Global Fashion Agenda Report: Fashion to Act on Climate

COVID has dealt a massive blow to the fashion sector – who needs new clothes when there’s nowhere to go and no one to see them? But it will take more than a pause in our purchasing to reverse the huge impact the industry has on climate change.

The Fashion on Climate Report (a newly released report by Global Fashion Agenda and McKinsey & Company, based on the company’s proprietary data) states that the apparel and footwear industry was responsible for 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2018, or about four percent of the global total. To put that in context, the fashion industry emits about the same quantity of CO2 per year as the economies of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined. Unchecked, with no further action, the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions will rise to around 2.7 billion tonnes a year by 2030, estimates the report.

The Paris Climate Change Agreement, signed in 2016, set a goal to pursue efforts to limit the increase in global average temperature to 1.5°C. For the fashion industry to be a part of meeting that goal, it’s going to have to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030. That’s going to require significant effort from all of us – the manufacturers who make our clothes, the brands that sell them, and those of us who buy them. 

Karl-Hendrik Magnus at consulting group McKinsey & Company observes, “The world has changed – consumers are looking for more sustainable companies and brands. Bold action is required if the fashion industry is to meet the ambitious target of aligning with a 1.5°C pathway in the next 10 years.”

So, what does that change look like? Firstly, it requires a commitment from fashion leaders to be part of the solution, and to be significantly more forward-thinking than they currently are. To date, for example, only around 50 fashion companies have committed to the Science Based Targets initiative (a partnership of non-government organisations that provides companies with a clearly defined pathway to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions). 

Secondly, it’s going to require a more innovative and thoughtful approach to the way clothes are manufactured and sold. Around 70% of the fashion industry’s emissions come from the actual creation of our clothes and shoes – that’s ‘upstream’ activities such as textile manufacturing and production. The remaining 30% of emissions come from the way clothes are sold (for example, the power used in shops or the delivery methods of e-commerce sites), the way we wash our clothes, and the emissions from landfill once we discard them.

The Report suggests that a 61% reduction in the fashion sector’s emissions could come from changing the way our clothes are made – “decarbonising materials production and processing, minimising production and manufacturing waste, and decarbonising garment manufacturing.” Additionally, manufacturers should look to shift from fossil fuel energy to renewable energy as a power source.

Brands can play their part in reducing emissions in a range of ways: using more recycled fibres in their designs; using more sustainable modes of transport (such as moving to 90% sea transport and 10% air transport across the industry, compared with the present 83% sea transport and 17% air transport); reducing the distance that clothing needs to travel through better planning and more localised supply chains; minimising returns (through standardised sizing) and reducing overproduction (by using data to better analyse consumer buying patterns). Changing packaging – through reducing plastic bag use and using thinner cardboard boxes – would also lead to costs savings and emission reductions. 

So how can we, as consumers, do our part? Well, buying less and buying better is obviously a huge start. You’ve probably already cut stilettos, ball gowns and anything below Zoom sight line from your want list.  Beyond that, the report estimates that circular business models, such as clothing rental, buying secondhand and repairing or re-working the clothes we already own could enable the industry to cut around 143 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Currently, less than one percent of used apparel is recycled back into the value chain. The report’s analysis suggests that by 2030 we need to shift to a world in which one in five garments are traded through circular business models in order to help meet the target. And although we’re going to need better technology to allow textiles to be fully recycled, using materials such as recycled polyester and alternatives such as organic, recycled or bio-based textiles is important in the meantime. 

Finally, in some good news for those who don’t like spending time on laundry, the report identifies that we can save 186 million tonnes of emissions if we change the way we wash and dry our clothes, for example:

  1. Skip one in six washing loads 
  2. Wash half those loads in cooler water (below 30°C)
  3. Substitute every sixth dryer load with line-drying.

“The time to act is now,” says Eva Kruse, the CEO of the Global Fashion Agenda. “The pandemic has shown us how interconnected we are and how we also possess the capacity to change. However, real long-lasting change hinges on the fashion industry’s ability to come together, so we can rise to the occasion and play a leading role in combating climate change.”