Get Your Petroleum Off My Body

Written by Alden Wicker

Fashion's impact on the environment—and our well-being—has as much to do with the fossil fuels used in the making of synthetic fabrics as it does factory emissions.

When you look at a piece of fashion—a swishy long dress, a pair of yoga leggings, a bright turquoise T-shirt—what do you see? I see petroleum. 

That’s right: When oil is pulled out of the Earth, it’s not just going to power cars and heat homes. It’s also going into the making of and materials used in clothing, shoes, and accessories. The $2.5 trillion global fashion industry is estimated to be responsible for somewhere between 2 percent and 5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which are the main driver of global warming. That’s more than the emissions from the aviation sector or deforestation. 

Getty / idealistock

A quarter of fashion’s emissions come from the cultivation and extraction of raw materials, from cotton and silk to viscose and acrylic. But out of all fabrics, in 2019, the production of polyester—a petroleum-based fabric known for its durability, breathability, and stain-resistance—produced the most emissions, at 98 million metric tons of CO2e (carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gasses), which is three times more than cotton.

Manufacturing high-performance polyester (and other synthetic textiles made from fossil fuels) involves extracting and refining crude oil, using a high-temperature chemical reaction to turn that oil into petrochemicals and then plastic polymers, turning that plastic into fabric, and then dyeing and finishing the textile with additional petrochemicals, again at high temperatures. Every step requires petroleum and produces waste and emissions that, if not properly handled, can pollute the local environment and contribute to global warming

And it’s not just a polyester problem. The versatile fabric is just the biggest offender; it’s so cheap to make that production has skyrocketed to nine times what it was 50 years ago. In fact, according to the World Resources Institute, half of all fiber used in fashion today is polyester, while another 5 percent is nylon—which brings with it similar environmental detriments. 

Stocksy / Vera Lair

Case in point: One nylon manufacturer in Florida produced more emissions in 2019 than a million cars, mainly due to the “super-pollutant” nitrous oxide—a byproduct of nylon manufacturing—flowing out of its smokestacks.

According to a 2021 report by the Changing Markets Foundation, the synthetic fibers produced by the fashion industry account for 1.35 percent of global oil production. Even as we swap gas-guzzlers for plug-in cars and gas stoves for electric ones, the fashion industry continues to slurp up ever more petroleum and natural gas, turning them into petrochemicals that are then used to create not only polyester and nylon, but also fuzzy acrylic sweaters, stretchy fabric for jeans and underwear, colorful dyes, sparkly sequins, and the finishes that go on top of all of that. If we don’t change course, in fewer than 10 years, research estimates that almost three-quarters of textiles will be synthetics made from fossil fuels.

Petrochemicals used to make fashion finishes and dyes worsen the climate impact of petroleum-based clothing

In addition to the petroleum used to make the synthetic fabrics themselves, more petroleum is often added in the form of finishes and dyes composed of petrochemicals. And there’s a good chance you wouldn’t ever know it.

The United States government doesn’t require fashion brands to list all chemicals present on and in a garment. As I found during my research for my forthcoming book To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick—And How We Can Fight Back, if fashion brands did provide a complete list, it often wouldn’t fit on the label. For example, when the University of Washington tested Alaska Airlines attendant uniforms in 2012, the lab found a whopping 42 different chemicals—many of them later connected to health problems among attendants—in one piece of fabric. 

While we don’t have data on the extent of the fashion industry’s use of petrochemicals for finishes and dyes, specifically, we know that it’s certainly not negligible. According to a report from the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, “the residues of finishing agents in garment textiles may account for up to 8 percent of the textile product weight.” And in the 2010s (the last time anyone measured and published these figures), the fashion industry was the second largest consumer of chemicals in China.

Stocksy / Martí Sans

Even a clothing item made of natural fibers—like a cotton T-shirt—can have a panoply of petrochemicals applied to it as it’s spun, woven, and sewn: sizing chemicals for strengthening the threads for weaving, lubricants, solvents, and binders. Then, chemicals are used to strip these off, so more chemicals can be applied, such as bases for cleaning the fabric, bleach to make it bright white, and formaldehyde to make it anti-wrinkle. If a T-shirt is going to be dyed, it will also have surfactants applied to prepare it to receive the color, and finally, will be coated with fabric softener to make it feel nice. (That will wash off quickly once it’s in your hands, but if it helps make the sale at the store, it’s worth it for brands to add it.)

All these chemicals require a significant amount of oil and gas to produce, adding to the fashion industry’s contribution to greenhouse gasses and negative planet impact. They also have to be shipped, and it’s hard to do that safely. 

For example, the main chemical in the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment earlier this year was vinyl chloride, used to manufacture PVC, a type of plastic used in vegan "leather" fashion and clear plastic shoes and raincoats. While some chemicals are safely locked inside products by the time they’re in their final form, PVC products can off-gas (aka release into the air) vinyl chloride, especially when they’re new. (New pleather smell, anyone?) As a result, vinyl chloride pollution is now widespread, present in one-third of the federally designated toxic waste sites in the U.S. 

Getty / FrankvandenBergh

Let’s also talk about dyes. One of chemistry’s first, most profitable inventions—before pharmaceuticals, before photography—was the dye color mauve, invented in 1845 by a chemist who was playing around with the noxious waste that came from burning coal during the Industrial Revolution. In fact, many pharmaceutical and chemical multinationals today—BASF, DuPont, Novartis—got their start as dye manufacturers.

As Alison Matthews-David writes in Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, within a few years of fossil fuel dyes being invented, some consumers were reporting nasty reactions to their colorful clothing, like striped rashes showing up on their ankles and feet from coral-colored striped socks. Because not everyone suffered the same effects, the dye and chemical industry deliberately downplayed these reports, according to Simon Garfield’s Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World

The industry voluntarily phased out some of the most toxic dyes, but they were never internationally banned, leaving the door open for unscrupulous manufacturers in less regulated countries to cut corners and make a profit.

For the past century, all dyes for fashion (unless otherwise stated) have been made from petroleum or natural gas. For example, synthetic indigo made from volatile petrochemicals started to replace plant indigo at the beginning of the 20th century. 

Petroleum-based azo dyes now make up 70 percent of the 9.9 million tons of industrial dye colorants used globally each year. Once released into the environment—usually by dye houses pouring them untreated into drains and rivers—they are extremely difficult to clean up. They don’t biodegrade, and instead, bioaccumulate in both wildlife and humans, blackening rivers and killing aquatic life in places like Bangladesh, India, and Indonesia.

Petroleum-based fashion has negative ripple effects for our health, too

It’s not just the planet that suffers when the fashion industry uses fossil fuels to manufacture the bulk of our clothing and the finishes and dyes that lay atop it; it’s likely that we do, too. The sad irony is that the more chemicals present on and in a garment, the harder it is to decipher which health effects come from which chemicals, and the easier it is for a brand or manufacturer to evade responsibility. There are hints that something is amiss, though. 

Stocksy / Milles Studio

The French Agency for Food, Environmental, and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) ran a 2018 study that connected skin reactions to certain chemicals found in clothing. As a result, it has called for azo benzene disperse dyes—the type used in polyester—to be banned

Whatever is in or on the fashion you buy is also in the microfibers that break off from clothing and mix with your home’s dust, which you can then inhale. A 2021 study analyzed dust from 124 households with young children and found azo disperse dyes floating around in every single household. The research team also tested 13 polyester kids shirts from the local mall, and one contained more than 11,000 parts per million azo disperse dye, or 1.1 percent of the total weight of the shirt. For comparison, that’s three hundred times higher than the EU’s limit for certain azo dyes.

Then there is the ongoing saga of airline uniforms. Up to a quarter of airline attendants from four major airlines—Alaska, American, Delta, and Southwest—have fallen ill after receiving new, brightly colored, polyester-blend uniforms coated in performance chemicals that provided stain-, water-, mold-, and wrinkle-resistance. (All but Southwest Airlines have swapped out these uniforms, but none have admitted that they caused harm.) 

When you move and sweat in skin-tight plastic fashion, your sweat can also draw chemical finishes and dyes out of the fibers, at which point they can soak into your skin. These chemicals include not only environmental pollutants, but potential human toxins, too: bisphenols (BPA), PFAS (or "forever" chemicals), and phthalates, all of which are known hormone disruptors. Current research doesn’t quantify how much of these chemicals can cross over from clothing into our bodies nor the effects of that potential transdermal absorption. That said, researchers have largely concluded that there is no absolutely safe dose of endocrine disruptors, the scientific term for the above hormone-disrupting chemicals.

When the Center for Environmental Health in California tested socks from large brands, including Adidas, Hanes, and Timberland, it found high amounts of BPA in over a hundred polyester and spandex pairs. The polyester part is important—CEH did not find BPA in socks that were mostly cotton, but did go on to find BPA in a half dozen polyester sports bras and athletic T-shirts from large brands, too.

The Center for Environmental Health found high amounts of BPA in over a hundred pairs of polyester and spandex socks and in several polyester sports bras and athletic shirts from large brands.

Stocksy / Lumina

The PVC used to make vegan-leather fashion, noted above, also often contains phthalates, which are added to make it pliable. Phthalates, which can be breathed in or absorbed into the skin, have been connected to asthma, plus behavioral problems and genital abnormalities in children, and reduced fertility in men. (Experts are also calling for more research on whether phthalate exposure in young women puts them at increased risk for breast cancer.)

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has banned some (but not all) phthalates from children’s products, but they’ve still been found in kids’ and adults’ plastic bags and sandals in the past few years, most recently in “glass slipper” heels at Walmart and a Limited Too backpack in March. And very little testing is done on children’s clothing coming into the United States. Unless you live in California, which has the Proposition 65 regulation that requires brands to at least label clothing that contains known toxins, you’re currently on your own when it comes to chemicals like BPA, phthalates, and PFAS in plastic fashion. 

How we can move toward a cleaner closet—and world

If we want to reduce our usage of oil and natural gas, and also protect ourselves and the planet from the negative impacts of these fossil fuels, we need to get petroleum-based products out of our fashion. That will mean switching back to natural materials and reducing our use of synthetic dyes and finishes

Fortunately, more and more brands are going the natural-fiber route, from merino wool and silk base layers for outdoor sports, to 95-percent cotton yoga leggings and sports bras, and plant-based swimsuits. Even in the activewear space, where the stretch and durability of synthetic fabrics would seem to make their use a necessity, plenty of brands, like Mate the Label and Groceries Apparel, are launching innovative options made with natural fabrics and dyes. 

Also, avoid clothing that has any performance promises, such as being stain-resistant, water-resistant, antibacterial, or anti-wrinkle—all of which signify the use of the above petrochemicals that pollute the environment and may wreak havoc on our health. Unless you are a professional athlete or fisherman, you don’t need chemical-based waterproofing. Antibacterial finishes often wash out anyway, and any stylist will tell you there’s no replacement for a good clothes steamer. 

If you find the petroleum-free options to be too pricey for your liking, don’t feel bad. The best thing you can do when it comes to reducing the petroleum in your closet is to shop less, and buy secondhand items, with an eye on the label.