The global fashion industry has become “dangerously” addicted to petrochemical-derived synthetic fibers that are contributing to mounting clothing waste and ocean-polluting microplastics, a new report said Wednesday.
Jointly released by the Changing Markets Foundation, the Plastic Soup Foundation, the Clean Clothes Campaign, Zero Waste Alliance Ukraine, No Plastic in my Sea and WeMove.EU, “Fossil Fashion: The Hidden Reliance of Fashion on Fossil Fuels” charts the rapid ascendancy and continual growth of synthetic fibers such as polyester, which accounts for more than half of textile production today.
Polyester’s upward trajectory, accelerated by the fast-fashion churn, has important implications for climate change, the report noted. Production of the fiber, which generated the equivalent of 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2015, is poised to nearly double by 2030, when polyester is expected to dominate 85 percent of the global textiles market.
Meanwhile, the reported noted, Big Oil and Big Gas are “betting big” on plastics, from which polyester and its fellow synthetics are made, as revenues from sectors such as transport and energy begin to slump. Not to mention, production of man-made fibers is also “getting dirtier,” with feedstocks coming from fracked gas and coal, it added.
The authors of the report drew a “striking correlation” between the proliferation of cheap, synthetic clothing and what they describe as a burgeoning “waste crisis.” Fashion brands are cranking out as many as 20 collections a year, and people are buying 60 percent more clothes than they did 15 years ago but hanging onto them for only half as long. Despite the growing ubiquity of garment take-back programs, the vast majority of clothing is landfilled, incinerated or “dumped in nature.”
As global apparel production balloons from 62 million metric tons in 2015 to 102 million metric tons in 2030, according to the Boston Consulting Group, this trend will only exacerbate, even if it appears superficially at odds with what consumers want. A 2019 survey by the European Commission found, for instance, that 88 percent of Europeans said clothing should be made to last longer.
“Not many consumers are aware that fast fashion is fossil fashion,” Urska Trunk, campaign manager at the Changing Markets Foundation, a corporate watchdog, said in a statement. “The addiction of fashion brands to cheap polyester and other oil-derived fibers is coming at a time when the world is moving away from fossil fuels. But instead of moving away from synthetic fibers, 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.”
Using petrochemicals in clothing has other ramifications. Whether worn or laundered, synthetic garments slough off microfibers—tiny plastic fragments of plastic, less than 5 millimeters in length, that have infiltrated most of the globe, including the loneliest reaches of the Arctic. Microfibers have been detected in the gastrointestinal tracts of fish, turtles and whales, in drinking water, in the majority of table salt, in human stool and in the placenta of unborn babies. While the health impacts on humans aren’t yet clear, microplastics are known to harm marine life. Preliminary studies also suggest they may disrupt lung development.
“This is an urgent wake up call,” said Laura Díaz Sánchez, campaigner at the Plastic Soup Foundation, a nonprofit that fights plastic pollution. “We are already eating and breathing what we are wearing because our clothes are constantly shedding microfibers. Since microfibers 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 “grand statements, pledges and a multitude of misleading green labels and initiatives,” the fashion industry has made little progress in mitigating its impact on the environment or shedding its dependence on fossil fuels, the study added. And indeed one 2019 study said that only two major fashion companies—Levi Strauss and American Eagle—have committed to Science Based Targets that align with the 2016 Paris Agreement’s goal to rein in temperature increases to a further 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The organizations are now urging the European Commission, the world’s top importer of textiles and apparel, to “show leadership through action” and include in its upcoming textiles strategy a “comprehensive plan” to decouple the fashion industry from fossil fuels and slow down the rate of clothing consumption. It could also require textile producers to be responsible for the end of life of their products, and in so doing pave the way for greater investment into viable fiber-to-fiber recycling technologies.
Any Covid-19 recovery-package funds, they added, should be made conditional on brands becoming more sustainable rather than used to buttress a “failing” fashion model that is “spelling disaster” for the environment and workers.
“We’re buying more, wearing it less, throwing it out faster, and more and more of it now comes from fossil fuels,” Trunk said. “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.”