Monday, June 14

Rise of synthetic fibres in fashion pushing planetary limits, NGOs warn

Estimates show 87 per cent of fashion is landfilled, incinerated or dumped in the environment | Credit: Shutterstock, Changing Markets

Fashion industry has ‘failed to make headway’ in curbing its damage on the environment and dependence on fossil fuels, campaigners warn

The fashion industry is fuelling the climate emergency and waste crisis through its huge and growing addiction to synthetic fibres made from carbon-intensive fossil fuels.

That is the conclusion of a report published this morning by a clutch of environmental NGOs which charts how the growing use of synthetic fibres by fashion brands is creating “mountains of waste and oceans of microfibres” while propping up demand for some of the dirtiest fossil fuels, such as fracked gas and coal.

The report, dubbed Fossil Fashion: The Hidden Reliance of Fashion on Fossil Fuels, calculates the use of synthetic fibres, especially polyester, has doubled over the last 20 years as cheap, often low-quality clothes have flooded the global apparel industry.

The findings highlight how polyester production for textiles was responsible for roughly 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in 2015 – an output that matches the the annual greenhouse gas emissions of Mexico.

With demand for polyester and other synthetic textiles projected to continue to balloon over the coming decade, the environmental groups behind the report are calling on the European Union to use its upcoming Textiles Strategy to introduce measures to try and slow the rate of consumption of clothes, reduce the sector’s reliance on fossil fuels, and improve textile recycling facilities.

“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,” said Urska Trunk, campaign manager at the Changing Markets Foundation, one of the groups behind the report. “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.”

“Not many consumers are aware that fast fashion is fossil fashion,” she added.

The Plastic Soup Foundation, the Clean Clothes Campaign, No Plastic in My Sea, Zero Waste Alliance Ukraine, and WeMove.EU have also backed the report, which cautions that unless action is taken demand for fast fashion will continue to grow and three quarters of all fibre production will be synthetic by 2030, causing serious harm to the environment and climate, as well as human and animal wellbeing.  

The authors argue urgent policy action is needed because the fashion industry has “failed to make headway” in reducing its impact on the environment and its dependence on fossil fuels through voluntary measures.

A host of fashion brands have embraced net zero emission goals and introduced new green clothing lines in recent years, but the report finds that overall demand for synthetic fibres continues to grow, while their production is getting dirtier as oil and gas producers increasingly pivot towards supplying the plastics industry in response to curbed demand from the transport and energy sectors. A significant proportion of fossil fibre production is derived from the controversial practice of fracking, it notes, and there are projects in the pipeline to produce polyester from coal in China.

Furthermore, synthetic clothes are proven to leach tiny ‘microfibres’ into the environment, both when washed and when disposed. These have been proven to harm sea creatures and research is underway to investigate their impact on human health.

Laura Diaz Sanchez, campaigner at the Plastic Soup Foundation, said the constant shedding of microfibres meant that humans were “already eating and breathing” parts of their clothes.

“Since microfibres do not break down naturally, we are going to have to live with them forever,” she warned. “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 report also highlights that fast fashion is leading to growing quantities of clothing waste, noting that 87 per cent of clothing material is currently incinerated, landfilled, or dumped in nature.

As such, the charities have called on the European Commission to introduce a set of new measures that help drive the development of a more sustainable fashion industry through its Textiles Strategy, which is due to be published later this year.

As the largest importer of textiles and apparel in the world, the EU a “terrific opportunity” to drive change across the global industry through the strategy, Trunk said.

“We’re buying more, wearing it less, throwing it out faster, and more and more of it now comes from fossil fuels,” she 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.”

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