What does the Minister of the Environment think about apparel and the environment?
Tone Skårdal Tobiasson & Ingun Grimstad Klepp.
This is a translated version of an op-ed first published by tekstilforum.no. Click here to see the original version (tekstilforum.no)
This is not easy to ascertain from two answers sent to Conservative Member of Parliament Liv Kari Eskeland in response to her questions about the EU’s new Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) scheme, which is in danger of labeling natural fibers as the least environmentally friendly.
What we are wondering is simply whether Espen Barth Eide is not worried about the galloping use of polyester and acrylic, with subsequent problems such as microplastics and increasingly cheaper and worse clothes? Is he really for a further increase in the proliferation of synthetic clothing which, after a brief appearance in our wardrobes, is exported lightly used out of the country to an uncertain fate? And in case why? We do not know the answer, but will explain why we ask the questions.
The case is this. There have been repeated questions about PEF, also from the Conservative parliamentary representative Liv Kari Eskeland, who has been involved in the case on behalf of local textile industry. In the first answer, the Minister of Climate and Environment writes that he is familiar with «that synthetic textiles such as polyester are best when it comes to some environmental impacts, while for other environmental categories natural fibers have less negative impact». This was followed up by Eskeland, who is from Stord (the local small town) and who knows the wool industry well.
As a business-savvy person, she is politically engaged, lively concerned about possible threats to Norwegian businesses. The answer to her follow-up question is surprising because it does not discuss which areas synthetic fiber (ie plastic) are environmentally better than wool, but instead addresses the relationship between environmental impact from cotton and synthetic fibers. Why? Does the Minister think that all natural fibers are the same? And Norway has no cotton production, so here Norwegian business interests are not threatened, only Norwegian consumers’ access to a textile material they love.
The next issue in this ‘package of wonder’ is the scientific content. The Minister presents two different sources for the environmental benefits of plastics. One is land use. And yes, it is true that in life cycle analysis (LCA) the square meters of “space” a business takes, is heavily considered. It is almost in the nature of things that natural fibers take up more “space” in production than oil. But this comparison between square meters used, for example, for grazing against oil refineries is easy to criticize. Because there are very different “uses” of land, and grazing has not only negative, but also many positive effects (which are not included), and it is also a question of what the alternatives are.
Very few – and certainly not Barth Eide – think it would be exactly the same to have an oil refinery or a polyester factory versus pasturing sheep, as the nearest neighbor? And when the area it once took for dinosaurs and others to live and die, and then turn into oil, is not included, it is because time is not included in the calculation. Neither how long it has taken to produce the oil, nor the time it will take to break it down again. The comparison of the space to cultivate something against the space industry takes, shows first and foremost how such tools as LCAs fall short when nature and synthetics are compared directly. This is also the core of the criticism of PEF. And one of the reasons why over 60 EU politicians have now sent letters to the Commission, because they are concerned about the way this will be done in the planned labeling scheme (https://www.makethelabelcount.org/).
The other basis for his evaluation that the minister points to, is water consumption and again the comparison is polyester against cotton. There is a heated debate on this issue. It is almost a bit shocking that the documentation to which he refers is a report from SIFO from 2012. It is of course nice that SIFO’s work is valued, but this report is based on figures from 2007, which in turn are based on figures from the previous millennium. Knowledge about environmental impacts has changed a great deal in these years, and in general LCA is considered to be ‘fresh produce’ with a perishable date, and then we are talking about a few years before they lose their value. LCAs should be repeated at least every five years, many say every three.
Both we, Barth Eide and the report he refers to that compares fibers believe that the difference between the fibers is very small, global average figures taken into account, and that the most important thing is that clothes are made from the fibers that are best suited for the purpose. Then they are used for a long time and a lot, and then we appreciate them and take good care of them. The problem is that as PEF now develops, there will be large differences between the fibers, and it is the natural fibers that come out the worst. Many people actually like natural fibers, national costume shirts in linen, sweaters in wool, and maybe even a silk shawl or tie, but wool is no longer wool, but full of acrylic and polyester, and cotton is increasingly “polycotton”.
Polyester national costumes will hardly be inherited. In many products, plastic is best and the synthetic fibers are also much better than other fibers. However, the rapid increase in the use of synthetic fibers, and the even faster increase planned by the industry, has not come because synthetics are the best. Developing a labeling scheme that will label plastic as green is like pouring gasoline on the fire in a world that needs to cool down. Polyester is today over 60% of textile fiber production and the only way the fashion industry can continue to grow. This is also why the industry puts so much effort into greenwashing plastic. They can do this job just fine without the help of a Norwegian Minister of Climate and Environment or a European labeling schemes.
That’s why we’re wondering. Does Espen Barth Eide know what was actually in the letter he signed? We have a hard time believing that he is an ordinary plastic pusher, even though the government’s oil policy surprises more than us. Is his highest desire really to remove the few clothes that are still found in natural materials from the market? And make it even more difficult to make a living from wool production and the wool industry in Norway? Liv Kari Eskeland and the others in the Conservative Party are probably also wondering the same. That is why the Conservatives’ Mathilde Tybring-Gjedde, Sandra Bruflot and Mari Holm Lønseth presented a representative proposal in the Storting on 17 February for stricter requirements for the textile industry. The government is thus squeezed from both the right and the left in politics, and interestingly enough mainly by female representatives. The Conservative Party’s proposal includes PEF, and both the problems with plastic and microplastics are mentioned. If Barth Eide really wants a future clad in plastic, he now has the opportunity to say it loud and clear. We are waiting in anticipation.