Fashion’s ambitious new project to reduce climate impact

The underlying premise behind the launch of the new industry-wide Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action is that the clothing and broader textile sector is simply not doing enough to rein in its growing contributions to climate change. Leonie Barrie reports

Unveiled in December at the annual United Nations (UN) climate change conference, COP24, in Katowice, Poland, the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action has been signed by dozens of leading brands and stakeholders, including Adidas, Burberry, Gap Inc, H&M Group, Inditex, Kering, Levi Strauss & Co, and PVH Corp.

Aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement to limit the global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius, it initially aims to reduce aggregate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 30% by 2030 (against a 2015 baseline). Its ultimate vision is for the sector to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

In order to reach these milestones, signatory companies have pledged to work together, with assistance from the UN climate change convention secretariat (UNFCCC), as well as using their collective power to drive wider systemic change.

Some concrete steps have already been identified – such as phasing out coal-fired boilers or other sources of coal-fired heat and power generation in their own companies and direct suppliers from 2025.

And other planned moves include selecting climate friendly and sustainable materials, low-carbon transport, improved consumer dialogue and awareness, working with the financing community and policymakers to catalyse scalable solutions, and exploring circular business models.

Environmental impact

As one of the largest industries in the world, and also one of the most resource and labour intensive, the fashion industry undoubtedly has a huge impact on the environment. Its long and energy intensive supply chains encompass everything from the production of raw materials through garment manufacturing, distribution and consumption.

A calculation from sustainability consulting firm and life cycle assessment group Quantis suggests the greenhouse gas emissions of the global apparel sector alone may amount to 5% of total emissions. To put it into context, this is comparable in impact to the total emissions of the aviation sector or to the total GHG emissions of Russia.

It also found that more than 50% of these GHGs come from just three phases: fibre production (15%); yarn preparation (28%); and the highest impact phase – dyeing & finishing (36%).

On top of this, the industry’s linear take-make-dispose model is seen as the root cause of its problems, where huge amounts of non-renewable resources are extracted to produce clothes that are often used for only a short time, after which the materials are mostly sent to landfill or incinerated.

This is the case for a staggering 87% of the total fibre input use for clothing, and means that every second the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. Washing clothes also releases an estimated half a million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean every year.

And things will only get worse as demand for clothing continues to grow, propelled by population growth and increased consumption in emerging markets in Asia and Africa. The UN forecasts the world's population will grow by 16% between 2015 and 2030, increasing from 7.3bn to 8.5bn people – putting further pressure on resources such as water, land, energy and chemicals.

A sustainable solution?

So if these are some of the problems, does the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action represent a sustainable solution?

There’s no doubt it’s a symbolic first step, and that collaboratively addressing the climate impact of the fashion sector across its entire value chain will be more influential than the numerous individual efforts currently underway.

The new charter also goes beyond previous industry-wide commitments – and recognises that the problem of carbon emissions needs to be tackled beyond retail stores and headquarters and deep into the entire supply chain.

But at the same time, a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 is unambitious. Indeed, international environmental organisation Stand.earth is urging the fashion industry to go beyond this baseline for emissions reductions, and instead pledge long-term reductions of at least 66% by 2050 for the entire supply chain.

“Our looming climate crisis makes it imperative that fashion brands joining the new fashion industry charter see the actions outlined in this charter as a floor, not a ceiling,” says the group’s climate campaigner Kristina Flores.

“Likewise, the industry must be careful not to shift the burden of action to its customers, hoping they adopt less polluting laundering practices.”

It also warns commitments should avoid false or partial solutions that fail to encompass full supply chains or set targets around reducing emissions levels per clothing unit or per sales volume. “Only absolute climate emission reductions ultimately guarantee less climate pollution in the atmosphere.”

There is also the danger of placing unwarranted hope in the use of only recycled fibres or a “circular economy” approach, as this “does not easily offer the level of savings in climate pollution needed.” Likewise, the industry must be careful not to shift the burden of action to its customers, hoping they adopt less polluting laundering practices.

Yet as the textile and apparel industries continue to grow, there will be rising pressure for companies to find ways of improving the impact of their operations and products on the environment.

As the UN made clear in its criticism levelled at the industry:

  • “The fashion industry, as a major global player, needs to take an active part in contributing to the realisation of the [Paris Agreement] goals.”
  • “Current solutions and business models will not be sufficient to deliver on the current climate agenda. Fashion industry needs to embrace a deeper, more systemic change and scale low-carbon solutions.”
  • “The fashion industry stakeholders have a role to play in reducing climate emissions resulting from their operations, with an awareness that the majority of climate impact within the industry lies in manufacturing of products and materials.”

“All companies, within fashion, retail and textile global value chain, regardless of size and geography, have opportunities to take actions that will result in a measurable reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.”


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