The writing’s on the wall: Without urgent action to substitute materials, scale innovation and, yes, reduce production, emissions from the fashion industry will blow past what is necessary to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, Textile Exchange warned Wednesday.
Global fiber production, the materials-minded nonprofit noted in a pair of annually updated market reports, has never been higher. In 2021, volumes hit a record 113 million metric tons, “dramatically” reversing a previous pandemic-induced slump. This figure, which has nearly doubled in the past two decades, could soar to 149 million metric tons by 2030 if business continues apace, it said.
At the same time, the share of so-called “preferred” fibers with a lower impact on the environment remains largely unchanged. The share of recycled fibers, for instance, ticked up just slightly from 8.4 percent in 2021 to 8.9 percent in 2020, mainly because more companies adopted polyester derived from castoff plastic bottles. Some environmental campaigners have dubbed this move a “false solution,” however, because that feedstock, once yanked from the bottling circuit and dropped into clothing, usually cannot be recycled again.
Overall, fibers made from post-industrial or post-consumer waste comprised less than 1 percent of last year’s global market, Textile Exchange found. Due to a combination of weather chaos, changes in the Better Cotton program, market conditions and sociopolitical headwinds, cotton from preferred sources such as organic, fair trade or regenerative agriculture, saw a 3 percent drop to account for 24 percent of all cotton in 2021. In contrast, the production of polyester fibers jumped 7 percent from 57 million metric tons in 2020 to 61 million tons in 2021. With a market share of 54 percent, it continues to be the most widely produced fiber, chiefly due to its low cost and ready availability.
It’s time to address the “elephant in the room,” said the organization, whose roster is a who’s who of fashion with members such as Adidas, H&M, Kering, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Nike and Zara owner Inditex. “Given this growth of the overall fiber and materials market and its impacts, it’s increasingly important to rethink growth and decouple value creation from resource use,” Textile Exchange said. This translates into “slowing down, making less and producing with purpose.” Just reining in growth to 1 percent over a business-as-usual scenario of 3 percent, it added, could strike 80 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from the ledger.
Accelerating the transition from conventional—particularly petrochemical-based—to preferred fibers is more critical than ever, it added. More than half—64 percent—of materials poured into fashion today are synthetic in origin. They’re followed by cotton and other plant fibers at 28 percent, manmade cellulosics at 6.4 percent and animal fibers at 1.6 percent.
While plenty of solutions already exist, innovation and collaboration remain necessary to take the “bold actions” required to scale new emerging materials and ramp up regenerative agriculture, Textile Exchange said. Bio-based polyester fiber amounts to only 0.03 percent of the broader polyester market, while recycled polyamide constitutes just 1.94 percent of all polyamide fiber. Recycled manmade cellulosics make up an even more paltry 0.5 percent slice of the manmade cellulosic market, though the nonprofit expects this to increase significantly in the next few years as R&D makes strides.
That’s not to say the sector isn’t making progress, said the organization, which has committed to helping the industry reduce emissions from fiber and raw-material production by 45 percent by 2030. The numbers show that brands are making some of the more “accessible shifts” in their sourcing, the organization said. Still, the decisions being made fall short of the long-term investment and commitment urgently needed to “move the needle and mitigate impact at scale.”
“The scale and speed at which change is required will mean moving priorities away from short-term economic growth to the long-term resilience of both the industry and the planet,” Textile Exchange said. “This means working collaboratively and pre-competitively to improve solutions like textile-to-textile recycling, increase the availability of cotton grown through more responsible agricultural methods, or scale next-gen material alternatives.”