Reading the news about the climate crisis recently has been pretty terrifying. Each week we seem to hit new expected and unexpected tipping points. A recent study finds that the Artic Sea ice is thinning twice as fast as previously thought. The world’s soils, which provide 95% of humanity’s food and the largest active store of carbon, are “under great pressure” by climate change warned the UN this month. Scientists have reported decreasing oxygen levels in oceans for a while, but new research shows that oxygen is declining in lakes at rates between three and nine times faster in the past 40 years due to rising temperatures, causing all sorts of hazards such as toxic algae blooms, threatened drinking water and unliveable conditions for many species.
A WWF report published this month has found that key species, such as penguins, puffins and snow leopards, risk survival if the planet heats above 1.5C, which has already happened in regions like Australia, while a new IUCN study predicts that great apes – our closest relatives – may lose 90% of their habitats in Africa due to global heating, population growth and mining, timber and agriculture. Yet, us humans continue to use 1.6 times more resources that the living planet can renew each year.
“Us humans continue to use 1.6 times more resources that the living planet can renew each year. “
What’s this got to do with your clothes you may be asking? The global fashion industry is environmentally damaging on so many levels – from the way materials are produced to how they’re manufactured into clothes to how they’re shipped around the world and finally to how we buy, care and dispose of the clothes we wear.
I don’t think most people realise that the global fashion industry encompasses and relies upon so many other industrial sectors including fossil fuels, chemicals, agriculture and forestry, buildings and construction, technology and machinery, transportation, waste management and recycling, and more. Polyester is one of the fashion industry’s most commonly used materials, you are probably wearing it right now, and it derives from petroleum. The same goes for acrylic, nylon, acetate, Spandex and also for plastic bags which are used widely within the industry from manufacturing to retail.
Viscose, another widely used material for clothing, is made from wood-pulp which has been linked to the destruction of ancient and endangered forests, while conventional cotton uses pesticides that often damage soil health and pollute freshwater sources. Most of the world’s textiles and clothes are made in countries such as China, Bangladesh and Cambodia where factories are mostly powered by non-renewable and greenhouse gas emitting fuels including coal, gas and wood.
Overall, we don’t know quite how big fashion’s carbon footprint is – partially because measuring greenhouse gas emissions, considering how complex supply chains are, is difficult to do. Research from the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) and McKinsey estimates the fashion industry accounts for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Our annual Fashion Transparency Index looks to see whether 250 of the world’s biggest brands publish their carbon footprint and have found that while many fashion brands are measuring and reporting emissions in their own operations, very few share data that covers their supply chain, where the bulk of fashion’s emissions occur – GFA and McKinsey research estimates that material production accounts for 38% of the industry’s emissions.
Fashion’s climate impacts don’t stop in material production and manufacturing. Clothes are shipped in huge tankers across oceans to reach the shop floor and sometimes clothes will be flown by plane in pursuit of getting product quickly to market, both using fossil fuels. The way we wash, dry and care for our clothes has significant climate impacts too. GFA and McKinsey research estimates that 20% of the fashion industry’s emissions comes from product use. Washing and drying our clothes less and on lower temperatures, repairing our clothes and wearing them longer are necessary for reducing the climate impacts of our clothes.
But these personal actions are not enough, the industry itself needs to make bigger, sweeping changes faster than it’s currently doing. This is where governments need to play an urgent and important role in requiring companies to take swift action. Citizens also need to pressure governments and fashion brands to be more bold and more transparent about what they’re doing to address the climate crisis.
“But these personal actions are not enough, the industry itself needs to make bigger, sweeping changes faster than it’s currently doing.”
This is not to say that many governments and the global fashion industry are ignoring the problem. Some governments and brands are making investments and taking steps to reduce emissions and address interlinked environmental issues. For example, the European Union is expected to propose a whole range of different regulations for the textile, garment and footwear industry this year.
We should expect to see companies being required to proactively assess, act and report on environmental risks throughout their supply chains. We will also see new rules coming in on how companies must deal with textile and clothing waste and new government policies on product design, production processes and mandatory product labelling when it comes to sustainability topics.
In the UK, 17 major brands and retailers have signed up to WRAP’s Textiles 2030 strategy which hopes to slash water consumption of new products sold by 30% and carbon emissions by 50%, with the overall aim of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Globally, more than 100 major fashion brands and suppliers are signed up to the UN Fashion Industry Charter on Climate Action, of which Fashion Revolution is a supporting organisation.
Companies are signed up to achieve 30% emissions reductions by 2030 and to work together to create a decarbonisation pathway for the fashion industry drawing on methodologies from the Science-Based Targets Initiative. The G7 Fashion Pact led, by luxury conglomerate Kering Group, is another coalition of 60+ fashion companies that have made commitments to achieving science-based targets on carbon emissions, renewable energy use, plastic use, packaging and deforestation. All of these are voluntary agreements, so whether these big companies stick to their plans is yet to be seen.
There are so many other exciting approaches and solutions being developed by brands and retailers both large and small and global and local. Even though we will likely keep hearing news of more climate tipping points being reached in the foreseeable future, there is a lot to be hopeful for.
The rise of clothing resale and rental is exciting given that research shows how using fewer virgin resources and wearing clothes goes a long way towards preventing emissions and keeping perfectly good materials from landfill. This is precisely where platforms like Shwap are needed and important for the health of our planet and future of our wardrobes, making it so much easier and more pleasurable to resell and buy second-hand clothing online.
In the UK alone WRAP forecasts that 67 million items of clothing could be discarded in post-pandemic wardrobe clear outs, while others predict that once lockdowns end the roaring 20’s will usher in a new era of frivolous and indulgent consumption. This is precisely the time for all of us to remember that the most climate and planet friendly clothes are those that already exist – so get Shwapping!
By Sarah Ditty, Global Policy Director at Fashion Revolution