Polyester under attack at COP26

CEOs of the 20 biggest fashion brands in the world were contacted yesterday by NGOs Changing Markets and Stand Earth, with demands that they halve the amount of fossil fuel they use in materials by 2030.

Nike, Primark, Patagonia and ASOS are among those to be called out by the Changing Markets Foundation.

The foundation is demanding complete transparency on their use of fossil fuels in the next 12 months – with oil and gas most commonly being used by brands to create synthetic materials such as polyester.

Brands such as Nike and Inditex are each using 10 million gallons of oil a year to produce their garments

Changing Markets found synthetic fibres represent over two-thirds (69%) of all materials used in textiles – requiring more oil than the annual consumption of Spain.

This amount is expected to reach nearly three-quarters by 2030, accounting for double the annual emissions of Australia.

Brands such as Nike and Inditex, the parent group of Zara and Massimo Dutti, both use a staggering 10 million gallons of oil each year to produce their garments, while most other brands fail to transparently disclose their reliance on synthetics.

This is in stark contrast with sustainability pledges and commitments made by many brands such as H&M, Walmart and Marks & Spencer ahead of the climate summit.

90% fossil fuels

As part of its Synthetics Anonymous report, Changing Markets Foundation surveyed 46 of the top fashion houses on their use of synthetic materials. The research found some brands have reported almost 90 percent of their collections being produced from fossil fuels.

Of the companies surveyed, only one company has made clear commitments to phase out the use of synthetic fibres from their collections – VF Corp brand, Icebreaker, has committed to phasing out all synthetics, including recycled synthetics, by 2023.

“The fashion industry uses a significant amount of oil and gas to produce cheap fast fashion garments, yet its addiction to fossil fuels flies under the radar,” said George Harding-Rolls, campaigns adviser at the Changing Markets Foundation. “Each year, the production of synthetic fibres, such as polyester, produces the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as 180 coal power plants and this is set to nearly double by 2030. These same brands will be at COP26 profiling how committed they are to stopping climate change – today we are calling out their hypocrisy.”

Cheap synthetic fibres have become the most significant driver of fast fashion’s overproduction and overconsumption. Polyester – fast fashion’s preferred fibre – is half the price of cotton and its use has more than doubled since 2000.

As production has boomed, the average person now buys 60% more clothing items than 15 years ago and almost as much clothing as is produced every year is thrown away.

Changing Markets and Stand Earth are increasing the pressure on these brands to commit to cutting absolute emissions by at least 55% by 2030, and to cut the use of synthetic materials from fossil fuels by 50% by 2030, warning that without significant reduction of reliance on petrochemicals, climate targets will fail.

Changing Markets is also calling on brands to provide full, publicly accessible, and transparent information on suppliers, and the amount of fossil fuel derived fibres they use by 2022, and to develop plans to phase out both virgin synthetics, and recycled versions where no technology exists to recycle the material further, such as recycled polyester.


Consumers also need more transparency on brands’ climate commitments and how these are being achieved.

 “The research undertaken by Changing Markets has revealed the shocking extent to which fashion brands rely on fossil fuels to mass produce fashion lines at increasingly low prices,” said Livia Firth, founder and creative director of Eco-Age. “Urgent action is now needed to reduce the amount of synthetic materials being produced at this scale, and to halt the damaging effects of this practice on the natural environment. This is why we are also putting pressure on the EU to Make The Label Count in order to educate consumers on the social and environmental repercussions of their purchases.”

Heavy use of plastic fibres has also seen an exponential rise in invisible microfibres, which are damaging to human and environmental health, yet this remains a persistent blind spot for the industry.

“It’s frightening to know that airborne microplastics from synthetic clothes get into the human body, becoming engulfed by immune cells which can cause significant inflammation,” said Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation. “Our bodies are simply not equipped to break down these particles, so the question is, how much damage are they causing? This way, fast fashion becomes fatal fashion.”

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