Fashion Frolicking In Oil

By Dawn McGregor 17 July, 2020

Synthetic fibres - a plastic derived from oil - account for 65% of fibres used by fashion. CWR's McGregor digs deeper into this oil addiction

Oil & plastic don’t come to mind when you’re putting on your clothes but they should! Polyester & other synthetic fibres - in your yoga pants, sports tops etc. - are kinds of plastic derived from oil
2.5% of global oil produced was used by the fashion industry; production of polyester, the most used fibre, has doubled since 2005 & remains sky high thanks to fast fashion & the athleisure boom
Then there is the 500,000t of microplastic from washing, the 85bn plastic hangers going to landfill and of course waste clothes, which is just putting oil back in the ground... we need to do better

Fashion, like many sectors, has been battered by the Covid-19 pandemic. There has been a string of bankruptcies, issues over not paying suppliers and more; see our article. But, from the ashes can rise a better, more sustainable industry that does things better. And that is what 50+ companies have signed a pledge to do with the Build Back Better With The Circular Economy pledge by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The companies are cross sectors and have goals for plastics, fashion, food and finance. The fashion pledge includes, “clothes are made from safe and renewable materials”. That is a bold statement given that 65% of fibres used by the fashion industry are synthetic and not made from such materials but instead oil. Yes, it turns out that fashion is frolicking in oil and it is going to be hard to break its addiction.

Oil and plastic don’t come to mind when you’re putting on your clothes, but they should!

Oil and plastic don’t come to mind when you’re putting on your clothes, but they should! Polyester and other synthetic fibres, which are in your yoga pants, sports tops, pretty much everything fast fashion and athleisure are kinds of plastic derived from oil. And if we continue business-as-usual (BAU), 98% of all future fibre growth is expected in synthetic fibres. As if there wasn’t already enough to worry about re fashion’s negative environmental impacts… but given fashion will impact our climate future (see more here) we can’t let this go on, we need to make drastic and circular changes now. We all need to do better, build better.  Below we look at 5 things you didn’t know about oil and plastic in fashion.

1. 2.5% of global oil produced was used by the fashion industry

Synthetic fibres are a kind of plastic derived from oil.

In 2015, 3,877 million tonnes of crude oil were produced of which 98 million tonnes or 2.5% was used by the fashion industry. That is pretty much the same amount as oil produced by Qatar, Malaysia and Indonesia combined – no small amount. Fashion is addicted to oil.



2. Athleisure bolstering already sky-high polyester production

Polyester is the most widely used fibre in the world, overtook cotton in 2002, and accounts for around 80% of synthetic fibres. It is easy to see why with its durability, versatility, light weight, resistance to wrinkles, resistance to stains and quick drying time – all liked by designers and consumers. And even more appealing, its relative cheapness.

Polyester has fuelled the growth of dirty & thirsty fast fashion. And now, with the rise of athleisure, a USD167 billion category, polyester production is remaining sky high. Global polyester production has increased 16 times since 1975 and more than doubled since 2005. You can see in the chart below, the rise of polyester production aligns with increasing store openings of key athleisure brands.

Polyester is the most widely used fibre in the world…

…production has doubled since 2005

3. 700,000 plastic microfibres are released every time a polyester garment is washed

Plastic pollution is a global issue and fashion is a significant contributor, especially to microplastics.

Every time a polyester garment is washed, it releases 700,000 plastic microfibres. Many of these microplastics pass through sewage treatment and end up in rivers and oceans and then in our food chain, and increasingly in the air. And FYI, microplastics never degrade.

Overall, in a year, it is estimated that 500,000 tonnes – the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles – of microfibers enter the ocean. 35% of all microplastics in the ocean came from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester.

4. Even more plastic pollution from clothes hangers, jewellery & sunglasses

Yes, there is more plastic issues and pollution in fashion, now thanks to clothes hangers, jewellery & sunglasses. Cheap sunglasses and fast fashion jewellery at basement prices mean an exponential increase in plastic waste ending in landfills.

Coat hangers are the “plastic straw” of the fashion industry…

…85bn end up in landfills every year

As for coat hangers, they are the “plastic straw” of the fashion industry, as said by fashion designer, Roland Mouret. And you can see why he said this with 85 billion plastic hangers, being thrown away every year, ending up in landfills or the ocean. Did you know that the plastic hangers used to transport clothes are thrown out as soon as the clothes arrive at the location… just crazy!

Current plastic hangers are hard to recycle because they can include a combination of up to seven different plastics as well as metal. However, there is hope with a hanger made from 80% recycled plastic recovered from the sea and 20% recyclable plastic. Yet, when they were offered at London Fashion Week 2019, only 20% were accepted. We need attitudes to change.

5. Mountains of clothing waste mean oil is back in the ground but in a different & polluting way

One garbage truck – 2,625kg – of clothes are burned or landfilled every second. At a 55% share of fashion materials, that works out to 1,444kg of polyester. So basically, we are putting oil back in the ground but in a polluting way thanks to the added chemicals and other materials (including plastic) to make the garment. How does that make any sense?

Polyester stays in landfills for decades or hundreds of years…

…we need to make big changes and now

Making things worse, is that polyester does not biodegrade like natural fibres. Rather it stays in landfill for several decades at least – and potentially for hundreds of years. And remember those single-use plastic clothes hangers, they can take up to 1,000 years to break down.

The irony is that polyester can be recycled and can be made out of recycled materials, but we are just not doing. Yes, there are some limitations, but we could be doing so much more. Virgin polyester is cheaper than recycled and with low oil prices this is even more the case. So, things that may not have seem connected very much are.

Every bit counts to help us avoid 3ºC-4ºC.

Further Reading

  • Fast Fashion’s COVID Death & Virtual Revival? – Fast fashion is dying – from broken supply chains and no demand thanks to WFH. CWR’s Dawn McGregor and Debra Tan reimagine fashion’s future – a virtual realm where our avatars attend Zoom drinks and digital supermodels walk the runway
  • Sustainable Fashion Today: A Sweet But Short High – 2019 has been a busy year for sustainable fashion but with sweet but short highs as CWR’s Dawn McGregor highlights. Given fashion’s huge climate impact, McGregor laments the need for more strategic solutions
  • Fashion Has The Power To Shape A 2℃ World – If fashion were a country it would have the fourth highest carbon emissions behind the US, China, & India. China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor & Debra Tan question why the industry is not under the spotlight like coal and call for faster disruptions
  • Circular Fashion Today – Closing the loop in the fashion is not new. But perhaps now that China,  the world’s largest manufacturer of garments, wants to go circular, it might become a reality. Get on top of the latest trends with leading circular fashion innovators

More on Latest

  • COVID-19 Heightens Water Problems Around The World – Is water access and quality only a problem of developing countries? Global water gurus Asit Biswas and Cecilia Tortajada rebut this as COVID-19 & the lack of political leadership reveal vulnerabilities worldwide
  • The Coronavirus Climate Profiteers & The Climate Heroes – Which companies and industries are exploiting COVID-19 and which are doubling down on green efforts? Mighty Earth’s CEO Glenn Hurowitz calls them out and calls for a new, better system to be built
  • It Happened – Central Banks And Water Risks – Half a dozen new reports by the NGFS means that CWR has achieved a key milestone in embedding water risks in finance. Debra Tan and Dharisha Mirando expand on these game-changing moves by the central banks. The credit evolution has started
  • Regulators Have A Role To Play In Tackling The Global Water Crisis – Climate change creates systemic risks to financial systems. With USD316bn of losses from disasters in 2018-19, Ceres’ Robin Miller on urgent actions regulators can take to ensure stability and investors that have made a start on water risks
  • Pathway For Hong Kong To Net Zero By 2050 – Hong Kong needs a new plan to decarbonise by 2050 as it only has targets for 2030. ADMCF’s CEO Lisa Genasci shares key findings from a report that shows us how to achieve net-zero and monetised HKD460bn in benefits
Dawn McGregor
Author: Dawn McGregor
Dawn leads CWR’s work to help corporates navigate increasingly disruptive & material risks from water & climate threats, as well as transitional risks in the supply chain arising from new regulations in China. Here, Dawn engages extensively with the global fashion industry delivering on-ground workshops in China to keynotes and strategic input at European HQs. She has written at length on the end of dirty and thirsty fast fashion and her report to overcome gaps between brands and manufacturers for a clean and circular future inspired the industry to create a new wastewater tool. Dawn also works closely with the property and tourism sectors where she not only conducts strategic assessments of their exposure but builds collective action toward resilience via closed door working groups and invite-only events. Having helped build CWR, Dawn is a frequent keynote, panellist & moderator at events, including being twice selected as the lead-rapporteur at World Water Week. Her articles are cited in various industry publications including the UN’s ‘World Without Water’. Dawn previously worked in a global investment bank assessing geo-political risk, crisis management and business resiliency. She was born and bred in Hong Kong and has lived in France, England, Singapore and Beijing.
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