Why it’s crunch time for action on climate change

With just a decade left to deliver on some of the fashion industry’s climate change commitments, concerns are mounting that current efforts to slash emissions are likely to be too little, too late. So now is the time for the sector to double-down on turning promises into action. By Leonie Barrie

The starting point for conversations on climate change is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Paris Climate Change Agreement, which in 2015 set out a path to try to limit the increase in global temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Aligned with this is the UNFCCC Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, which contains the vision to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 30% by 2030 – and move towards net-zero emissions by 2050. Momentum to curb environmental impact has also been helped by individual brand pledges under the G7 Fashion Pact.

To date, brands and retailers have largely focused on tackling the issue in their own operations, like corporate offices and stores. But the most critical task is to extend efforts to their supply chains, as it’s here where most emissions typically lie.

It’s also the most challenging, since clothing’s supply chains are notoriously complicated, making it difficult for all of the emissions to be identified and measured, from growing or making the fibres to processing fabrics and producing garments.

Other issues include how the garments are transported, how they’re washed and dried during use, and how they’re disposed of when the wearer no longer wants them anymore. And of course there’s the contradictory business model that encourages consumers to buy new fashions more and more frequently.

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – which include carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides – are the predominant cause of climate change, and force global warming by trapping radiation in the Earth’s atmosphere.” - GlobalData

But there are steps companies can take, according to two new reports from environmental organisation, and Global Fashion Agenda and McKinsey. They say the industry must curb its reliance on coal, phase out fossil fuel-based fabrics like polyester, and move away from delivery by highly polluting cargo ships.

Instead, the focus should include switching to a combination of renewable energy in factories, sourcing lower carbon and longer-lasting materials, reducing overproduction, minimising manufacturing waste, turning to greener shipping options, and switching to recycled and lighter packaging materials

Post-pandemic priority

For, the need for climate strategies to be extended to the supply chain is a priority for the sector as it recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Its latest report, ‘Fashion forward: A roadmap to fossil-free fashion,’ warns new coal power plants are being planned in key garment supplier countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, China – and links the rapid increase in the use of polyester fabric to the explosion of fracking in the US.

Suggested steps to eliminating fossil fuels from the clothing supply chain include:

  • Renewables: Brands must eliminate coal and move to a renewable-powered supply chain by 2030; form partnerships with suppliers to embrace sharing capital costs; and also advocate with suppliers to block new investment in coal and demand clean energy policies to green electric grids and transportation infrastructure.

  • Greener and longer-lasting materials: Brands must commit to sourcing lower carbon and longer-lasting materials, while also steadily phasing out fossil fuel-based plastic fibres like polyester.

  • Greener shipping: Brands must reduce the climate impacts of how clothing is shipped around the world by supporting short-term solutions like slowing ships and eliminating dirty fuels, while also advocating for a long-term decarbonisation strategy by the end of the decade.

It also warns:

  • Don’t pursue greenwashing initiatives like renewable energy credits and carbon offsets.
  • Don’t support false “clean” energy transitions from coal to fracked gas or coal to biomass.
  • Don’t rely on false “clean” shipping proposals such as scrubbers and LNG.
  • Don’t increase the amount of materials sourced from fossil fuels like fracked gas and coal.

Accelerated abatement

Meanwhile, Global Fashion Agenda and McKinsey & Company have calculated the apparel and footwear industry emitted some 2.1bn tonnes of CO2 in 2018 – about 4% of the global total, or the same quantity per year as France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined.

Their report ‘Fashion on Climate’ also urges drastic action to halve the industry’s annual carbon emissions to 1.1bn tonnes by 2030, or else risk doubling the Paris Agreement limit.

They also agree this so-called “accelerated abatement” can only be achieved through collaboration between brands, retailers and their supply chains – with upstream operations offering the biggest opportunity for savings.

  • Reducing emissions from upstream operations could deliver 61% of the accelerated abatement by decarbonising materials production and processing, minimising production and manufacturing waste, and decarbonising garment manufacturing. Improvements in energy efficiency and transiting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources could save about 1bn tonnes of emissions in 2030.

  • Reducing emissions from brands’ own operations could lead to a potential reduction of 308m tonnes of CO2 by 2030. Using more recycled fibres, more sustainable transport, improvements in packaging (with recycled and lighter materials), decarbonising retail operations, minimising returns, and reducing overproduction (only 60% of garments are currently sold without a markdown) are the main drivers.

  • Encouraging sustainable consumer behaviour is also key. A more conscious approach to fashion consumption, use and reuse, along with circular business models – including rental, resale, recycling and repair – could contribute 347m tonnes of emissions abatement.

With the whole supply chain still struggling to get back on track following the coronavirus pandemic, it’s also vital that the road ahead includes partnering with suppliers to share capital costs or offer some other financial incentive to change.

The ‘Fashion on Climate’ report calculates around 55% of the accelerated abatement actions can be delivered at net cost savings, with the rest requiring incentivisation in the form of consumer demand or regulations. Overall, around 90% of the actions needed can be delivered below a cost of around US$50 per tonne of CO2 emissions.

Sea-change in consumer behaviour

Analysts at Bernstein Research believe those brands and retailers who rise to the challenge of addressing climate change will see a clear competitive advantage, especially with more environmentally conscious consumers. Here are four key changes they expect to play out.

  • Making the last mile carbon-neutral. As online penetration has grown, so has the carbon footprint of last mile delivery, an emissions-heavy and highly visible part of the supply chain. Retailers are likely to move fast, first to offset and then to neutralise the carbon impact of the last mile.

  • Increasing transparency. The nutrition label of clothing. What if consumers could see the environmental impact of each individual item of clothing they buy on a clothing 'nutrition label'? they ask. Leading retailers are already publishing full supplier lists and providing sourcing data at the item level – so an 'apparel nutrition label' would be a strong point of differentiation and the next logical step.

  • Zero-landfill manufacturing. To combat the growing moral dilemma of buying and disposing of clothes that go straight to landfill, leading retailers are proactively looking to new material to change the structure of the product, using organic, recyclable and food-waste fibres to produce clothing.

  • More love for pre-loved. Second-hand shopping is back, wearing a halo of sustainability. Extending the lifespan of clothing is the single biggest way a shopper can lower its carbon footprint. The problem is there are no mainstream, at-scale, second-hand propositions in the market...yet. Mainstream retailers are likely to add second-hand as a "menu option" to drive traffic, increase engagement, and grow customer lifetime value.


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