For many years, serious environmentalists overlooked fashion as pop-culture fluff rather than an industry with substantial opportunities to take environmental action. Any acknowledgment of water use, or toxic pollutants, for example, was labeled as an impact that happened “over there” in producing countries, not here at home in Canada or the United States. As a result, it’s been skipped over in government policy and grassroots environmental initiatives for far too long. This is a look at How Fashion And Climate Change Are Linked!
Partially to blame is that the fashion industry has one of the longest and most complex value chains (i.e. raw materials all the way to the end of consumer use), and suffers from a lack of business transparency at all levels. A systems approach is needed, which means cooperation between players that traditionally do not talk to each other.
The tragedy of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 unleashed a ripple effect. Fashion Revolution week, which commemorates the 1138 deaths and seeks to do fashion more transparently and fairly, is a movement that has taken off in more than 150 countries. It’s not hard to connect the dots to governments (such as the U.K., Canada, and Australia) that are now passing or proposing modern slavery acts in parliament.
The increased pressure for transparency and traceability will indeed accelerate the fight for human rights, but it will also make it possible to create faster solutions for the other impending issue of our time, climate change.
Simply put, when fashion brands make it their business to trace their supply chain back to ‘cut and sew’, or even raw materials, they will then know where they have inefficiencies and can leverage a change in operations. If they take the additional step of communicating this information, a.k.a. to be more transparent about it, they can then make faster changes by participating in industry collaborations, such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which has over 200 members.
So how, specifically, is the fashion industry connected to climate change?
Follow below for industry and consumer stats, plus an outline of where the opportunities are for climate-positive action.
How much are we producing and consuming?
With a global population of 7 billion, we now consume over 100 billion items of clothing a year that’s around 14 items of clothing per person per year. But the world doesn’t consume equally. Taking a look at the two largest markets, China and the US, the average can be triple that amount. It’s not hard to imagine a U.S or Canadian shopper purchasing one item of clothing a week.
What does this mean for the release of carbon dioxide emissions?
According to the OECD, if fashion were a country, it would be the 4th largest emitter of CO2. To quote Common Objective, "Unless it changes the way it operates, the fashion industry is effectively undermining global efforts to address climate change."
Production & Transport are the two areas that make most of the industry’s climate impact.
- Carbon from production is expected to increase by 60% by 2030 to 2.8 billion tons.
- The volume of freight transport is predicted to triple by 2040, which means an equivalent of CO2 emissions increase, just to move garments through the long supply chain and then to get to us.
Textile Waste from industry and consumers is another area of CO2 emissions. Keep the following ratio in mind as you read the stats below. For every 1 kg of clothing and textiles in landfills, 4 kg of CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere.
- It is estimated that we make 400 billion m squared of textiles annually, while 60 billion m squared is cutting room floor waste. That’s 15% going to landfills or incineration.
- There used to be two cycles in the fashion calendar—Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter—but now with fast fashion, there are as many as 50 micro-seasons. That means new items in-store every week. 60% of all clothing manufactured (including all the items that aren’t purchased in that 50 micro-seasons) are incinerated or sent to landfills within one year.
- And finally, there is us, the consumer. Yes, we donate, but still, 85% of our textile waste gets to landfills. In Ontario, the amount of CO2 emitted every year from households and overstock is equivalent to 7 CN Towers in weight.
What can the industry do?
Marketing: Surely with fashion’s great influence, power, and ability to recreate itself in every collection, it can use its clout to lead the charge with ideas and communications that make us take notice. Take Reformation’s out-of-the-box "sexy math", which they explain in detail in their sustainability report, or how about Stella McCartney launching her eyewear line of bio-plastic set in a dinosaur park and riffing on the lack of fossil fuels used?
Design: If fast fashion is unsustainable, design it differently! This is a fashion thing! Products can be made from renewable raw materials such as bamboo, recycled ocean plastic, leftover pineapple skin, and fish scales. If the industry can design a way to separate mixed fibers, such as nylon and cotton, then we’re really going to change the system! There’s also the design of the actual business model. How about renting, producing in small batches to reduce unsold products, or “on-shoring” the whole design-sew-sell process so that the transportation footprint is smaller, and finally brands reselling their own refurbished used clothing? The options are really only limited by the imagination (and funding for research and startups!).
What can consumers do?
Use what we have: the most climate-positive wardrobe is the one you already have! Find new ways to love it! One tool that will help you find more ways to creatively "shop your closet" is Citizenne's weekly wardrobe planner.
Increase the reuse, repurpose, repair, and renting of your wardrobe. We know it is common nowadays to wear an item a mere 3-7 times before we tire of it and toss it, but if we extend a garment’s useful life from 1 to 2 years, we can reduce its overall GHG emissions by about 24%.
Shop local from small-batch brands that also produce closer to home. We know that transportation is one of the biggest fossil fuel hogs, so whatever you can do to shorten the value chain by supporting local design, making, wearing, caring, and reuse, the better! Check out The Garment and Inland as two great options.
A final word on fashion and climate change
In a time of fashion influencers, we can’t underestimate the power of people like Duchess Meghan, or Emma Watson to cause a ripple effect of change in the fashion industry. But let’s not forget that we can be “everyday” influencers for climate action as well. Fashion leaders are climate leaders!