Society’s passion for fashion, it turns out, contributes 4% of global greenhouse gases emitted annually, 2.1 billion tons, which is more than the combined annual GHG emission of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, according to a new study published by McKinsey, a global management consulting firm, and Global Fashion Agenda, an advocacy forum in the fashion industry.  Moreover, if the industry continues on its current trajectory, rising demand associated with population growth and shifting consumption pattern will drive that number to 2.7 billion tons by 2030, a 2.7% annual increase, significantly hampering the international community’s goal to limit global warming to 1.5, in accordance with the Paris Agreement.  However, GHG abatement at each phase of product creation is possible at a moderate cost, and these reforms would reduce emissions by nearly half of current levels.

The Fashion of Climate Study quantified and analyzed in detail the sources of emission from upstream operations, related to garment production and downstream related to brand operations and consumer behaviors.  They learned that more than 70% of emissions come from upstream activities that include the production of raw materials (largely polyester and cotton), material processing, the spinning, weaving, and knitting of fabrics, waste reduction in the creation of garments and the operations of manufacturing buildings.  But this is also where the most effective changes can be made to decarbonize the industry.  It starts with reducing the fertilizer and pesticides used to grow cotton – moving to organic cotton materials — and increasing the energy efficiency of technologies that produce polyester.  Next, and where the greatest reduction in GHG emissions can be achieved, a whopping 701 million carbon tons, relates to decarbonizing the process of creating textile.  This involves the adoption of renewable energy in these processes and a move from water and chemical processes to dry processes in material development.

The downstream activities related to brand operation and consumer behavior can also be made more sustainable.  Nearly 300 million annual tons of carbon emissions could be eliminated by a combination of using cleaner and efficient energy in the transportation of goods and reducing the overproduction.  Presently, 40% of clothing is sold at a markdown. Reducing overproduction by 10% could eliminate 158 million tons of carbon. Additionally, improving the heating, air conditioning and lighting of retail stores, and moving more goods by ship rather than air freight could eliminate another 90 million tons of carbon in 10 years.  As an industry vertical with a globalized footprint, the fashion industry has the power to advance GHG goals and catalyze the transition to clean energy for other sectors.  Investment in clean energy and energy-saving technologies in developing countries facilities their use in other industrial production and catalyzes more sustainable economic development.  It also reduces air and water pollution improving health outcomes for the population and animal life.

But as consumers of fashion, we have a responsibility to change demand drivers.  According to this research, 21% of the industry’s emissions emerge from consumer use of the product, how long they wear the garment, how they wash and dry it, and whether they discard or recycle the textile at the end of the lifecycle.  We are not talking simply about washing in cold water and line-drying versus using a dryer. The most impactful way consumers can reduce the carbon footprint of their wardrobes is to participate in a circular business model, including shopping at thrift and consignment stores, participating in fashion rentals, and repairing items. To help reach the 1.5-degree warming limit, the Global Fashion Agenda experts posit that “By 2030, we need to live in a world in which 1 in 5 garments are traded through circular business models.”  Additionally, consumers must recycle textiles rather than sending them through the waste stream to landfills or incinerators.  Presently less than 1% of garment product is made from recycled fiber, and 9% percent of US municipal waste is comprised of textiles: meaning the average American throws away 81 pounds of clothing annually.

Changing these behaviors requires us to challenge many long-held beliefs and values around clothing, fashion, and socio-economic status.  Perceptions that “gently-used” clothing is for the poor, and that one can’t be seen in the “same outfit” at multiple occasions are just a few of the social norms that need to be retired.  Likewise, we might reconsider why clothing gifts must be new, and whether it is necessary to have new garments to match the style and color of the ever-accelerating fashion seasons.  Perhaps classic ought to replace trendy in order to extend the useful life of garments. Creating more transparency is another approach. Garment tags might include metrics on carbon emissions, alongside the fabric contents and nation of origin, allowing consumers to quantify and compare a product’s impacts on the environment. Ultimately, consumers play an important role in driving the fashion industry and can be a catalyst for reform.  In the post COVID19 world, many consumers are now convinced of the importance of mitigating climate impacts, so if provided with information and actionable pathways, they can signal preferences for environmentally responsibly produced products.

To read the Fashion of Climate Report here.