The fashion industry, behind its shiny, glamourous facade, is well known to have massive impacts on people and the planet. Fashion giants can no longer pretend like they’re not part of the problem, so they’re increasingly greenwashing consumers with conscious collections or circular initiatives that do little to address the structural issues at the root of the problem. Fast fashion, a fairly recent phenomenon, profits from quantity over quality and achieves low prices and fast production at the expense of workers and the environment.
This was largely made possible thanks to synthetic fibres. Nowadays, polyester dominates the clothing industry, with annual production exceeding 57 million metric tonnes worldwide. Polyester comes with many issues, its production is energy and water intensive, it’s not biodegradable and it comes from petroleum, one of the most polluting industries. The war on plastic is evident in many sectors, but we often forget that our clothes are largely composed of it. A large carbon saving switch would be to move away from these materials and instead opting for natural, organic and regenerative fibres.
The journey of our clothes is long, with global, complex supply chains required for the raw materials to be turned into finished garments. All of this happens behind closed doors so we rarely think of it, but every step of the way the impacts are significant.
Carbon emissions caused by this industry are estimated to be between 5-10% of the total according to the UN, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. The greenhouse gases emitted by the fashion industry are as many as the entire economies of France, Germany and the UK combined.
Most of Fashion’s emissions happen at the manufacturing level; a brand’s material choices, for example, are responsible for over half its total emissions.
Reducing supply chain emissions could be possible if factories were powered by renewable energy instead of coal, this proves to be a challenge since most fashion is made in countries that run on coal.
This switch would also require brands to work with their suppliers , yet brands lack the incentive to pay for factories to make improvements as they often work with multiple suppliers so that would involve payments to a lot of different factories. Simultaneously, those suppliers work with a multitude of different brands and brands are reluctant to pay for improvements that would benefit their competitors. Industry wide collaboration is needed, but it’s not as easy as it seems with the current brand-supplier relationships.
If brands were really committed to changing the industry for good, they would commit to long-term purchasing contracts with suppliers to support them through the low carbon transition, instead they jump from factory to factory and country to country, looking for the cheapest prices and the fastest turnaround. Suppliers have no stability as brands don’t provide any financial support or security, the COVID pandemic made that evident when brands had to shut their stores and just refused to pay their suppliers for the orders they had completed.
The Apparel Impact Institute and Fashion for Good estimate that it will take a trillion dollars in global investment to decarbonize the industry, that investment has to come from brands and it will require a rethink of the current power dynamics.
Currently, suppliers operate on thin margins and cannot invest in greening their factories. Subcontracting work to other factories is also common so often the brand themselves don’t even know where their clothes are being produced.
This lack of transparency makes it hard to reduce supply chain emissions. Instead of pushing for faster and cheaper production brands should establish better long term relationships with their suppliers which would improve working conditions and facilitate decarbonisation in garment factories.
Water consumption is another crucial part of clothing production. It's easy to picture the extent of the problem when we see that 2.700 litres of water are required to make a single cotton t-shirt.
The fashion industry is in fact the second largest consumer of the world’s water supply.
Just over half of fashion’s manufacturing emissions come from the dyeing and finishing of material—called wet processing— this step requires lots of water, is very energy intensive and often the resulting wastewater is dumped straight into nearby waterways, along with all the toxic substances used.
With global supply chains we can’t forget the impact of shipping, another area that has potential for improvements, boats shipping products across the world should use clean fuel. Currently marine shipping accounts for more than 10% of company emissions.
The technology exists but the problem is the business model, there’s no incentives for fashion giants to change their ways.They especially avoid the conversation around the amount of items produced, Fashion revolution’s transparency index reveals that very few brands currently publish data about their annual production volume.
With more than 150 billion garments produced every year, that’s an important aspect that can’t be ignored, reducing production is imperative, especially following the latest news that report at least 39,000 tons of discarded fast fashion ending up in Chile’s Atacama, the driest desert in the world.
COP26, the recent climate change conference, has brought together world leaders and industry experts to draft plans to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. In Glasgow many fashion brands showcased their innovative practices and commitments to sustainability, but they’ll have to do so much more than that considering that no major fashion brand is anywhere near achieving the 1.5°C pathway, fashion emissions are currently on track to grow more than 50 percent by 2030.
Brands have made commitments and released statements but they urgently need to move from target setting to concrete action, fast.
The UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action upgraded the commitment that previously called on signatories to cut emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Now signatories (130 major fashion brands)must pledge to reach net-zero emissions no later than 2050 and either reduce their emissions by 50% by 2030 or set science-based targets by the end of 2023.
Current trajectories are not good enough and business as usual is not an option. Climate change is a severe threat to fashion with droughts potentially affecting crops like cotton and rising sea levels posing a danger for thousands of garment factories. Consumers, investors and governments must pressure brands to step up and work towards real improvements that cannot be driven by voluntary brand commitments alone but require strong legislation to hold them accountable.
Major fashion organisations including the fashion roundtable, Fashion revolution and Common Objective have united in a call to action in an open letter to the fashion industry with a unified message.
The main asks are collective action and improved collaboration within supply chains, efficient waste elimination, skill developments to push for circularity and increase the lifespan of garments and finally a change from profit driven business models to a well-being economy.
The statistics speak loud and clear, fashion’s contribution to climate change cannot be underestimated. But things can change and it’s imperative that fashion becomes part of the solution as much as it is part of the problem.