Source: IMDB and 2006 Twentieth Century Fox


A brief look at decarbonizing the fashion industry

“You go to your closet, and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back… However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs, and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of ‘stuff.’”

-Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada”

In The Devil Wears Prada, Miranda Priestly berates her receptionist for scoffing at the clothes the fashion editors are reviewing for their magazine’s spring issue. While I will not discuss how cerulean can permeate from one Oscar de la Renta show to bargain bins somewhere, I aim to explore the fashion and supporting industries’ role in climate change, and solutions, like supply chain management and readjusting business models, aimed at curbing climate and further environmental impacts.

The fashion industry is responsible for millions of jobs and tons of economic activity, but also for significant climate impacts from the complex web of supply chains it necessitates. A recent McKinsey study estimates that almost four percent of total global carbon emissions originate from the fashion industry; for some context, the transportation sector was responsible for 24 percent of global emissions in 2019. Further, McKinsey estimates that to meet obligations under the Paris Agreement to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, the fashion industry will need to cut emissions in half by 2030, and with no changes to current practices, emissions are expected to increase by 23 percent. Because emissions are embedded across the fashion supply chain, manufacturers and retailers must consider how to reduce their emissions.

Emissions originating from the fashion industry have been a serious consideration for the global community for many years. In fact, in 2018, the United Nations met to create The Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, which outlines major steps that the broader textile, fashion, and clothing industries can take to meet obligations under the Paris Agreement. The approach agreed upon in the charter focuses on monitoring and reporting efforts to track emissions originating from the fashion industry, prioritizing emissions reductions using the Science Based Targets Initiative, collaborating across sectors to support the move towards a circular business model, and working to increase consumers’ awareness of the climate impacts from the fashion industry. A recent report published by the UN Fashion Charter focuses on solutions to decarbonize cotton and polyester fiber production.

Emissions and environmental impacts from the fashion industry occur from the cotton fields to the landfill. To produce the world’s wardrobes, materials need to be harvested or manufactured. Most of the synthetic fibers used in fashion (think: polyester) are derivatives of petrochemicals. Further, traditionally farmed natural fibers, like cotton, require vast amounts of fertilizers and pesticides to support important levels of production for fast fashion. In a 2018 report, Quantis estimated that dyeing and finishing of apparel (36 percent) and yarn preparation (28 percent) contribute approximately two-thirds of emissions from the production of a new garment.

Currently, many companies and brands are seriously considering how their businesses affect the environment. For instance, Stella McCartney, a high-end luxury brand, has committed itself to environmental consciousness. They source organic cotton, use post-consumer recycled materials for leather production (resulting in 24 times less environmental impact than Brazilian-reared cattle leather), and are continually developing new materials to reduce their environmental impact (e.g., aluminum to replace brass in chains for increased recycling potential).

Other examples include Patagonia’s and H&M’s commitments to source renewable and recycled raw materials for their products. Rothy’s sources post-consumer recycled plastic for its shoe lines and Levi’s has committed to reduce its water use and improve suppliers’ energy efficiency. These examples point to a trend within the fashion industry, where existing and new brands are working to implement climate-friendly solutions, recognizing that business-as-usual is untenable for a lower-carbon global economy.

There are many emerging trends and solutions for how the fashion industry can alter its business models to address its environmental impacts and thrive as an industry. One example includes adopting a circular model for the industry and reducing overproduction.

A circular economy decouples economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and designs waste out of the system. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation focuses on three principles that underpin circularity: designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. The fashion industry can adopt the ethos of circularity by using recycled and recyclable materials whenever possible and developing products that focus on longevity rather than seasonality. One example of this is For Days, a brand whose clothes are 100 percent recyclable. Pioneering a closed-loops system for clothes, they allow for clothing swapping, which gives customers a credit to buy more clothes from their site. Another example is EvrNu, which is developing technology to recycle fabrics for reuse in a more circular fashion economy.

Overproduction is another issue for the industry. To address this, some companies are adjusting their approach to deadstock, textiles and garments manufactured and never sold, by recycling and donating or selling them at discount. Further changes will require a better understanding of consumer behaviors and modeling for how much inventory is realistically needed each season. Consumers should also consider their purchasing habits. Nearly six percent (17 million tons) of all municipal solid waste in 2018 was clothing, a number that is growing.

Consumers should also begin to think of their clothes as longer-term investments and pay closer attention to care to avoid tossing clothes. Resale options, like The RealReal and ThredUp, allow the adoption of a circular model for wardrobes by offering platforms to sell used clothes, extending the lifetime of a garment.

Miranda Priestly was right when alluding to the worldwide enterprise that makes up the fashion industry. Its impact on society and the environment should not be understated, and serious actions are needed in the coming years to confront the climate crisis.