The Carbon Cost of Fashion

Written by The Heat Team

29 Sep 2020

Last year, the world came to a standstill. Led by the outspoken Greta Thunberg, hundreds of thousands of people across the world took to the streets to march for change. The Global Youth Climate Strike marked the biggest protest for climate change in history. Members of the fashion industry joined in on the front lines, retailers like Vivienne Westwood, Patagonia, Burton and Allbirds closed their stores for the day to stand in solidarity with the movement, allowing their employees to join the march. The unanimous call for action signifies the magnitude of irreversible damage we face from the impending crisis. In 2018, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that in order to keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5C this century, emissions of carbon dioxide have to be cut by 45% by 2030. Failing to do so would mean serious repercussions: waving goodbye to our ice caps, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, the eradication of plants and wildlife, and the list goes on. The message is clear, we have no more time to waste. Realistically, our efforts are long overdue, and action should have been taken decades ago, but this is our last chance.

It’s no big revelation that the fashion industry is the second-largest polluter globally. The clothes we wear are products of complex supply chains, and its roots are planted in material production, kickstarting a lengthy contribution to environmental pollution. The cultivation of raw materials relies on heavy consumption of freshwater, the process of growing cotton taints our water and soil with pesticides and fertilisers, leading to a major loss of biodiversity, and the dyeing and finishing processes of textiles release tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. WWF estimates it could take 2,700 litres of water to produce the cotton needed to make a single t-shirt. Furthermore, Oxfam follows up by reporting the creation of one 100% cotton t-shirt disperses the same amount of carbon emissions as driving a car for 35 miles. To put this into perspective, the volume of water needed to produce a single pair of jeans would equate to one person’s drinking supply for ten years.

In the next step of the supply chain, garments are transported globally to retailers and consumers, where their carbon footprint becomes increasingly difficult to track. The common practice of returning products poses an additional problem, potentially doubling the emissions caused by transport, and if you factor in failed deliveries or uncollected parcels, it can grow further. Finally, once a product is in the consumer’s hands, there is no way of tracking how much of it is disposed of. Garments which are carelessly thrown away eventually end up in landfills, or become incinerated, both which are methods that contribute to the release of CO2 into the atmosphere. The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas emission, totalling more than the amount produced by international flights and maritime shipping combined. It’s no wonder why carbon is the focal point of the United Nation’s Fashion Charter and the G7 Fashion Pact; two coalitions endeavouring to drive change in the industry.

The United Nation’s Fashion Charter was established in 2018 and aligns with the goals drawn up by the Paris Agreement, with a primary focus on keeping the global temperature increase below 2 degrees and actively working towards averting the consequences of climate change. Similarly, the G7 Fashion Pact was established the following year by François-Henri Pinault, the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Kering. The agreement outlines a series of the global commitments outlined by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which includes eliminating single-use plastics,  supporting innovation which combats micro-fibre pollution and increasing the use of biobased fibres which won’t harm the environment. But the most ambitious commitment of all is the aim to entirely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The pact has been signed by 32 leading fashion brands, who have committed to meet set targets and work towards becoming net-zero, which essentially means that any emissions produced, are balanced by absorbing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere, usually through the process of carbon offsetting.

Carbon offsetting is an increasingly popular solution for businesses who want to eliminate the damage they are doing and reach net zero. A carbon offset is a reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases in order to restore balance. This can be accomplished by investing in projects which remove carbon from the atmosphere, by supporting a renewable energy source or donating to reforestation projects. Gucci is one of many signatories of the G7 Fashion Pact who has been particularly vocal in promoting the practice of carbon offsetting. As of September 2019, the luxury fashion house has transformed its operations to become entirely carbon neutral across their entire supply chain, through partnership REDD+, an initiative developed by the United Nations. The project is dedicated to mitigating climate change, supporting forest conservation, protecting biodiversity and bringing economic and social benefits to local communities. Gucci’s commitment has extended to their fashion shows—for their SS20 collection debut, the brand offset the travel footprint of 1,000 guests and 900 workers, including models, production staff. Taking it one step further, CEO Marco Bizzarri, launched the ‘CEO Carbon Neutral Challenge’, inviting fashion leaders to participate in the fight against climate change. His challenge lays down the cold hard facts, it’s not enough to focus on long-term strategies to reduce carbon emissions, companies should consider carbon offsetting.

Steps in the right direction are certainly worthy of celebration. However, it is important to take a reality check once in a while. Truth be told, we, as a society collectively grabbed our brooms to clean up our mess a little bit too late. The effects of the climate crisis are well and truly upon us, and it is not a topic be taken lightly. Companies who may have previously opted to cut costs by practising non-environmentally friendly processes should take a leaf out of Gucci’s book and reevaluate their operations. Nevertheless, we have faith in humanity as a whole, every cloud has a silver lining and in this case, we have no doubt that the problem can be fixed if we form a united front.

The Carbon Cost of Fashion

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