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Fashion's Fossil Fuel Addiction & COP28

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY FOSSIL FASHION?  


From Fossil Fuels To Plastic Clothing 


While reading this article’s title you might wonder, what is the link between fossil fuels and fashion?  Well, most of the clothing we make today is made of oil, so sadly the connection is extremely strong right from the source. Petroleum (aka oil) is a non-renewable resource and the petrochemicals industry has complicated social and political implications that are relevant to all industries that use petroleum-derived products. 


According to the Changing Markets Foundation, today over two-thirds (69%) of textiles are made from plastic, and this is expected to grow to 73% by 2030. This is because oil-based fabrics such as polyester are cheap, smooth, strong and durable, but also because there are specific financial interests that have brought us here, which we will dig into later. 


Let’s start by looking at the process of turning oil into fibres, therefore synthesising natural oil into long chains of repeating molecules. 


The steps are: 


  1. Extraction of crude oil  - This requires massive machines to take oil from deep underground reserves

  2. Refining of crude oil into Ethylene and Terephthalic Acid - In refineries, petroleum (crude oil) is transformed and refined into useful products such as gasoline (petrol), diesel fuel, asphalt base, kerosene, liquefied petroleum gas, ethylene and other acids. 

  3. Combination of Ethylene and Terephthalic Acid - Ethylene and terephthalic acid are chemically combined through a reaction to create PET (polyethylene terephthalate) as a polymer.

  4. Polymerization of PET - The combined ethylene and terephthalic acid react to form long-chain polymer molecules of polyethylene terephthalate. 

All this is to give you an idea of the process behind creating PET clothing. 


So, we would like to ask you to take a second and think: 


Does it seem healthy to have all the above-mentioned chemicals touching our air, water, and our skin?  Is it necessary to have such huge chemical processing plants for clothing? How does this process compare to a cotton, hemp or linen field? Does it make sense that the same process is used for fossil fuels and clothing? 

To give you an idea of the share of extracted oil that is used for plastics, according to the International Energy Agency, plastics are set to drive nearly 50% of oil demand growth, as the grid is slowly getting greener. This also means that by avoiding plastics, there is a major potential to reduce petroleum extraction. 


The Shift From Natural Fibres To Oil-Based Fibres 


We haven't always been this dependent on oil-based fibres. For most of history until the last 200 years or so natural fibres were dominant in clothing production. Before the invention of Nylon by Dupont in 1935 and other man-made synthetic materials in the early twentieth century, all textiles were created with natural fibres, such as flax, cotton, silk, wool, and hemp. For example Denim, used to be made solely from hemp because of its versatility as a crop such as its simplicity to grow, its innate resistance to pests, and its use for long-lasting workwear. 


The introduction of synthetics to fashion was revolutionary for their durability, ease to wash and dry, and of course, its cheaper price. At the time, laundry machines and at home appliances joined plastic in transforming the convenience of day-to-day life. As automation democratised fashion and globalisation took hold of supply chains, poly-based fibres spread across the globe, dominating clothing production with their high availability and low production cost. For a more in-depth history including the history of denim and shoes, check out our article on the history of innovation in fashion


The success of polyester can largely be accredited to its cheap production, costing less than half per kilo compared to cotton and is estimated to make-up 73% of fibre for textiles in 2030. As the industry grew, production costs shrunk and availability increased, combined with its convenience, the fabric became popular for fast fashion, luxury, and applications in various industrial sectors.


The Issue With Plastic Clothing 


Today we know that poly-based clothing isn't as convenient as we initially thought. Synthetics leave traces of shedded microfibres that pollute the environment when they’re released. In fact, research suggests at least 14 million tonnes microplastics (in which fashion contributes to) have accumulated on the ocean floor which affects marine life that support the health of our planet and ourselves. 


By some estimates, there are more pieces of plastic floating in the oceans than there are stars in our galaxy. Even that celestial visual offers a surface-level glimpse into the full scale and complexity of the issue.


Our over-reliance on fossil fuels for clothing production, specifically, creates a throw away culture of low-quality items that do not decompose and create a waste problem that, as mentioned in our colonialism article, ends up being shipped overseas to countries without the proper resources to manage the waste and adding to brands’ negative environmental impact.


Many make the argument for polyester production because it uses less water and land than most natural fibres. However, according to Common Objective, the energy required to produce polyester (125 MJ of energy per kilogram produced) makes it a high-impact process and based on the explanation above on its extraction process, it is clearly not superior to natural fibres even though LCAs may say otherwise (more on this below). 


If the fashion industry grows as predicted, by 2050 it could use more than 26% of the carbon budget associated with a 2-degree pathway. This is a scary thought if you consider how dependant the Fashion Industry is on the oil industry


Fashion’s Dependency On The Oil Industry


The fossil fuel and fashion industries are intrinsically linked. The majority of clothes we wear are made from oil and gas, and potentially coal, which means fashion is directly increasing the demand for fossil fuel extraction. According to the Changing Markets Report, the production of synthetic fibres currently accounts for 1.35% of global oil consumption — exceeding the annual oil consumption of Spain.


Fossil fuels fuel fashion and don’t plan on slowing down. In 2015, the GHG emissions from the production of polyester alone were 700 million tonnes of CO2 which is on track to double by 2030, which will reach twice the GHG of Australia. As governments start to tackle plastic waste, the oil industry will be met with pushback and the risk of losing $400 billion worth in petrochemical investments, and the risk of creating peak oil demand. 


In addition to carbon emissions, fashion is tied to environmental harms including oil spills, water and air pollution, impacts on human health, and environmental degradation. Given the fashion industry’s large environmental footprint, brands hold a responsibility to understand and improve their supply chains. While making the switch from synthetics is a difficult feat relative to the position they hold in the textile market, it is possible to find solutions and it starts with making the right decisions.


The Role Of LCAs 


Brands that claim to be reducing their environmental impact often use LCAs to decide which fibres, dyes, and packaging to use. Unfortunately, often the word “LCAs” is only used for carbon calculations, and ignores all the other categories that LCAs look at. 


All LCAs can use a range of arguments to include or exclude certain impacts, and therefore can be manipulated to give higher or lower impact scores as preferred. If you are not aware of what LCAs are and the role they play in the fashion industry, you can read our deep dive here


An example of LCA manipulation is the use of waste as an input. Waste and by-products can be considered to have 0 carbon impact because it is assumed that the emissions generated can be allocated to the non-waste product. For example, when looking at potatoes, the carbon generated in the growing of them can be allocated to the edible part. If a different operation uses the peel, it is simply using a waste product as a resource, and diverting it from landfill, so it can be considered that the peel has 0 impact. 


WRAP estimates that using 100% recycled polyester reduces CO2 emissions by 20% compared to regular polyester, and when looking at life cycle assessments (LCAs), recycled polyester scores significantly better than virgin polyester. 


With polyester, and in particular recycled polyester, the way it is calculated can be manipulated in a way that it has a much lower carbon and water impact than other fibres. This, however, doesn’t take into account that (differently from the potato peel) plastic bottles can be turned into new plastic bottles, and using this resource for clothing is unhealthy, linked to microplastics, chemical release, water use, as well as no recycling solutions widely available to use that polyester ever again. 


Quoting the Changing Markets Foundation report: “‘Recycled’ polyester, made from PET bottles, is the principal way brands are planning to curb the impacts of fossil fashion and embrace more ‘sustainable’ synthetics – despite this being a false solution to today’s plastic-pollution and waste problem. The majority of companies (85%) indicated they aim to achieve their ‘recycled’ polyester targets by using polyester from downcycled PET bottles. In contrast, none of the brands reported a high level of fibre-to-fibre recycling targets, nor a clear goal to move towards this type of recycling.” 


After reading a LinkedIn post by Veronica Bates Kassatly, we thought of checking out the emission factors used for polyester and other fabrics by large brands, which will give us insight into how their decisions are made. The value associated with the environmental impact of extracting polyester is 0.051, and of processing polyester is 1.228. The value associated with the environmental impact of animal rearing alone for organic wool is 11.007, which is about 10 times more. 


How does it make sense for numbers to encourage the choice of polyester over organic wool?  Do numbers alone show the difference between an oil extraction plant rather than a green open organic field?  How are we going to phase out such dangerous and non-sustainable materials if LCAs claim they are more sustainable? 

THE HIDDEN PLAYERS 

Fossil Fuel Lobbying 


Fossil fuel lobbyists include paid representatives of corporations involved in the fossil fuel industry (oil, gas, coal), as well as related industries like chemicals, plastics and aviation. Because of their wealth and the importance of their industries to everyday life and the finances of countries, these lobbies have the capacity and money to attempt to have outsized influence on governmental policy.  Big Oil companies such as BP, TotalEnergies, ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron Corporation are among the largest corporations associated with the fossil fuels lobby. They often help fund political campaigns, so that if politicians get elected, they will have to return the favour through legislation and policy choices. 


Fossil fuel lobbies have been known to obstruct policy related to environmental protection, environmental health and climate action. Their arguments tend to rely on the fact that fossil fuels are key to ensure energy production, and transportation, and therefore to generate wealth and reduce poverty. This is all true, however, precious time that could have been used to shift to renewable energy sources in the last decades was wasted also because of the influence of fossil fuel lobbyists.

💡Did you know that the oldest way of generating electricity from renewable sources is hydroelectric? The first power plants date back to the end of the 1800s.

Other arguments include the fact that offsetting and carbon capture are good enough solutions to keep operating as we are now, which is of course a much less effective solution than avoiding emissions in the first place.  


The practice of political lobbying has grown significantly since the 1970s, and the fossil-fuel industry is among the most prolific users of paid operatives to help shape favourable government policies. A study released in May found that not only is the industry more likely to lobby than others, its lobbying expenditures have jumped when faced with potential climate-linked threats to its business model.


This morass of fossil-fuel lobbying now touches all flavours of political persuasion. Lobbying contracts can involve a range of different tasks that do not necessarily directly clash with the stated aims of another client, and some environmental groups feel that having fossil fuel-aligned lobbyists can open up pathways to lawmakers who might otherwise not be amenable to them.


We read a great article on the Guardian about the role that fossil fuel lobbyists play, often working in parallel for fossil organisations, governments, cities, and environmental charities. This means that often, the people who are meant to represent the interests of people and the planet, are actually representing fossil fuel companies. The effects that this can have on policies and government decisions can be highly degrading. A very concrete example where this happened is at COP28, which was supposed to be a meeting dedicated to preserving the environment and ensuring a sustainable future. At COP28, however, there were: 


  • A team of 18 people from ExxonMobil

  • A team of 14 people from Shell

  • A team of 12 people from TotalEnergies

  • A team of 11 people from BP

  • A team of 7 from Chevron


Those people were sent over to protect the interests of the largest fossil fuel companies, who are known to have lied about the truth of climate change. The total is shocking: 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists were granted access to the Cop28 climate negotiations


Money, Politics, and Decision Making


“The richest 1% emit as much carbon pollution as two-thirds of humanity.” 

This is one of the shocking findings of Oxfam’s ‘Climate Equality: A Planet for the 99%’ report released ahead of COP28. 


The richest 1% are the CEOs, company wonders, major shareholders, politicians, lawyers, and basically those who are in critical positions of decision-making that affect large volumes of our population. If their personal financial interest is opposite to the environmental interest of the rest of the world, there is a major inequality issue. 


With power concentrated among the 1%, activist organisations such as EcoAge are helping push the climate agenda forwards, including conversations about the environmental and social issues present in the fashion industry.


Ahead of COP, a panel discussion titled, “Fashionscapes of Transformation” was held at the E.U Parliament between policy makers such as EcoAge representatives and MEP Alessandra Moretti. A variety of global policy leaders emerged to hammer home the same message; “the massive overproduction, based on cheap synthetics, cannot continue”. 


The E.U currently has 16 bills in the works to regulate fashion, covering topics such as the design phase, waste collection, corporate reporting, and microplastics. While agreements surfaced, so did disagreements, specifically around solutions such as fibre-to-fibre recycling of synthetics. Several members pointed out that this process would only increase the use of synthetics and bring down the price. 


The last speaker Nicholas Rochat, Founder of the plastic-free sportsbrand Mover voiced his concern with the EUs focus on recyclable products and EPR policies, voicing that these strategies will only continue to promote synthetics unless we look at the plastic problem holistically. Livia Firth, co-founder and creative director of EcoAge says that the bills all depend on each other and should work together to solve fashion’s problems.


Decision making is never easy, especially when tied to the influence of big oil. Disagreement amongst parties involved economically and financially in fossil fuels tend to have more to say about why we shouldn’t decouple the two industries. 


Complex issues in fashion cannot be dealt with in isolation. By taking a holistic perspective we can shift the framework to involve the social, economic, and environmental issues in legislation.

COP28 

Every COP is an intense, caffeine-fueled process for world leaders looking to reach solutions on climate change. COP28 was considered a historic year for climate progress. While we’re moving in the right direction, the consensus is clear – we need to be running, not walking. 


Criticism Of The Latest COP 


Despite reaching a record agreement, climate experts including the European Union's Climate Commissioner are calling COP28’s final text, “clearly insufficient”. 


Rich countries made very few financial pledges to support developing countries with adaptation and a just energy transition. Discussions about new goals made minimal progress.


In fact, when the final deal was decided, the AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island States) weren’t present in the room to raise objections. Not only is this unfair, their absence was symbolic of the obstacles and lobbying stacked against small island states in reaching their climate objectives and the disproportionate impact climate change will have on island states. 


It’s only fair that the wealthy economies, who have benefited the most from the burning and selling of fossil fuels, support developing countries to make these changes and compensate them for impacts.


A statement that garnered a standing ovation, the lead negotiator from Samoa, did not object but did state that the final text included, “a litany of loopholes”, and does not put us on track to holding the limit of 1.5°C agreed upon in the Paris Agreement. 


This sentiment points to the interpretative nature of COP agreements. Final texts aren't regulatory or legally-binding — meaning a country can partake in an agreement that signals a commitment without taking constructive action towards changing their climate impact. This reality makes it easy for countries to speak of intention without action which is necessary to reach our climate targets.


Unlike other UN forums where a democratic process is more common, COP remains a consensus based process (which petro-states were instrumental in ensuring), which often leads you to the lowest common denominator solutions and explains why progress, while possible, is slow.


Claims that the United Arab Emirates’s COP team planned to discuss new oil and gas deals alongside climate action in pre-conference meetings rocked delegates assembling for the fortnight-long conference, and tarnished the preparations for the arrival of scores of world leaders in Dubai.


Despite inefficiencies and contradictory foreplay, the in-person pressure of COP makes it harder for countries like Saudi Arabia to make common arguments for fossil fuels. Leaders are put on the hot seat and are expected to present sound scientific evidence for arguments that have already been proven otherwise.   


Key Outcomes, And What Is Relevant To Fashion 


Overall, this COP was considered remarkable in terms of signalling the end of the fossil fuel era, because the final deal, called the Global Stock Take (GST) text, is an improvement on the last one. However, the bar was so low it could hardly be worse. For the first time, there was agreement that we need to ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels in our energy systems. We agree, given the widely available scientific proof that fossil fuels are the main cause of climate change, this should have been included long ago. Additionally, there was significant support for gas as a transition fuel, which isn’t what the world needs: the science is clear, and gas is a methane-heavy fossil fuel, not a sustainable transition fuel.


There are clear signals from around 130 countries that agree fossil fuels need to be replaced by clean energy with 2050 as the target year for global net zero. 


Fashion requires energy in all steps of its supply chain, including the major amount of transport it uses. Beyond efforts from countries, brands, manufacturers, and logistics providers should invest in renewable alternatives directly. 


The GST also talks about coal, and emphasises that the new set of national climate pledges should be delivered in late 2024, which is approaching very VERY fast. The message is clear: we must act now. 


The world agreed to establish the Loss and Damage Fund, (nearly USD$700 million!) which will provide money to developing countries impacted by climate change to recover and rebuild. This is extremely relevant to the world of Fashion, because fibre sourcing and clothing manufacturing happen in countries that suffer the most from climate disasters. 





Experts have defined the GST language around carbon offsets worrying because it is listed as a solution to climate change, which is however way less effective than reducing emissions in the first place. If you are unsure about the pros and cons of carbon offsetting, there is even a hilarious rap video produced by UNEP which highlights the fact that these solutions are nowhere near ready or enough. Many poor countries were extremely disappointed by the carbon offsetting language, because it is a lazy solution that doesn’t focus on changing the status quo. Fashion brands rely a lot on carbon offsetting in their sustainability reports and commitments. We have dug into this in the past in this article


There was also a dedicated panel on fashion which is available online, led by Fashion Revolution. It has great insights on how the issue of low wages is directly linked to environmental degradation, as low wages and exploitation keep prices low, which allow for overconsumption. Their specific demands for COP28 can be found here, divided in three themes, that we could not agree more with: 


  1. Tell us how and where your clothes were made, how many were produced and their environmental impacts 

  2. Set targets, disclose how you established them and report on progress 

  3. Tell us how you plan to meet them


FUTURE NOTES

We understand that it is a complicated and interconnected world, and that the Fashion industry sits between increasing demand of clothing, the issue of pricing, and global issues such as climate change and lack of resources, however, there are simple things that can be done, and must be done now, to support the transition to a renewable future. The first thing to do is to completely ban fossil fuels to be used for clothing. We simply don’t need plastic clothing, and it’s unacceptable that the lobbying industry is pushing for the status quo to continue!


While fashion's future looks murky, there are industry leaders pushing for change to clean up its mess.The Fossil Fuel Fashion Campaign is a global campaign pushing for systems change and radical legislation, with the goal to ditch fossil fuel based materials like polyester by 2030 through an equitable phase out, commitment to science based climate targets, and supporting legislative action. This campaign among many social enterprises is helping us arrive at a solution for the decoupling of fashion from fossil fuels, pushing us toward a cleaner industry.


Until next time friends,

Always be curious and Stay Diligent x

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