can be done by decoupling the fashion industry from fossil fuels, increasing the quality of materials, for example through eco-design measures, and by requiring that the textile industry be responsible for the end-of-life of their products. In this way clothes must be separately collected, reused, repaired, and the industry should start investing into viable fibre-to-fibre recycling technologies.
The Commission must ensure any COVID Recovery Package funds are made conditional on brands becoming more sustainable and are not used to prop up the failing fast fashion model which is spelling disaster for the environment and workers, and short-changing citizens in the long run.
Urska Trunk said: “We’re buying more, wearing it less, throwing it out faster, and more and more of it now comes from fossil fuels. We know that the fashion industry won’t solve this problem on its own. The European Commission needs to come forward with a wide-ranging textile strategy that overhauls the dependence of fashion on fossil fuels and puts the industry on a more sustainable footing. As one of the biggest textile markets, the EU has a terrific opportunity to address a blind spot which is endangering our ability to live within the planet’s limits.”