Sustainability is in fashion
Clothing is in crisis
Simple climate action // I S S U E 2 5 // F A S H I O N
Fashion business as usual is no longer an option
By Michael Coren
A funny thing happened in fashion last week. The retailer H&M needed to raise money. But it didn’t just ask investors for cash. It committed itself to some of the most ambitious environmental goals among global fashion brands: using 30% recycled materials in its clothes, slashing operational emissions by 20%, and starting to clean up its supply chain from manufacturing to shipping.
The result was a “blowout.” Investors offered seven times more than the €500 million ($604 million) H&M was seeking. The crucial element? Its sustainability criteria, say buyers. These weren’t tied to a specific project or its 4,000 stores. They were a statement about the company’s future.
A portfolio manager who purchased the bonds, Helena Lindahl, said the H&M deal was a “game-changer,” and one that promises to transform the industry. “If more retailers followed this route,” she said, “there will be a completely new industry for recycling clothes on a scale that is pretty far from where we are now.”
It’s too early to say whether the Swedish retailer’s green debt is a harbinger or just a public relations move. Fast fashion, as we discover this week, drives the industry’s outsized impact on the climate. But H&M’s realization that their biggest customers — the Millennial and Gen Z generations — aren’t keen to buy from companies threatening their future isn’t likely to be the last.
Tell us your fashion climate concerns. We’ve heard stories from readers who’ve made significant changes in their shopping lives, and taught themselves new skills to make their clothes last longer. We’d love to hear what you’ve been trying, and what the biggest obstacles are.
The story of your t-shirt
Fashion's unsustainable climate footprint is finally starting to change
A basic T-shirt, one of the simplest garments in the world, is the last step in a convoluted chain of events spanning several countries. Cotton might be grown, farmed, and processed in Turkey; carded, combed, stretched, and twisted into yarn in China; and woven into cloth, dyed, cut, and sewn in Bangladesh. The finished T-shirt is shipped or flown to distribution centers, perhaps in California, London, or Tokyo, then trucked to a storefront — or, more likely in these plague times, somebody’s front porch.
The entire journey is dripping in petrochemicals. It relies on coal for heat and electricity, and petroleum powers its ocean freight and air shipping. Oil or fracked natural gas is refined for polyester, fashion’s most popular material that long ago supplanted cotton as the fabric of our lives. A single garment might comprise a slew of different materials including thread, interfacing, buttons, zippers, linings, appliqués, insulation. And synthetic fibers are present in almost all of them. From our humble T-shirt to stretchy Spandex, polyester is expected to account for 73% of the global textiles market by 2030, and 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, or roughly twice the output of Australia.
While how we wash, dry, and dispose of things like a t-shirt generates emissions, at least 80% originate in the manufacturing stage, according to MIT’s Materials Systems Laboratory. One no-frills T-shirt has the climate impact of driving a car for about 10 miles. The same is true of sneakers, pumps, dresses, jeans, suit jackets, blouses, dress pants, lingerie, sweatshirts, puffer coats, ballgowns, and everything else that makes up the $2.5 trillion fashion industry. A single garment might seem like a small contribution, but fashion churns out 100 billion pieces a year (Inditex, the parent company of Zara and the world’s largest fast-fashion retailer, is responsible for one billion of those alone).
“What’s feeding fast fashion is cheap fossil fuels,” says Gary Cook, global climate campaigns director, at the sustainability think tank Stand.Earth. “Synthetic, petroleum-based materials are now a significant percentage of what we wear.”
Fashion is responsible for nearly 5% of global carbon production, second only to construction and food among global supply chains, according to the World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting Group. In 2018, United Nations officials declared fashion an “environmental emergency.”
Brands are acting, maybe
Companies have begun declaring themselves “carbon neutral,” “carbon negative,” “climate positive,” or “net zero.” The global chain H&M wants to become climate positive by 2040, while shoe brand Allbirds slapped a carbon tax on itself to shrink its own footprint. In 2019, the G7 Fashion Pact, a coalition of 150 brands including Adidas and Prada, pledged to collectively achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The same year, Gucci declared itself the first entirely carbon-neutral luxury brand, a feat it achieved in its own operations and across its supply chain by using a “hierarchy of mitigation” to avoid, reduce, and restore emissions. As a final measure, Gucci offset what it calls “unavoidable emissions” by investing in four United Nations-backed forestry projects in Cambodia, Indonesia, Kenya, and Peru to prevent logging.
Brands are feeling the pressure from a younger, savvier demographic that wants to wear its ethics. A 2019 poll across North America, Europe, and Asia found 72% of shoppers were buying more environmentally friendly products than five years ago, and more said they expected to do so. Among 18-25-year olds, 41% of cited global warming as the most important issue facing the world, according to a global 2019 survey by Amnesty International.
“As businesses, we all need to be accountable and implement solutions that will proactively combat our dual challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss,” said Gucci’s president and CEO Marco Bizzarri when announcing its target. “Our new carbon-neutral approach, that accounts for all greenhouse-gas emissions across the supply chain, is a pioneering way to deliver rapid and concrete positive impacts for our natural world and our climate.” A year later, Bizzarri issued a “carbon neutral challenge” to urge CEOs to take full and immediate responsibility for the total greenhouse-gas emissions their supply chains generate. The luxury goods firm Kering, its owner, was an early adopter.
Yet the industry has been slow to follow suit. Despite a flurry of climate pledges, only two major fashion companies — American Eagle and Levi Strauss — have committed to targets that align with the 2016 Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Several have since stepped up their ambitions, but overall the sector is struggling to set and meet expectations. The pandemic has compounded the problem, pushing sustainability down the agenda as retailers try to survive a retail apocalypse.
Ultimately, a suite of solutions, rather than a single silver bullet, is needed for fashion to meet the challenge. “Fashion is tied to so many other industries,” says Claire Bergkamp, chief operating officer of Textile Exchange, a fiber sustainability nonprofit whose members include Gap, Nike, and Inditex. “We’re touching on agriculture, mining, and manufacturing across the globe. It’s a spiderweb of an industry.”
In 2019, Textile Exchange unveiled the 2030 Strategy: Climate+ initiative to help the textile industry reduce its carbon emissions by 45% by 2030. Much of it involves transitioning the sector to “preferred fibers” — lower-impact materials like organic cotton, recycled polyester, or Tencel. Another part of the puzzle is regenerative agriculture, a form of organic-plus farming that draws down carbon from the atmosphere, improves soil health, and promotes biodiversity.
Smaller brands are moving. Designer Eileen Fisher sells clothing made from regenerative wool that helps restore grasslands in Patagonia. Kering, which also owns Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga and Saint Laurent, recently launched a Regenerative Fund for Nature that aims to transition one million hectares of current crop and rangeland to regenerative farming practices over the next five years. And next fall, The North Face will roll out a collection made from regenerative cotton as part of a long-term collaboration with Indigo Ag, an agricultural tech firm.
Conservation groups like Canopy, based in Canada, are working to clean up the production of synthetic cellulosic fibers like viscose and rayon, which annually clears between 70 million and 100 million trees, including from ancient and endangered forests. With demand for wood pulp projected to increase by 122% in the next 40 years, Canopy says, the cellulosic-fiber industry poses a growing threat to old-growth forest ecosystems, which are valuable carbon sinks. The good news? After nearly a decade of advocacy, Canopy can now confidently peg 52% of the world’s viscose suppliers with a “green shirt” — the organization’s shorthand for producers it deems at low risk of sourcing fibers from ancient and endangered forests. H&M, Gap, Inditex, Stella McCartney, and others have thrown their support behind the group’s CanopyStyle initiative, which commits signatories to sourcing only greener viscose.
How fashion plans to solve all this
The fastest way to reduce fashion’s carbon footprint, according to the World Economic Forum study, is by switching to renewable energy. That alone would cut 45% of the sector’s emissions. It wouldn’t cost much: shoppers would only see an extra €1 tagged on to the price of a €40 pair of jeans. Renewable heating could reduce another 20% of emissions, and an additional 15% could be reduced by coaxing suppliers to upgrade with more energy-efficient machinery. Introducing more sustainable processes that use fewer chemicals or water and nature-based solutions, like regenerative agriculture, could take care of another 10% of emissions. The remaining balance could be tackled through recycling and lower-carbon transportation.
Decarbonizing fashion’s supply chain will be harder. Few brands and retailers have visibility into their supply network past the first tier of finished-goods manufacturers, not to mention oversight of informal, off-the-books subcontractors that frequently underpin production. Nor is alleviating fashion’s climate impact a problem corporations can tackle alone. H&M and Nike have been lobbying the governments of garment-producing countries like Cambodia and Vietnam to make green energy more widely and readily available, which would help them achieve their targets at a faster clip. Government action and policy could help by offering incentives that encourage decarbonization efforts. Investors could support decarbonization initiatives or underwrite new innovations and business models, such as resale or repair, that require fewer virgin inputs and allow brands to decouple production from profitability.
But we have choices to make as citizens as well. While individual action is no match for change at an industrial level, our buying decisions signal what matters to us, which means showing support for preferred or regenerative fibers, and by buying used and buying less.
Changing the cadence of consumption in fashion is something Bergkamp says is desperately needed. “We need to slow growth,” she says. “We cannot continue to expect that the planet can regenerate resources at the rate that we’re currently taking them.”
Clothing production could soon start to look very different. One model is Teemill, a t-shirt company founded by Mart Drake-Knight and his brother in 2009. Rather than see old shirts degrade in the landfill, and release harmful greenhouse gases, old Teemill shirts are returned, shredded, and then re-spun with fresh fibers that go into the next crop of tees. The brand uses organic, pesticide-free materials nearly halving the fiber’s carbon footprint over conventional cotton. Teemill’s two factories — one on the Isle of Wight in England, the other in India — are powered entirely by solar and wind reducing its footprint further.
All this has won the company a dedicated following, including nonprofits such as World Wildlife Fund and Care International, which marshal Teemill’s print-on-demand service to create T-shirts only when people order them. That approach effortlessly sidesteps the problem of excess inventory from overproduction.
“A big part of the emissions picture comes from making all the stuff humans buy,” Drake-Knight says. “So if we change the way stuff is made, we change the outcome.”
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Hothouse is a weekly climate action newsletter written and edited by Jemima Kiss, Mike Coren and Jim Giles. We rely on readers to support us, and everything we publish is free to read.