Sustainability in Fashion: What Your Brand can do to Reduce its Climate Impact
80 billion new pieces of clothes are produced every year - a process that requires an enormous amount of resources. Today, the average person buys 60% more clothing items than 15 years ago, while unfortunately only keeping them for half as long. With fast fashion brands, such as H&M, Zara or Primark, releasing up to 20 new collections per year, the market has already reached a high level of saturation. The consequence? Tonnes of clothes end up in landfills - 59,000 tonnes of discarded clothing every year in the Atacama Desert in Chile alone.
The good news: consumers become more and more sustainability conscious, calling on fashion brands to take action. And many brands, such as Patagonia, Stella McCartney, Everlane or Levi’s, have already stepped up their sustainability game and are actively working towards more climate-friendly operations.
The impact of the fashion industry on our planet is probably not entirely new to you. However, before we dive into some actionable measures to make fashion more sustainable, let’s have a look at the most important areas fashion companies should address to become more climate-friendly.
The environmental impact of the fashion industry
Global clothing production has doubled between 2000 and 2014. A study by McKinsey found that the fashion sector was responsible for 2.1 billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2018, which is around 4% of the global total.
More recent estimations even suggest that the fashion industry contributes to up to 10% of global emissions. In order to meet the 1.5°C target of the 2015 Paris Agreement, the fashion industry would have to reduce their annual emissions by 1.1 billion tonnes within the next decade - a reduction of almost 50%.
The fashion industry is responsible for about 20% of global water waste, since water is required in every step of the production process, from the treatment of the fabrics, to dying and rinsing them. To make the water footprint of fashion a bit more feasible, let’s look at some examples: To produce 1 kg of cotton, about 10,000 litres of water are needed. One pair of jeans requires more than 7,500 litres - this would equal 7 years of drinking water for one average person.
Depending on the material, clothes can take up to 200 years to biodegrade, and therefore remain on our planet for a very long period of time. Water pollution is also a serious issue, particularly when synthetic fibres, such as polyester, viscose, or acrylic, are getting treated with harmful chemicals and pesticides that then get washed into the groundwater. This is especially of concern in areas like, for example, India, where 75- 80% of waterways are already being polluted.
But not only the production process of clothing poses a problem, also the washing of the clothes has a significant impact on our planet. During the washing process, up to 500,000 tonnes of microfibres, also known as microplastics, are released into the ocean each year - which is the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. It is even estimated that 35% of all microplastics in the ocean actually come from washing clothes made out of synthetic materials.
Given that polyester - a plastic that never biodegrades and releases about 2-3 times more emissions than cotton - can be found in approximately 60% of all garments, this shows one very important area for the fashion industry to reduce its climate impact.
But it is not only environmental issues that play a major role in the impact of the fashion industry, it is also social issues, including human rights and gender inequality, that pose severe problems.
Those issues are mostly related to the working conditions in the fast fashion industry: Long working hours and extremely low wages, that often don’t even cover basic needs, are only two examples. Many fast fashion brands typically have their clothes manufactured in so-called sweatshops, manufacturing sites that are characterised by extremely poor working conditions, long hours, low wages, child labour and violations of labour law. Moreover, since many fibres of the clothes are treated with highly toxic chemicals, it can lead to serious health issues among the workers when inhaled.
Fair treatment and the safety of workers are therefore two major areas to address in the fashion industry.
Now, we do not want to leave you alone with this grim outlook - there are many ways your fashion business can minimise its impact, so here are just a few examples.
How can businesses in the fashion industry minimise their impact?
First things first: Understand your impact
In order to minimise the impact of your fashion business, you first need to understand your own impact and identify the main emissions sources of your business. As a starting point, we recommend measuring your corporate carbon footprint to really understand your emission hotspots. What used to be a tedious process is now made easy with tools such as our Climate Impact Manager which helps companies effectively measure and track their carbon footprint.
While about 20% of emissions in the fashion industry are related to the product use of consumers, about 60% of all emissions actually stem from upstream operations, including material production and processing, garment manufacturing, and production waste. To give you a clearer understanding of the potential impact areas of your fashion company, the following graph shows some of the main emission sources in the fashion industry.
Review your supply chain & develop responsible purchasing practices
Supply chains in the fashion industry are generally long and quite complex. Given that many companies outsource the manufacturing part (cutting, sewing, dying, weaving etc.) of their clothing, often also to other countries, they have, for the most part, limited influence over their activities.
That’s why it is so important for you as a business to ensure quality and transparency in your supply chain, to guarantee that you do not support the exploitation of workers and dangerous practices for the environment.
In addition, the OECD Garment Guidance advises companies to develop responsible purchasing practices through which they should :
- Engage in a two-way dialogue with suppliers
- Develop pricing models that actually cover the cost of wages, benefits and potential investments for the work done
- Develop procedures for your purchasing teams to follow in cases where practices could contribute to harm or loss (e.g. change of orders after order placement or late placement)
You can also consider producing your clothing locally, as it increases your control over the production process and reduces transport emissions.
Review the production process & the materials you’re using
Production and materials are typical emission hotspots in the fashion industry. Tapping into optimisation potentials here can therefore significantly reduce your company’s environmental impact. You can start off by rethinking the design of your clothes - how can you optimise the design of your clothing to use less fabric or more sustainable materials?
One solution here is to source your materials from sustainable farms and opt for more sustainable fabrics, such as organic cotton, linen, or tencel instead of polyester and other materials made of plastic. Making clothes out of 100% of the same material will also significantly facilitate the recycling process.
Shoe brand Allbirds is a good example of a fashion company that focuses on using environmentally friendly materials. Allbirds puts a high focus on regenerative agriculture and renewable materials by replacing petroleum-based materials with natural ones, with the ambition to use 75% of sustainably sourced natural and recycled materials by 2025. With regenerative agriculture, Allbirds plans to shift its farming practices to create healthy soil, effectively removing CO2e from the atmosphere. On Allbirds’ website, customers can also transparently understand the carbon footprint of the brands’ shoes before they purchase them.
Transition to a circular system
According to the Global Fashion Agenda, about 73% of our clothing eventually ends up in landfill. One effective solution to counteract this extremely high number is circularity.
Fashion brands should also think about ways to recycle clothing items, for example by introducing a recycling or take-back programme, where customers can return their old garments to potentially be turned into new ones.
Patagonia, for instance, sets a great example of how a business can contribute to circularity in the fashion industry. They offer a programme where you can trade in your worn wear previously purchased from them, which they will then repair to extend the garment's life and give them another chance.
While today, a lot of clothes still contain a mix of fibres, which makes it very hard to recycle them, the fashion industry could actually use almost entirely recyclable and renewable materials by 2030, if it invests in new technologies. This means that the sector could become 80% circular, with recycling technologies having the potential to use 75% textile-to-textile recycling.
Ensure fair working practices
This part goes hand in hand with ensuring the transparency of your supply chain. Make sure that you keep an eye on your factories and that your workers are provided with fair working conditions - this includes fair wages, decent work hours, no involvement of child labour, minimising the risks of health issues and ensuring that workers are not exposed to any harmful chemicals.
You can also encourage your suppliers to form a trade union to ensure workers' rights. A great example of this can be found in the Scandinavian outdoor gear and clothing brand Helly Hansen. They are committed to ensure the safety of their workers across their entire supply chain, and they regularly monitor the safety conditions of their workers. In addition, they also rolled out a ‘Worker Engagement Programme’ in 2019, which aims to improve the working conditions by means of education, using digital tools for scalability.
A Sustainable Future for Fashion?
So is it actually possible to produce clothing sustainably? The good news is - it is, and there are many great examples out there you can learn from.
Are you a business in the fashion industry yourself and need help to get started? Feel free to reach out to us, and we can find the best way to get you dressed.