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Is Fashion Funding War In Ukraine?

Levi’s, Inditex, Gap, Nike, Adidas, H&M, Boohoo, Primark, Hugo Boss and Mango are just some of the fashion brands whose supply chains are intertwined with Russian oil, a new Changing Markets Foundation report claims.

“Just when you thought the fashion industry couldn’t be any more hypocritical with its greenwashing, our latest investigation has uncovered that some of the biggest high-street retailers are funding Putin’s heinous war on Ukraine through their growing reliance on the climate-wrecking fossil fuels,” said George Harding-Rolls, campaign manager at Changing Markets Foundation, which worked with and Zero Waste Alliance Ukraine to compile the “Dressed to Kill” report. “Fast fashion is founded on cheap fossil-fuel derived materials fueling plastic pollution and the climate crisis.”

This investigation by the environmental campaigning organization focused on two of the world’s largest polyester manufacturers: Reliance Industries in India and China’s Hengli Group. The evidence suggested that Russia has become the largest oil supplier to Reliance Industries and its polyester manufacturing, and offered proof that Hengli Group is also purchasing Russian oil to make its products. These manufacturers then sell their products around the world, with garment factories in turn produce clothing for many of the world’s largest brands. And even though more than 25 of these brands have suspended or withdrawn their operations in Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, their reliance on synthetics continues to contribute to Russia’s economy—indirectly funding the war.

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“Now for the first time we see another human cost of this dependence—buying synthetic clothing made from Russian oil is bolstering their economy during the heinous invasion of Ukraine,” Harding-Rolls said. “At a time where the fate of Ukraine hangs in the balance, I would urge these brands: stop using tainted polyester to help cut Putin’s purse strings.”

Using shipping tracking, brand- or Open Apparel Registry-published supplier lists, brand-published information, and direct disclosures elicited by questionnaires and inquiries, Changing Markets linked 39 of the 50 (78 percent) brands and parent companies included in its research directly or indirectly to the main manufacturers, illustrating how widely polyester-based clothing made from fossil fuels can spread through the global fashion industry. It’s a stark contrast to the sustainability commitments many of these same brands tout.

“Fast fashion is fossil fashion, and this report now proves it beyond any reasonable doubt. In a moment in history when we are discussing net zero and divestment from fossil fuels, the fact that the fashion industry is addicted to synthetic fibers which are oil-based fibers, is a total paradox,” Livia Firth, founder and creative director of Eco Age, said. “These findings from Changing Markets should be a stark warning to both brands and consumers that fashion and climate change are inextricably linked.”

Focusing on polyester, the most widely used fiber in the industry that accounts for over half of all textiles produced, “Dressed to Kill” digs deep into the plastic workhouse of the fashion industry.

“While people are well aware of pervasive plastic pollution and environmental concerns related to plastic packaging, such as plastic bottles, few realize that the same product is also present in our clothing, and yet is practically unrecyclable, causes a significant waste problem, as well as contaminating our bodies and natural environments with plastic microfibers,” the report said. “As this report shows, polyester production is further identified as a concern due to its oil and gas feedstock being sourced from Russian oil and fossil fuels from other highly extractive and polluting fossil fuel companies.”

Reliance Industries cashed in on the sanctions on Russian oil, with customs data analysis by the Changing Markets Foundation showing that between August 2021 and February 2022, the monthly average landed import value of Russian oil by Reliance was 67.4 million euros ($65 million). This increased nearly tenfold to 663.5 million euros ($640 million) per month from April 2022 onward. With the fashion industry now identified as a significant end-user of these oil-based products, their involvement in this supply chain is helping to keep the Russian oil industry afloat, the study claims.

“The full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia made clear a cynical and naive dependency on fossil fuels,” Anastasiia Martynenko, head of NGO Zero Waste Society, Ukraine, said. “Using Russian oil and gas for the production of clothing is effectively supporting Putin’s bloody war. Brands must reveal their supply chains and immediately end the use of Russian or anybody else’s fossil fuels and switch to safe, natural, sustainable materials and business models.”

“Sales of this plastic clothing are indirectly funding Russia’s illegal war,” Vladyslav Vlasiuk, a sanctions expert working in the Ukrainian Presidential office, said. “Any fashion company using these firms who buy discounted Russian oil need to change suppliers immediately.”

These cheap synthetic fibers, made from fossil fuels such as oil and gas, now make up 69 percent of all textiles and are to blame for the rapid rise in fast fashion, ramping up global waste crisis and microplastic pollution, according to the organization. This figure is expected to skyrocket to nearly three-quarters by 2030, of which 85 percent will be polyester.

“We already knew plastic fashion was dirty. It contributes to climate change and is a risk to our health,” Maria Westerbos, founder of the Plastic Soup Foundation,said. “Now we find out that it is funding Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. There is no such thing as clean plastic. Fashion brands need to get back to make quality fashion instead of throwaway fashion.”

Levi’s, Inditex, Gap, Nike, Adidas, Boohoo, Primark and Mango did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“At H&M Group, we have been proactively working for many years in setting and working towards ambitious sustainability-related targets. These goals include and directly address the importance of enabling significant reduction in the use of fossil-fuel-based fibers for our products,” a spokesperson for H&M told Sourcing Journal. “By 2025, the goal is to only source 100 percent recycled polyester. This is an important milestone on our journey towards only sourcing recycled or other more sustainably sourced materials by 2030. This will help us decrease our impact on the environment, lowering our carbon footprint and saving resources like water, energy and chemicals.”

Currently, around 20 percent of H&M’s material use accounts for polyester, of which already around 75 percent is recycled polyester, the spokesperson said.

“Irrespective of that, we firmly agree with the report that the industry needs to radically shift towards using more sustainable materials and more sustainable practices,” they continued. “This, of course, includes greater supply chain transparency across the entire value chain.”

Hugo Boss stated that the company consistently reviews its material strategy to increase the proportion of more sustainable materials in its collections. Its share of polyester is below 15 percent, a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal.

“Nevertheless, our goal is to further reduce this share in the future and to replace it primarily with more sustainable materials,” the company said, adding that Hugo Boss invested $5 million into innovation company HeiQ AeoniQ, which has developed fully recyclable cellulose yarn.

“A first capsule collection for this is already planned soon,” the spokesperson said. “We, therefore, have a clear strategy to phase out polyester and petroleum-based products.”