Do synthetic fibres reign supreme in your wardrobe? A new report has charted the two-decade takeover of our clothing by fossil-fuel derived fibres, in particular polyester.

Textiles are used in a variety of products such as clothing, carpets, and furniture, but it is the fashion sector that represents the largest consumption of textiles, accounting for more than 70% of the global textiles market as of 2019. Today, polyester can be found in more than half of all textiles.

A new report from Changing Markets Foundation shows how production of synthetic fibres for the textile industry currently accounts for 1.35% of global oil consumption and use of synthetic fibres has doubled in the last 20 years. Synthetics are likely to represent three quarters of global fibre production in 2030, with polyester accounting for 85% of this share.

It was around the year 2000 when brands became dependent on using cheap synthetic fibres made from fossil fuels such as oil and gas to produce more and more collections every year at a rapid pace, using cheap labour in low-incomes countries such as Bangladesh.

This business model became known as ‘fast fashion’ and has contributed to a global spike in textile waste, as more clothes are consumed than ever before. Some brands are now churning out as many as 20 collections a year. Shoppers are purchasing 60% more clothes than they did 15 years ago, yet wearing them for half as long.

Urska Trunk, Campaign Manager at the Changing Markets Foundation, said that not many consumers are aware that fast fashion is fossil fashion. “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,” she said. However, instead of moving away from synthetic fibres,”brands want you to think they’ve got this under control and they can keep producing ever more clothes,” she explained.

With the European Commission currently drafting a ‘Textile Strategy‘ that it is set to publish before the end of 2021, the report underlines the need for political action to prioritise bringing down the total amount of clothing produced and consumed every year – rather than simply focusing on how to recycle textile waste.

While all fibres come with environmental and climate problems, the report shows how it is the rapid growth in synthetic fibres which continues to drive runaway consumption. It is only by tackling the fast-fashion business model’s deep rooted dependence on synthetic fibres that the industry can be brought into line with global efforts to reduce emissions and pollution.

The report also outlines how the oil and gas industry is now betting on plastics, including synthetic fibres, as demand for oil from the energy and transport sectors declines. Production of synthetic fibres is also getting dirtier, with feedstock coming from fracked gas and multi-billion-dollar investments from a major Chinese polyester producer to convert coal into polyester yarn.

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