I really like buying clothes. I spend countless hours in the middle of the night scrolling my favorite brands’ Instagram feeds, and though I try to stick to buying secondhand, I also definitely set myself alarms to remember sample sales. Embarrassing, I know.
Turns out, this behavior isn’t just taking a toll on my bank account. It’s also heating up the planet. That’s because fashion has a big oil and gas problem. Sixty percent of the clothes produced worldwide today contain fossil fuel-based fibers like polyester, spandex, acrylic, and elastane.
A 2018 study found that textile production releases 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon equivalent greenhouse gases per year, which is more emissions than international flights and maritime shipping combined. And the problem is getting worse.
As the world shifts away from fossil fuels for energy, the oil and gas industry is focusing on expanding plastic production as another way to stay in business despite the risks it poses to the planet. If growth trends continue, plastic will account for 20% of the world’s oil consumption by 2050. That includes the fossil fuel fibers in our clothing. If manufacturing plastics-based fabrics keeps increasing at its current rate, their production in 2050 will be responsible for twice as much carbon as the whole country of India produced in 2018.
It is possible, of course, to buy clothes that aren’t made of oil and gas. Garments made of 100% natural fibers like cotton, linen, and hemp, for instance, are out there, albeit sometimes at a higher price. But though the carbon footprint of producing natural fibers is much smaller, it does take up other valuable resources like water and land that might be better off used to grow essential food crops.
There are other ways to shop, of course. You could vow to shop less, or to only buy reused garments from retailers like Poshmark, the RealReal, and Goodwill. These aren’t a bad ideas. But as ever, we can’t solve the problem with individual action. Climate scientists have made it clear that we need to ban fossil fuels altogether, ensuring they’re not extracted to use in clothing—or anything else.