The price of fast fashion: Polyester’s carbon footprint equivalent to 180 coal-fired power stations

9 February 2021

A new report from the Changing Markets Foundation is warning against the global fashion industry’s reliance on synthetic fibres, which are made from fossil fuels such as oil and gas.

Fossil Fashion: The Hidden Reliance of Fashion on Fossil Fuels, 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 is the largest consumer of textiles, accounting for more than 70% of the global textiles market as of 2019.

Greenhouse gas emissions set to double

Today, polyester is already found in more than half of all textiles, according to the report. It says that 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.

It says that 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%.

The report also finds that 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.

Unknown health consequences

The report also warns against the as yet unknown health consequences of vast quantities of synthetic clothing waste. It finds that 87% of clothing material either incinerated, landfilled or dumped in nature. During use, washing and disposal, synthetic clothes leach tiny fibres that are invisible to the eye. These ‘microfibres’ do not biodegrade, meaning they stay in the environment forever.

Calls for tighter legislation

The European Union is the largest importer of textile and apparel in the world. A textile strategy is due to be published by the European Commission this year; and the Changing Markets Foundation is calling on it to contain a comprehensive plan to slow down the rate of consumption of clothes. It says 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.

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. 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.”