Why is fashion hooked on petroleum?

If we tell you that fashion is hooked on petroleum, the first thing you’ll think of is the thousands (or even millions) of kilometres that textiles cover by truck, ship or plane, having been made using crops harvested in Africa or Latin America, processed in Asia and sold on in Europe or the USA. And that’s far from being the worst of it, as revealed in a report by the Changing Markets Foundation published in February 2021. This 45-page report, entitled Fossil Fashion: The Hidden Reliance of Fashion on Fossil Fuels, highlights the dependency of the fashion industry – and especially Fast Fashion – on petroleum. It sets alarm bells ringing over the growing proportion of synthetic fibres in clothes, not least polyester, and its environmental consequences.
To the point that this study refers to Fast Fashion as “Fossil Fashion”.

Polyester: in more than half of our clothes

This report, which draws on more than 150 data sets from consulting firms, institutions and non-governmental organisations, shows that the fashion industry is more and more dependent on synthetic fibres, and therefore on petroleum. While these textiles are used in the production of shoes, rugs and furniture, clothes represent by far the biggest trade stream for producers of synthetic fibres (70% of the worldwide synthetic fibres market in 2019). And with the boom of Fast Fashion, which produces cheap clothes, the use of synthetic fibres has doubled over the past 20 years. When we talk about synthetic fibres in clothes, we’re first and foremost talking about polyester. Have a look through your wardrobe and check the labels. There’s a good chance that you’ll find polyester stated on the labels of half of your clothes. Polyester is a popular choice due to its strength, stretchiness, moisture-repellent properties and UV protection. It’s everywhere: in sportwear, swimsuits and summer clothes.

These days, polyester is in more than half of the textile items produced worldwide. 2020 was a landmark year: for the first time, the volumes of polyester used in clothes overtook those of cotton. This proportion is expected to increase further. Synthetic fibres (which also include acrylic, elastane and Lycra®) could account for 70% of worldwide fibre production by 2030, and polyester could then account for 85% of that.

Polyester, a fabric that requires a lot of petroleum

Polyester is derived from petroleum, a non-renewable fossil fuel. It takes 1.5 kg of petroleum to produce 1 kg of polyester. 45 million tonnes of polyester were produced in 2020.

In 2015, to mark the COP21 summit, HuffPost published an article on the environmental impact of the textiles industry. It stated that each year, 70 million barrels of petroleum are needed for the production of polyester fibres for the textiles industry.

This means that the fashion industry alone uses 1.35% of worldwide petroleum production for the production of synthetic fibres.

In the words of Urška Trunk, Campaign Manager of the Changing Markets Foundation: “Few consumers are aware of the fact that fast fashion is actually “fossil fashion”. Fashion brands’ addiction to cheap polyester and other fibres derived from petroleum comes at a time when the world is gradually moving away from fossil fuels. But instead of dropping synthetic fibres, which are an ecological disaster, brands want you to think that they have the situation well under control and that they can keep right on producing ever-increasing amounts of clothes”.

An expanding carbon footprint

Besides the consequences on the environment – not least microplastics shed into the sea every time clothes are laundered – the association states that in 2015, the carbon footprint attributable to polyester production amounted to 700 million tonnes de CO2, “equivalent to Mexico’s annual emissions total, or 180 coal-fired power stations”. Moreover, this carbon footprint is expected to double in size by the end of the decade. Because the production processes of these synthetic fibres are more and more polluting, with raw materials yielded from gas, itself sourced via fracking. Furthermore, Hengli, one of the main producers of Chinese polyester, announced in June 2020 that it wishes to invest 20 billion US dollars in making polyester threads out of coal.

Fashion – not very keen to use recycled synthetic fibres

While a few responsible brands now produce clothes using recycled polyester to reduce their carbon footprints, it is still the outliers doing so, and for good reason! “Currently, less than 1% of clothes get recycled into new ones, and the proportion of recycled polyester used is falling”, states the report. According to the Textile Exchange report Preferred Fiber & Materials Market Report 2020, recycled polyester accounted for 14% of the total polyester output in 2019. By 2030 this proportion is expected to drop to 7.9%, according to the Tecnon OrbiChem firm’s 2021 data. More generally, according to the Changing Markets Foundation, the industry is not drawing on the circular economy enough in its production processes, and is continuing to use fabric blends that are seldom recycled or recyclable.

Competition over PET

The recycled form of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the resin used to produce polyester fibres (and also bottled water bottles), is now a prized commodity. There are regulatory constraints concerning the end of single-use plastic in the EU. These place multinationals producing drinks and consumer goods (not least beauty products) under an obligation to buy this recycled resin, driving the price up. Faced with these prohibitive prices, the textile industry opts instead for virgin PET, which is far cheaper.

In conclusion, this report is asking the European Union to put the brakes on the overproduction of fast fashion. The solution could be the introduction of regulations on the production of synthetic textiles, similar to those on single-use plastic.

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