3 February 2021
- The global fashion industry has become dangerously dependent on
cheap synthetic fibres, which are made from fossil fuels such as oil and gas.
- Rapid growth in synthetic fibres, such as polyester, is creating
an escalating environmental catastrophe, with the consequences for health only just being uncovered.
- The Netherlands is a frontrunner in the EU in collecting
textile waste, but other EU countries are lagging behind.
- The Dutch Agreement on Sustainable Textiles, though progressive,
is voluntary and has been criticised for falling short on transparency.
- The EU must now take urgent legislative action to bring the textile
and apparel industry in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement and the
European Green Deal.
The global fashion industry has developed a dangerous addiction to synthetic fibres, which are made from climate-destroying fossil fuels like oil and gas, to power its fast fashion business model, according to a new report.
The report, Fossil Fashion: The Hidden Reliance of Fashion on Fossil Fuels[i], 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 accounted
for more than 70% of the global textiles market in 2019.[ii]
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 gas[iii]
and multi-billion-dollar investments from a major Chinese
polyester producer to convert coal into polyester yarn.[iv]
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 globally 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 the Dutch want from the sector. Currently, the average Dutch person
consumes 14kg of new clothing per year.[v]
One survey from 2019 found almost nine in ten people wanted longer-lasting
clothes (87%), with a similar number (89%) disagreeing that clothes should be
made at the lowest possible price.[vi]
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.”
Mountains of waste and oceans of microfibres
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.”
The EU must step up to the plate
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.[vii]
More than 7 in 10 Dutch people (72%) felt
they could not always trust the environmental claims made for clothing products.[viii]
The Netherlands has progressive legislation
in place to reduce the use of virgin raw materials by 50% by 2030 and to collect
textile waste. Currently, 45% of all textile waste is collected separately from
other waste, with 53% being reused, 33% expected to be recycled, and 14% ending
up as waste.[ix] Although
this legislation is promising, it is insufficient to bring about the sector-wide
transformation needed, and the EU needs to step up to the plate.
An agreement exists since 2016 between
industry associations, trade unions, NGOs, and the Dutch Government to improve
working conditions, prevent pollution and promote animal welfare in countries
where fashion items are produced. However, NGOs have criticised the agreement for
falling short on transparency, engagement with rightsholders and remediation,[x]
and the agreement has remained voluntary.
As the largest importer of textile and
apparel in the world,[xi]
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
Urska Trunk, Campaign Manager at the Changing Markets Foundation, 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. Although
the Netherlands has progressive legislation in place to tackle some of the
problems with fashion, it can not bring about single-handedly the
transformation the planet needs. 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.”
full report can be accessed here.
About Changing Markets
The Changing Markets Foundation partners with NGOs on market-focused campaigns. Our mission is to expose irresponsible corporate practices and drive change towards a more sustainable economy.
About the Plastic Soup Foundation
Soup Foundation is an Amsterdam-based NGO focused on stopping plastic pollution
at the source. Their motto: “No plastic waste in our water or our bodies”.
Zero Waste Alliance Ukraine
Waste Alliance Ukraine is a public association that unites Ukrainian zero waste
initiatives, created by Zero Waste Lviv, Zero Waste Kharkiv and Zero Waste
Society (Kyiv) in 2019.
About the Clean Clothes Campaign
Clean Clothes Campaign is a global network dedicated to improving working conditions and empowering workers in the global garment and sportswear industries.
WeMove.EU is an independent and values-based organisation that seeks to build people power to transform Europe in the name of our community, future generations and the planet.
No Plastic in my Sea
The association No Plastic In My Sea aims to fight against plastic pollution and its consequences on the marine ecosystem.
[i] Today’s report has been released jointly 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.
[ii] Fashion and clothing is the largest
consumer of textiles. In terms of volume, the fashion sector held a
considerable share of over 70.0% of the total market in 2019. See Grand
View Research, Textile Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report,
2020-2027 (2020) https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/textile-market.
[iii] Stand.earth, Fashion forward: A
roadmap to fossil free fashion (2020) https://www.stand.earth/sites/stand/files/standearth-fashionforward-roadmaptofossilfreefashion.pdf
[iv] Chen. A (2020) China’s Hengli makes bold $20
billion bet to spin coal into fabric. Reuters, 29 July 2020. [ONLINE]
Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-coal-polyester-hengli-focus-idUSKCN24U0MA
[v] ECAP, Used Textile
Collection in European Cities (1 March 2018) http://www.ecap.eu.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/ECAP-Textile-collection-in-European-cities_full-report_with-summary.pdf.
[vi] European Commission, Protecting the
environment – Eurobarometer survey (2020) https://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/index.cfm/survey/getSurveydetail/instruments/special/surveyky/2257.
[vii] Changing Markets Foundation, The False
Promise of Certification: how certification is hindering sustainability in the
textiles, palm oil and fisheries industries (2018) https://dirtyfashion.info/assets/reports/THE_FALSE_PROMISE_OF_CERTIFICATION_FINAL_WEB.pdf.
Commission, Protecting the environment – Eurobarometer survey (2020) https://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/index.cfm/survey/getSurveydetail/instruments/special/surveyky/2257.
[ix] University of
Wageningen, Improving Dutch post-consumer textile recycling (2020) https://www.wur.nl/en/show/Improving-Dutch-post-consumer-textile-recycling.htm.
[x] Clean Clothes
Campaign and SOMO, Dutch Agreement on Sustainable Garments and Textile (June
[xi] World Atlas, Top 10 Textile Importing
Countries In The World (30 January 2020) https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/top-10-textile-importing-countries-in-the-world.html