In 2018, the global fashion industry was responsible for at least 4% of global greenhouse-gas emissions - that's more than France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined! A pair of jeans alone will produce approximately 33.4kg of carbon dioxide over its lifespan, the equivalent to driving over 110km by car.
Environmental and human rights abuses have plagued the fashion industry, but the industry has shown that it can mobilise and tackle such challenges. For example, the Rana Plaza tragedy, which saw over 1,000 workers die in the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, catalysed a suite of human rights and safety reforms for garment workers and also saw the birth of movements like Fashion Revolution which advocate for 'global fashion industry that conserves and restores the environment and values people over growth and profit'. There's still a lot of work that needs to be done but we've seen public pressure mounting on big fashion retailers to be more ethical.For fashion to fix climate change, the industry will need ambition, innovation and collaboration. So strap in as we walk through how the fashion industry contributes to climate change, what the industry is doing to reach net zero, and what we can do to help.
How the fashion industry contributes to climate change
The fashion value chain is complex, with greenhouse gas emissions generated from the beginning to the end of a garment's lifecycle - from fibre and fabric manufacturing (contributing up to one third of emissions), cutting, sewing and finishing (8%), packing, transport and retail (16%) to end-of-life use, such as washing and decomposition (40%). Despite efforts to reduce emissions, the fashion industry is on a trajectory that will see it exceed the Paris Agreement's 1.5 degree climate mitigation pathway. McKinsey calculated that the industry needs to cut emissions by 1.1 billion metric tons by 2030 to stay below 1.5 degrees, but instead, the industry is on track to overshoot this target by almost twofold. It is obvious something needs to be done, asap.
What is the fashion industry doing to tackle climate change?
Over the last couple of years, the fashion industry set up some ambitious industry-led climate targets. The two main global climate-related fashion initiatives are:
- Fashion Industry Charter: In 2018, as part of UN Climate Change, more than 100 fashion stakeholders (including Levi's, Chanel and Adidas) committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and a 30% reduction in emissions by 2030.
- G7 Fashion Pact: In 2019, at the G7 Summit, 32 major fashion brands committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The Pact aims for at least 20% of the industry to sign up and make the same commitment.
Alongside these, many fashion brands are making their own voluntary commitments to achieve carbon neutrality, both in Australia and overseas. Brands such as Patagonia (by 2025), Allbirds (by 2030), and Levi's (by 2050) have already started their journey to net zero.
How will these fashion brands reach net zero? Brands can mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions by either reducing emissions in their value chain (i.e. through using innovative low emissions technologies, such as renewable energy) and also by offsetting their emissions (i.e. through purchasing carbon credits or planting trees). The mitigation hierarchy encourages brands to first reduce their emissions before offsetting. Some brands, such as Allbirds, are even imposing their own carbon taxes on the greenhouse gases they emit to encourage emissions reduction throughout their value chain.
What can we do?
McKinsey's recent report notes that sustainable consumer behaviour is a key priority for reducing the fashion industry's carbon footprint. While the responsibility should always be on brands to clean up their act, the power of the consumer will always lend a helping hand. Here are some tips for how you can play a role in fighting climate change from your own wardrobe.
1. Buy from brands who are already carbon neutral or have set ambitious net-zero targets
First things first, buy from brands that are already carbon neutral, have set ambitious net-zero targets or are engaging in decarbonisation activities (such as using renewable energy or pursuing circular or zero-waste manufacturing). As discussed above, there are a variety of brands, both Australian and overseas, which have made climate mitigation a top priority. For example, Australian lifestyle brand, Afends, have started to reduce their carbon emissions by ensuring that all their transport and logistics are net-zero.
2. Contact your favourite brands and ask what they are doing to reduce their carbon footprint
Do not underestimate the power of a good ol' email! Brands are always trying to understand consumer needs, and sometimes contacting your favourite brands and asking them to reduce their carbon emissions can be the catalyst for positive change. For example, when bohemian fashion brand Spell & The Gypsy received a customer email in 2016 asking for more ethical and sustainable clothing, it catalysed its sustainability journey, helping it become one of Australia's most sustainable fashion brands today.
3. Shop consciously - buy local, secondhand and sustainably, and dispose of clothes thoughtfully
Small changes to your consumer purchasing habits can also have a big impact on your carbon footprint. For example, buying a cotton shirt instead of a polyester one will halve your greenhouse gas emissions. Even switching to recycled polyester will reduce your emissions. Think about buying local, renting your outfit through sites such as GlamCorner, reducing your washing and drying, and rethinking how you dispose of your clothing. Even buying secondhand can reduce your greenhouse gas emissions - if you buy one 'used' instead of 'new' item of clothing this year, it will save 5.7 pounds of carbon emissions. All of these consumption practices are both rooted in sustainability but will help reduce your carbon footprint.
4. Learn about the fashion industry and advocate for garment workers
Here are some organisations and people who do really important work pushing the fashion industry to be more ethical, we've learnt so much from them and we're sure you will too:
While the fashion industry has a long way to go, it is evident that with some help from us too, it has a huge role to play in tackling the climate crisis!
Written by Georgia Monaghan