Climate Change

Fashion needs to ditch fossil fuels in supply chain. A new report shows the way

The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined

By Anshika Ravi
Published: Thursday 20 August 2020

Green and sustainable fashion is a hot button topic on paper, but often fails in the face of buyers’ fast-fashion demands.

It’s not news that the industry is one of the largest contributors to global warming — the reason climate activists have sounded alarm time and again for it to refashion its ways. But brands continue to capitalise on the consumer desire for instant fashion, and little heed is paid to the environmental damage accrued. 

Eliminating coal and using renewables in the supply chain; committing to sourcing lower-carbon materials; and cleaner and greener shipping could pave the way for the industry to find larger acceptance as well as control its rapidly growing carbon footprint.

A new report released by international environmental organisation reiterated the importance of fashion brands to turn their commitments to action.

Climate change concerns

The fashion industry is responsible for 10 per cent of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, according to the World Bank.

At this pace, the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions will surge more than 50 per cent by 2030. The industry also produces about 20 per cent of global waste water.

Textile production is one of the most polluting industries, producing 1.2 billion tonnes of carbond dioxides equivalent per year, which is more emissions than international flights and maritime shipping, according to a 2018 Nature study.

Yet, most brands are yet to take steps needed to reduce their carbon footprints and eliminate their reliance on fossil fuels in the supply chain.

The organisation in 2019 had published a report outlining how the sustainability and climate pledges from top fashion companies failed to meet the climate pollution reduction standards called for by the United Nations Paris Agreement.

Lagging behind

The report, titled Fashion forward: A roadmap to fossil-free fashion, said:

Many fashion brands still lag far behind in responding to the climate emergency, having only set targets for their offices and retail stores, but not for their supply chain, where 95 per cent of emissions typically lie. The creation of the G7 Fashion Pact and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Fashion Charter has helped generate broader momentum to adopt more aggressive clean energy and climate reductions targets for the supply chain.

However, the 30 per cent reduction by 2030 bar set forth in the United Nations Fashion Charter falls far short of the cuts climate scientists say are needed in the next 10 years to stay within 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The industry’s production impacts have also increased rapidly in recent years, with a 35 per cent increase in climate pollution in just one decade (from 2005 to 2016), the report stated.

According to Gary Cook, global climate campaigns director at “Despite commitments to slash their emissions, the fashion industry’s supply chain saw more dirty coal, more fossil fuel-based fabrics, and more delivery by highly polluting cargo ships prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. As brands look to restart after the pandemic, the industry must implement concrete, collaborative efforts to tackle its pollution problem.”

Cook added the industry needed to eliminate fracked fabrics like polyester and green up shipping process.

For a cleaner and greener way ahead, the report recommended:

  • Renewables in supply chain: Brands must eliminate coal and transition to a renewable-powered supply chain by 2030. They must form partnerships with suppliers to embrace sharing capital costs; and also advocate with suppliers to block new investment in coal and demand clean energy policies to green electric grids and transportation infrastructure. 
  • Longer lasting materials: Brands must commit to sourcing lower carbon and longer lasting materials
  • Greener shipping: Brands must support short-term solutions like slowing ships and eliminating dirty fuels

The report also urged the brands to not support false clean energy transitions or initiatives.

Switch to low-carbon fibre

Fashion brands must rapidly reduce their reliance on fossil fuel based fabrics, shifting to low carbon and long lasting materials, the report said.

Synthetic materials made from crude oil and methane gas account for around two-thirds of all textile fibers, including polyester, polypropylene, acrylic, elastane, and others, the report said. Most materials made from crude oil require much more energy to produce than natural fibres.

The report recommended a shift to plant-based textiles such as hemp or organic cotton, which can significantly reduce emissions and dependence on fossil fuels.

It, however, cautioned transition to virgin viscose, a plant-based fabric derived from wood or bamboo pulp, since significant carbon and biodiversity impacts are associated with its production.

Phasedown of coal in supply chain

Greenhouse gas emissions plummeted significantly during the COVID-19 lockdown as all business operation ground to a halt. As they tiptoe to normalcy, the amount of coal power generation is set to dramatically increase in several of the biggest fashion producing countries.

The report called for a rapid phasedown of coal in the next 10 years. It added that while coal is experiencing significant declines in the United States and parts of the European Union, in much of Asia, significant new generation capacity is being proposed in a number of countries.

A large proportion of the fashion industry’s manufacturing occurs in China, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Turkey. All four nations either currently use large quantities of coal to power their grids, as in China, or have plans to burn much more coal in the near future, as in Bangladesh, according to the report.

“Rather than trying to make a pre-pandemic business model marginally more sustainable, the COVID-19 crisis offers a critical opportunity for the fashion industry to rethink key aspects of how it operates. Now is the time for brands to rebuild their business model and supply chain around a rapid decrease in fossil fuels over the next decade,” said Liz McDowell, Director of Campaign Strategies,

She added that by doing so, the “fashion industry can transform from being one of the world’s largest climate polluters to catalysing the decarbonisation of our global economy”.

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