I was shocked to discover recently that the fashion industry is responsible for up to 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. As BBC.com reporter Christine Ro explains, that impact is higher than both flying and shipping combined. According to the U.N. Fashion Alliance, the fashion supply chain is a $2.4 trillion industry that employs 300 million people, many of whom are women who work in coal-fired sweatshops. Why is this industry under the climate change radar?
One reason is that the clothing industry has not taken full responsibility for its entire complex supply chain in determining carbon impact, including raw materials, garment manufacturing, transport and disposal. Consider these facts: The Guardian’s Emma Bryce reports that about 69% of our clothing is made from synthetic fibers such as elastane, nylon, acrylic and polyester – these are plastics that come from fossil fuels. Annually, making new synthetic fibers uses more fossil fuels than all of Spain. And plastics don’t readily decompose or break down.
And, as reported by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation:
- 87% of the fabric used for clothing is incinerated or dumped in landfills.
- 20% of the world’s waste water is from fabric dyeing – and the industry uses the water consumption of 5,000,000 people.
- Annually, a half million tons of plastic microfibers from clothing ends up in the ocean and, ultimately, the food chain.
- The industry’s greenhouse gas emissions, if not mitigated, will increase 50% by 2030.
In 2018, many large brands signed the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter on Climate Action, committing to reduce emissions 30% by 2030, including supply chains. Three years later, according to the Stand.earth analysis released just before COP26, only a few began to transition from fossil fuels, most made no progress and some even increased coal dependence in manufacturing. Emissions in eight of nine brands soared, as did greenwashing. Larger commitments were made at Cop26, but will they be enforced?
Some brands use what they call “recycled versions of polyester” and pass them off as “sustainable.” But, as Maxine Bedat, Executive Director of the New Standard Institute, says, “We’ve been led to believe that recycled and sustainable are synonymous when they are anything but.” Many brands reuse plastic bottles and call it recycled polyester. But that does not make them sustainable. As Bedat says, “That may actually accelerate its path to the landfill, especially for low-quality, fast-fashion garments that are often discarded after only a few uses.” “Hyping the lower emissions of recycled yarns,” says Bedat, “distracts from Fashion’s larger emission source: textile mills, which process fibers into yarn to make fabric, as well as dyeing and finishing, an energy-guzzling process that account for 76% of a garments lifecycle emissions.”
Bryce reports that only 1% of clothes are recycled into new fibers in part because the commercial technology does not yet exist to cost-effectively disentangle the many fibers clothes are made of. It is cheaper to use fossil fuels to make new plastic-based products. We need solutions that replace the use of fossil-fuel-derived synthetics. Kintra Fibers are made from corn and wheat that fully compost. Clothing made using sustainable bamboo, hemp and flax needs to be encouraged. But the real solution, as Bryce reports, may be to move the industry away from excessive production and consumption. “Legislation will be needed to drive real, systemic change,” says George Harding-Rolls of the Changing Markets Foundation. “The apparel industry is one of the most lightly regulated industries in the world. What we need now are mandatory measures.”
This is one area where individual choice can make a huge impact. Producers need consumers. Consumers need to be savvy and recognize that the industry will change if consumers demand change. Here are some simple actions: Before buying, check to see if the manufacturer uses actual sustainable criteria. Don’t buy into the trendiness the industry encourages – you don’t need to buy the latest fashion and toss what you have. Conscious consumers are not manipulated. If you buy online, order only what you really want or intend to keep. Returning items doubles the carbon footprint of transporting goods and many returned items are dumped. Invest in better quality clothing and wear it longer. Take better care of the clothes you have to extend their life. Pass your clothes on to friends, secondhand shops and such nonprofits as Goodwill. Buy secondhand. And, remember, if you are on your way to the climate apocalypse, it doesn’t matter what you are wearing.
Judith Polich is a New Mexico resident and a climate-change columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.