synthetics 2.0 - unpicking fashion's reliance on fossil fuels

By Kim Warner


REAL Sustainability attended a webinar on 25 January 2023 entitled Synthetics Anonymous 2.0: Unpicking fashion’s reliance on fossil fuels.

This was the first of a two-part series featuring experts from the Global North discussing fashion industry’s addiction to fossil fuel synthetics. There is expected to be a second webinar with experts from the Global South discussing the devastating impacts of oil-based fashion waste in their regions. The webinar was facilitated by Livia Firth of Eco-Age.


Urska Trunk, Campaign Manager at Changing Markets Foundation

George Harding-Rolls, Campaign Manager at Changing Markets Foundation

Evelien Davidson, Campaign Manager at Plastic Soup Foundation 

Rachel Kitchin, Fossil Free Fashion Campaigner at Stand.Earth 

Livia Firth, Founder and Creative Director, Eco-Age


Against a backdrop of green claims and bold commitments, how is fashion addressing its addiction to fossil fuel fibers a year on from Changing Markets’ Synthetics Anonymous investigation? Following the launch of Synthetics Anonymous 2.0, Eco-Age, Changing Markets Foundation and leading global experts discussed fashion’s hidden dependence on cheap synthetic materials and explain what this means for the planet, and for fashion sustainability in particular.

Urska Trunk of Changing Markets Foundation provided background on the link between use of oil-based synthetics and the rise of fast fashion. Historically, cotton has been the predominant fiber in the apparel industry, until 2000, when polyester overtook cotton as the most used fiber. In the 20 plus years since, use of oil-based synthetics has grown exponentially, while the use of natural fibers has remained virtually unchanged. In addition, the volume of clothing produced has risen along with the increased use of synthetics, particularly polyester. This is basically why we have fast fashion today: because of the mass amount of cheap fossil fuel fibers. Synthetics are now at least 69% of all fiber produced, and this translates into consumer trends: we are now buying more, roughly 60% more than 15 years ago, because it’s cheaper, but we are wearing them half as long.

We are in a climate emergency yet brands are blind to reducing their reliance on fossil fuel synthetics. Changing Markets approached 55 global brands about their fossil fuel synthetic use:

  • only one brand (Reformation) has made a commitment to phase out fossil fuel synthetics, both virgin and recycled to less than 1% in the next 3 years.
  • 25% recorded heavier reliance on synthetics
  • 40% of brands have no strategy or policies to reduce fossil fuel synthetics.

Trunk says it’s clear that brands have a persistent plastic problem yet increased use of these fossil fuel-based materials is left out of brands’ climate strategies. She makes the case that, since brands will not make any commitments to reduce their reliance on synthetics, we do need legislation to decouple fashion from fossil fuels and tackle fast fashion.

George Harding-Rolls Changing Markets Foundation provided insight into how, in collaboration with Stand.Earth, they were able to trace the manufacture of polyester for the 55 global brands through their supply chains all the way back to specific oil fields. The timing of their investigation coincided with sanctions against Russia (Russian oil) for their invasion of Ukraine, and so they decided to try to trace the supply chains of the world’s two largest polyester suppliers, Reliance in India and Hengli Petrochemicals in China. Both countries are buying discounted Russian oil.

  • 39 of the 55 brands were found to have links to Russian oil 
  • of those 39, 25 had publicly denounced the Russian invasion and had closed their downstream (retail) operations in Russia.

So on the one hand these brands were denouncing Russia yet on the other they were supporting Russia through their polyester suppliers. 

That is but one example. According to Harding-Rolls, these brands have such an entrenched reliance on petrochemical products, that they cannot avoid supporting dirty players. Yet they still make big green claims.


Evelien Davidson from Plastic Soup Foundation spoke about the pollution of fast fashion, specifically its link to microplastic microfiber release and effects on human health. 

In November of 2022, Plastic Soup Foundation launched their Plastic Fashion Campaign, aimed at

  • addressing the industry and that they should take responsibility for this problem
  • informing consumers about microplastic pollution
  • providing consumers tools to make conscious choices
  • encouraging policy makers to propose legislation that forces the clothing industry to stop plastic pollution at the source.

As production of oil-based synthetics increases, so does the amount of microplastics in our biosphere. It’s in our water, in our air, in our food. Microplastics and nanoplastics are being found in our lungs and organs. They are also being found in breast milk and placentas. 

Micro and nanoplastics can contain PFAS (often used for flame retardants and water repellents) and colorants which are cancer-inducing agents and hormone disruptors.

The scale of risk is enormous:

  • microplastic risk to the brain
  • pathogens and parasite risk
  • chemical toxicity risk
  • children’s health risk.

Despite these risks, the fashion industry is moving in the opposite direction, according to Livia Firth of Eco-Age. Brands announce a flurry of “net zero” plans, yet the industry does not include a transition away from fossil fuels. Eight out of ten of the largest brands have, actually, increased their emissions, despite having committed to slashing their emissions in half by 2030.


Rachel Kitchin, from Stand.Earth analyses brands’ rising climate ambitions versus their actions. In addition to increase in fossil fuel synthetics, she pointed out that emissions from the supply chain have increased too: most brands are off-track to meet emissions goals by 2030. Based on guidance from the High Level Expert Group at COP27, the following are key decarbonization recommendations for a net zero transition:

  • no offsets – emissions reductions must be absolute
  • net zero targets must cover entire supply chain
  • just energy transition of coal and onto renewable energy throughout entire supply chain
  • transparency on baselines and progress.

In assessing ten of the largest brands, Stand.Earth further found that while Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions were meeting targets, 8 of the 10 brands were failing to meet their Scope 3 targets for 2030. Scope 3 is the supply chain, where the greatest amount of emissions occurs due to energy use for manufacturing processes. Stand.Earth also found that renewable energy is almost entirely absent from supply chain commitments. Many brands are failing to provide supply chain transparency, which is essential for holding them accountable.

Decarbonizing fashion manufacturing relies on the following:

  • transparency
  • aggressive supply chain emissions targets
  • commitment to 100% renewable energy
  • being coal-free no later than 2030
  • high impact strategies to drive a just renewable energy transition in the supply chain.


Fashion is moving in the wrong direction to cut emissions. And there is a lot of greenwashing standing in the way of progress. This discussion circled back to George Harding-Rolls who discusses, a website that exposes greenwashing of so-called sustainably-labelled products. The platform was developed to help consumers recognize the tactics that companies use to greenwash and to reveal the scale of the problem. In this way, Changing Markets hopes to demonstrate how vital the need is for regulation and higher standards for businesses.


Each panel member offered paths forward toward solutions including:

  • legislation based on science-backed data
  • setting maximum threshold for microfiber plastics shedding 
  • massively reducing reliance on fossil fuel synthetics
  • addressing overproduction
  • significant industry commitments to reducing fossil fuel consumption by 2030.

This notoriously unregulated industry must significantly reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, both in materials and energy use, if it is to get anywhere near 2030 climate targets. Through legislation and industry collaboration the panel believes progress can be made.