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4 Ways Brands Can Reduce Climate Impact

Common Objective (CO) is an intelligent business network for the fashion industry William Petty

Editor at Freelance

Humanity faces no bigger threat than climate change, and the fashion industry needs to take responsibility for our role in warming the planet. We look at what the issues are, and what steps fashion can take to clean up its act.

Key Takeaways

·Limiting the damage from climate change requires cutting net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, and every industry has a part to play

·The fashion industry is responsible for around 2-4 percent of all manmade greenhouse gas emissions, and that percentage is set to grow

·Most emissions come from raw materials, so improving the way we produce polyester and cotton could have a huge impact

·Challenging the current fast fashion ethos of the industry is going to be essential in the fight against global warming

Although it doesn’t have the reputation of, say, the oil industry, fashion is making a sizeable contribution to warming the planet – the fashion industry was responsible for 2.1 billion metric tons of GHG emissions in 2018, according to McKinsey Fashion on Climate report. To put things in perspective, the annual green house gas (GHG) emissions of the fashion industry equals the annual emissions from economies of France, Germany and the UK combined.1

We need to sit up and acknowledge our accountability: 2015’s historic Paris Agreement committed almost every country in the world to working towards limiting climate change, with an aim to prevent global temperatures rising to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Nearly three years later, a special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) set out the possible pathways to achieving this ambitious target.

Its findings are stark: to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius, GHG emissions need to be cut by 45 percent by 2030, and to zero – yes, ZERO – by 2050.

Polyester production accounted for around 40 percent of total fashion industry emissions in 2014.

It is estimated that around 38 percent of yearly GHG emissions are generated during textile production4– and today that overwhelmingly means either synthetics (62 percent of all fabric production, mainly polyester) or cotton (24 percent).

Polyester is made from oil, and extracting and processing the raw material to make this common synthetic fiber is highly energy-intensive. In 2015, it was estimated that over 706 billion kilograms of greenhouse gas were released in polyester production in textiles that year.

As an agricultural crop, cotton’s carbon footprint is lower than that of polyester, but fertilizer use releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with 300 times more warming power than CO2.5

Climate impact doesn't stop at the shop

Fashion, fast fashion and the environment

Beyond the raw materials stage, the energy used in manufacturing, transporting, packaging and selling a garment all make a contribution to its carbon footprint. But the climate impact doesn’t stop at the shop – what happens during a garment’s lifetime also contributes, as too does the end of its life.

The problem is exacerbated by the fast fashion trend of recent years. We’re buying more clothes than ever before, wearing them fewer times, repairing them less, and throwing them away sooner.

A charter to curb fashion industry pollution?

So what can the fashion industry do to reverse its harmful practices, and who is providing leadership on the issue?

In December 2018 a group of leading fashion brands and NGOs launched the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, under the auspices of the United Nations.

The charter recognizes the importance of meeting the goals agreed in the Paris Agreement, and sets out a series of commitments on climate change, including a reduction in GHG emissions of 30 percent by 2030, public reporting of emissions, and developing a common messaging strategy to communicate the importance of climate action within the industry.

Four ways fashion brands can reduce the negative effects of fashion

1. Replace: switch raw materials

With raw materials making up the majority of a garment’s climate impact Switching fabrics can help. According to Textile Exchange, mechanically recycled polyester generates 70 percent less emissions than virgin polyester.

Outdoor apparel brand Patagonia have long been known for their use of recycled polyester, but other big players are getting in on the act – Nike, H&M and Target are all among the top ten users of sustainable synthetics.

Likewise, a comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment by the Textile Exchange showed that switching from conventional to organic cotton can cut global warming potential by 46 percent.Current supplies aren’t nearly enough to meet fabric demand – less than one per cent of all cotton production is organic – but the use of more sustainable fabrics will undoubtedly play an important role in reducing fashion's carbon footprint going forward.

This may rely on new technologies that are only in their infancy now, such as man-made fibres made from agricultural waste.

2. Reduce: make energy savings along the value chain

Beyond the materials stage, firms can reduce energy use in their warehouses, stores and offices.

ASOS cut its electricity use in one warehouse by 76 percent by switching to energy-efficient light bulbs. Sensors that turn lights off in empty rooms can help too.

Finding efficiencies at the transport and logistics stages can help businesses help the environment. When Hugo Boss analyzed the carbon footprint of their transport operations, they realized switching from air to rail freight could cut emissions by 95 percent.

Improvements like these are all possible with existing technology, and can pay for themselves over a short time frame.

3. Recycle: invest in systems to re-use rather than throw away clothes

Brands have a role to play in educating consumers about repairing and recycling their clothes. Some already operate repair services – Nudie Jeans patched up more than 44,000 pairs of jeans in 2016.

Several brands have in-store collection points for garments at the end of their life, which can be recycled, or resold for charity.

Wastage during the production stage needs to be taken seriously too – in 2014, Cambodian fashion brand Tonlé kept 70 tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere by processing pre-consumer waste. In the future, automated processes such as optical fibre sorting may make recycling our clothes easier – we can’t go on throwing millions of tons of clothing into landfill every year.

4. Rethink: change the disposable fast fashion culture

Ultimately, for the fashion industry to make a positive impact on the climate, the culture of fashion needs to change. As Common Objective CEO Tamsin Lejeune points out, fast fashion is fundamentally unsustainable for the environment.

The necessary reductions in GHG emissions won’t be possible unless we produce less, buy a lot less, and get much better at handling the end-of-life stage of garments. We must stop thinking of clothes as disposable, and adopt circular fashion principles that treat the life-cycle of a garment as a closed loop.

Creating an ecosystem that promotes and invests in new ways of thinking has to be part of the industry’s toolkit for tackling climate change. Perhaps, by 2050, fashion will have addressed the biggest waste of all – the vast majority of our clothes sitting unworn at any one time, in our wardrobes.

The future of fashion may be a service that replaces ownership with fast on-demand rental of fashion from a limitless global pool of outfits.

It could make the planet a better place and fashion no longer a dirty word.


1. McKinsey & Co (2020) Fashion On Climate Report

4.McKinsey & Co (2020) Fashion On Climate Report

6. Textile Exchange (2021) 2025 Recycled Polyester Challenge

7. Soil Association (2015) Cool Cotton

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