Everyone wants to halt climate change, young people are protesting for a “fossil free future” but many of us are wear clothes made from those same fossils and we might only wear them once or twice. Do you know what you are wearing?
The Penneys retail chain will open a new store in the Square Town Centre in Tallaght next year; 43,000sq ft of fast fashion. Although there is a crucial difference between the need for affordable clothes and fast fashion, relative to inflation, over the last 10 years, clothing prices have fallen.
Lower prices and a greater variety and availability of clothing have resulted in consumers buying many more items of clothing. This is referred to as “fast fashion” in Ireland’s Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy.
Supply chain pressures from textiles is the fourth highest for use of primary raw materials and water, after food, housing and transport, and the fifth highest for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions according to the European Environment Agency.
Most of the fashion industry’s emissions come from upstream activities in materials production, preparation and processing, with the remainder downstream in retail operations, the use-phase and end-of-use activities.
McKinsey Consultants estimates that if the fashion industry proceeds with its current GHG emissions trajectory, it will miss its 1.5°C pathway by 50%.
What is driving this?
According to the Fast Fashion Global Market Report 2021, the adoption of affordable clothes by the rising youth population (+8% by 2030) has driven the fast fashion market. That said, EU citizens consume nearly 26kg of textiles per person per year (2017 data), of which 42% is discarded, sent to incinerators or landfill.
Cotton, linen and leather are sourced from plants and animals, but these materials now only make up a tiny percentage of the textiles used in clothing manufacture. Today, most clothes are made out of materials derived from crude oil, a fossil fuel.
Although not impacted as greatly as the retail market by the pandemic, global fibre production, decreased from 111m tonnes in 2019 to 109m tonnes in 2020 (Fig 1).
However, this followed years of growth with fibre production almost doubling over the last 20 years from 58m tonnes in 2000.
The source of synthetic fibres and fabrics is crude oil. It is estimated that 65% of all fibres used in the fashion industry are made from a synthetic material – mainly polyester, but also nylon, acrylic, polypropylene and elastane.
Polyester, with a production volume of 57m tonnes, was the most-used fibre (52%) in 2020. Low prices for “virgin” (sourced directly from nature) polyester has impacted the market share of recycled polyesters with growth increasing from 13.7% in 2019 to only 14.7% in 2020.
What’s happening? The United Nations (UN) Fashion Industry Charter and Textile Exchange launched the 2025 Recycled Polyester Challenge. The challenge seeks commitments from companies to replace their use of virgin polyester with recycled polyester to shift global volume to 45% by 2025.
The second most important fibre in terms of volume (26m tonnes produced in 2020) is cotton, which is biodegradable but it is a very heavy user of water and pesticides. The cotton share of the market stands at 24% but is declining. Cotton production is particularly important for farmers in lower-income countries where approximately 350 million people are involved in its cultivation and processing.
What’s happening? In 2018, 36 major brands signed up to achieve sustainable cotton by 2025, including some of the largest global apparel brands – Nike, Burberry, H&M, Levi’s and ASOS. This initiative is based on existing standards for delivering sustainable cotton: Organic, Fairtrade, Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Cotton Made in Africa and recycled cotton certified to an independently verifiable standard such as the Global Recycled Standard (GRS) or the Recycled Claim Standard (RCS).
The third-largest and fasted-growing fibre production of manmade cellulosic fibres (MMCFs) was 6.5m tonnes in 2020. These materials – the most common being viscose – begin as cellulose extracted from a natural resource such as bamboo or trees. One third still comes from high-risk areas. Major processing centres for cellulose are China, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan, Taiwan and Indonesia.
What’s happening? Significantly in 2020, some MMCF textiles achieved Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) labels. However, according to the Textile Exchange “eliminating the risk of sourcing MMCFs from ancient and endangered forests such as the carbon-rich peatlands of Indonesia and old-growth boreal forests of Canada should be the minimum bar for all MMCFs”.
Irish wool is currently considered relatively worthless and most “Irish jumpers” are not made with Irish wool but imported Merino. Although a traditional fibre, wool globally now has a tiny – and decreasing – share of the world market (approximately 1%) at 1m tonnes produced in 2020. Sheep’s wool is the most-used animal-based fibre.
Silk is derived from the thread of the silkworm species Bombyx Mori. Although the market share of silk is small (109,000t produced in 2020 down from over 200,000t in 2015), it is estimated that over 300,000 households are involved in its production, the bulk of which are in China. In fact China (63%) and India (33%) together produced around 96% of all silk worldwide in 2020. Compared to other natural fibres, silk is incredibly valuable.
Some consider leather to be a by-product of the meat industry, others consider it to be a valuable co-product. The hides and skins of over 1.4bn animals were used for leather production in 2020. Cattle hides were the most used type of hides with 8.6m tonnes (two-thirds of leather production) in 2020. More than half the world’s supply of leather raw material comes from four countries: China (17%), US (14%), Brazil (13%) and Argentina (7%).
Although a natural product the processing of leather is chemically intensive and impacts the environment.
“Vegan” leather is produced from synthetic plastic-based materials which are not biodegradable (See Rather go naked, below).
There are a number of other plant-based fibres including jute, kenaf, coir, flax (for linen), sisal, ramie, kapok, abaca and hemp.
Although used by humans for thousands of years, they presently make up only 6% of total global fibre production volume (6.5m tonnes).
Around 80-85% of the flax used for fibres is grown in Europe with France the largest producer.
When contacted about Ireland’s fast fashion industry a spokesperson for the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications said: “As part of The Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy (WAPCE), a Textiles Working Group will be formed by the end of the year.
“At present, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is compiling data on textile (clothing) waste. This data will shape not only the make-up of the working group, but also its remit over the coming years. The aim is to look at how we can extend the life of textiles in Ireland, including, for example, reuse, preparation for reuse, and recycling. The role of the producer will also be looked at by exploring how to improve circularity in textiles. The possibility of an extended role for producers, with regard to the longer-term treatment of a product, may also be considered.”
United Nations (UN)
To contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), particularly number 12 – responsible consumption and production – together with UN Climate Change, fashion stakeholders looked at ways in which the textile, clothing and fashion industry can implement change.
As a result, The Fashion Industry Charter was launched at COP24 in Katowice, Poland, in December 2018 and contains a vision to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
The charter’s mission is for the fashion industry to achieve net-zero GHG emissions no later than 2050 in line with keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees.
It also includes a target of 30% GHG emission reduction by 2030 and a commitment to analyse and set a decarbonisation pathway for the fashion industry.
Although, there is growing interest in sustainable fashion and awareness of the impact of our clothing, measuring that impact is complex and change is slow.
According to the Textile Exchange: “The growth in fibre production has significant impacts on people and the planet. The awareness of the urgent need for the more responsible use of resources and decoupling growth from resource consumption is growing; however, change is not yet happening at the scale and speed required.”
Although impacted by the pandemic, the expectation is that fibre production will continue to increase to 146m tonnes by 2030 (+34%) if the industry goes back to business as usual. Of this increase, 95% will be polyester, ie crude oil.
It is estimated that less than 1% of all textiles worldwide are recycled into new textiles as technologies to recycle textiles into virgin fibres are only starting to emerge. Most recycled polyester is made from plastic bottles. Systems for textile to-textile recycling are in development but they have not replaced the bottles yet.
At some point, you most likely have seen a naked celebrity splashed across a billboard with the phrase: “I’d rather go naked than wear fur”; concealing their modesty. Just before COVID-19 stripped us all bare, after almost 30 years, the animal rights group behind this campaign People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) discontinued it. This decision was made, they say – as with much of the fashion industry distancing themselves from fur in recent years – because they had achieved their aim. They are now focusing their attention on other animal clothing products, including wool and leather.
PETA of course is an animal welfare charity so this is unsurprising but aside from a welfare debate, what is the environmental cost of moving from natural fibres to manmade fibres? When interviewed by CNN, fashion icon and Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour argued that: “Fake fur is obviously more of a polluter than real fur.” This is because much of the faux fur on the market is made from non-biodegradable materials such as nylon, acrylic and polyester that are notorious for shedding microfibres.