The use of synthetic fibres, especially polyester, has doubled in textiles in the past two decades and is likely to grow manifold by 2030, showing the global fashion industry's "dangerous addiction" to climate-destroying fossil fuels, like oil and gas, to power its business model.
That's the conclusion of a new report, titled Fossil Fashion: The Hidden Reliance of Fashion on Fossil Fuels, by a group of environmental organizations, including Plastic Soup Foundation and Clean Clothes Campaign.
Since the early 2000s, fashion production has doubled. It is expected to grow in volume from 62 million tonnes in 2015 to 102 million tonnes by 2030, representing $3.3 trillion in value. Much of this growth is rooted in runaway consumption—we are buying more clothes than ever before, wearing them less and creating huge piles of textile waste, most of which ends up in landfill or is burnt in toxic incinerators, says the report.
Polyester, which is derived from oil and accounts for 85% of the synthetic fibres used in clothing, is a major source of microfibre pollution. In fact, its production has grown ninefold in the past 50 years since it's a low-cost material that allows brands to churn out a never-ending variety of cheap items for the latest style or season, with durability of little concern. What's more, the average consumer is buying 60% more clothing compared to 15 years ago, yet wearing each item half as long. Polyester’s flexibility as a material has seen it creeping into other materials too, with blends such as cotton and polyester increasingly being used, creating another set of problems when it comes to waste management.
Production of cheap synthetic fibres not only enables low-quality, throwaway fashion, it also makes the industry highly dependent on continued fossil-fuel extraction, says the report. The production of synthetic fibres for the textile industry currently accounts for 1.35% of global oil consumption, exceeding the annual oil consumption of Spain.
The report says recycling will not solve fast fashion’s problems, nor will it curb the exponential growth in the use of synthetic fibres. Currently, less than 1% of clothes are recycled to make new clothes, and the share of recycled polyester is declining; while it accounted for 14% in 2019, this will, in fact, decrease to 7.9% of overall polyester production by 2030. Furthermore, virtually all recycled polyester in clothing comes not from recycled garments, but from recycled plastic bottles. Legislation and voluntary commitments by consumer goods companies mean there will be more competition for recycled PET.
It is more urgent than ever, the report insists, to find effective legislative solutions to put the fashion industry on a more sustainable track and to push towards great circularity. The pandemic has revealed the cracks in the industry’s faulty business model.
Urska Trunk, campaign manager at the Changing Markets Foundation, which partners with NGOs on market-focused campaigns, said in the press release: “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.”