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How Much Oil Does The $1.5 Trillion Fashion Industry Use?

Chances are, you’re wearing fossil fuels right now--and for the record, you look great. 

Chances are, Greta Thunberg is getting ready to push her ‘flight-shaming’ campaign into the realm of fashion, because this $1.5-trillion global fashion industry is said by some to be producing more CO2 than international flights and shipping. 

That’s because the fashion industry has turned its catwalk into a wildly fast and overproducing monster that emits some 1.7-billion tons of CO2 per year, or 10% of all man-made carbon emissions

It also ranks as the second-largest consumer of the global water supply. Hydraulic fracturing--which gets so much heat from environmentalists, for instance--ranks far lower in water supply use. 

If that isn’t enough, it’s polluting the oceans with microplastics. 

So for anyone fashionable who decries the fossil fuels industry pollution, there is some very selective thinking going on here. There is a ton of overlap between the two industries. 

A whopping two-thirds of our clothing is made from fossil fuel synthetics, and 85% of this material is sent to landfills, unable to decay or decompose.

In other words, we’re wearing fossil fuels, and the use of synthetic fibers has doubled since 2000. This year, we’re walking around in 60% synthetic

Polyester, a material composed of greenhouse-gas-emitting fossil fuels and microfibers, costs about $10 per yard once manufacturers turn it into fabric. Also, the chemicals used to process leather, which costs about $15 per yard, send out textile waste into the environment.

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The fashion industry’s environmental footprint is growing commensurate with digital communications and an insatiable appetite. We want instant gratification, and that includes seasonal fashion. This has given rise to “fast fashion”, which ensures that the latest runway styles go from catwalk to retailer at the speed of light with cheap, mass, rapid production methods. 

It leads to phenomenally more waste. When it comes to fast fashion, low prices and cheap, synthetic materials, many consumers discard items of clothing after only one use. In other words, fast fashion is becoming disposable fashion. In the UK alone, consumers throw away over 300,000 tons of clothing every year.

And part of the problem is over-production of clothing that is never sold. 

A power plant in Sweden has partly switched to H&M clothing instead of coal to generate energy. In 2017, the power plant incinerated 15 tons of H&M product, according to Bloomberg

H&M’s strategy is at least replacing coal, and thus is slightly more sustainable. 

High-end Burberry, on the other hand, was called out last year for burning some $37 million in clothing just to avoid selling it at a discount. The negative publicity forced them to shift their policy on that.

While wasteful brands dominate the market, sustainable alternatives are gaining ground thanks to “fashion-shaming” that is making its digital rounds almost as quickly as new designs. 

The “Alternative Apparel” label has stepped out of the box offering more sustainability through the use of organic cotton, recycled polyester and plastic bottles for the creation of eco-fabrics, as well as non-toxic, gentle dyes and water-conserving washes. They also use organic packaging, which the company claims saves 2,100 trees, 860,000 gallons of water, 120 tons of CO2 and 400 cubic yards of landfill every year. 

To take the eco-friendly revolution to a new level, some brands have started using non GMO soy clothing (which is made from soy protein and is a byproduct of tofu manufacturing), Organic linen fiber (made from organically-grown flax plant) and Lyocell fiber (100% biodegradable fiber produced cellulose).

More and more brands are realizing that they are able to make non-wasteful fashion and still keep it trendy and chic. 

But what it comes down to is economic feasibility, which depends on demand. Demand is clearly rising, which means that upstarts in the sustainable fashion segment have a chance at profitability. 

Alternative Apparel, for instance, was an attractive enough prospect to be acquired by giant Hanes in 2017.    

And for the retailers who aren’t designers, well, new ways of distribution are emerging, such as Stitch Fix--a data-driven app where you buy clothes and keep them for about a week before returning them. Stitch Fix is trying to fill a sustainable niche banking on America’s demand for a way to remain fashionable without as much waste, considering that the average American throws away around 80 pounds of clothing every year. 

Can sustainability replace a $1.5-TRILLION industry? Not yet, but fashion-shaming is creating an entirely new market here, and so far the numbers look promising. 

Stitch Fix, for one, is pushing more than 1,000 brands along with its own labels, and it made $1.2 billion in 2018, with $45 million in earnings, and Q1 2019 alone saw the innovator take in $366 million. 

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On the waste part of this equation, demand for digital second-hand stores with a twist appears to be increasing, and “upcycling” is becoming a new industry buzzword. thredUP is a well-curated thrift store that sells everything from dresses and coats to handbags and other accessories on the simple premise of “waste-not, want-not”. 

Where does this leave fashion designers and major fashion houses? Scrambling for a place on the “sustainability” list. Soon enough, waste will no longer be trendy. 

In the meantime, as the Earth’s oceans overflow with plastic waste, emitting greenhouse gases that plague the atmosphere, and a garbage apocalypse awaits the planet, at least we’ll go out in style.  

Once this does catch on and sustainability starts to overtake fast fashion, it could negatively affect fossil fuels demand globally--a point made by the fact that 98 million tons of oil were used in the textile industry in 2015 alone. Those numbers keep rising exponentially, year-on-year, according to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation

By 2050, if nothing is accomplished on the sustainability front, the textile industry will be using 300 million tons of oil.

By Jenna Tharia for Oilprice.com

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