For the last few years, discussions about fast fashion and its effect on the climate have been making the rounds in various industry forums. Research shows that 25% of people in developed countries are aware of how the clothes they buy affect the climate. This has led to a rise in the concept of thrift shopping, conscious clothing, and industry realignment.
The global consumption of clothes is expected to increase from 62 million metric tonnes in 2019 to 102 million tonnes in 10 years, with the assumption that demographic and lifestyle trends remain the same. Considering the consumption growth, global organizations such as UNEP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation released a few numbers, recently, to establish a clear understanding of the environmental impact of the fashion industry:
Exploiting consumer sentiments worsens the situation. Greenwashing is the prevailing fashion issue. Research suggests that nearly 4 out of 5 shoppers don’t trust sustainability claims made by apparel brands.
Greenwashing in sustainable fashion often involves false labelling. Brands sometimes use misleading terms such as “eco-friendly” or “organic” without adhering to any official standards or certifications, making it difficult for consumers to distinguish between genuinely sustainable products and those that are just using greenwashing tactics.
Another common form of “greenwashing” in the sustainable fashion industry is the focus on only one aspect of sustainability, such as the use of recycled materials, while ignoring other critical areas, such as the working conditions of the employees and the environmental impact of the production process.
The need for fashion industry reinvention
The apparel and fashion market is essential to economic growth since it directly employs over 75 million people across its value chain and has a global market value of over USD 2.4 trillion. After the auto and IT sectors, it is the third-largest manufacturing sector in the world.
The apparel manufacturers face a formidable challenge in trying to grow their businesses without worsening the environment, while also enhancing the working conditions of the industry’s workforce and becoming climate champions.
The UNFCCC Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action brought together garment industry stakeholders in 2018. The Charter pledges 30% greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions by 2030 (from a 2015 baseline) and net-zero emissions by 2050. To achieve the 2030 emission reduction goals, more than half a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide must be reduced annually. Such an ambitious goal requires structural changes in textile and garment production, consumption, and employment.
To assess the carbon emissions and make informed decisions, two standard approaches have been evolved – Life cycle assessment (LCA) and Greenhouse Gas Protocol accounting. A life cycle assessment (LCA) calculates the carbon footprint, energy consumption, and other environmental impacts in the “cradle to grave” life cycle of a garment and aids decision-making in the design process to use materials and processes with lower environmental impact. Companies and organizations measure their corporate-level emissions, including value chains and operations, using the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol.
LCA is used by researchers and global fashion brands to quantify the textile and garment industry’s environmental impacts and help choose eco-friendly materials and processes. A garment’s cradle-to-grave life cycle includes fiber cultivation, yarn production, textile manufacturing (spinning, knitting, and dyeing), garment assembly (cutting, sewing, and packaging), use frequency, washing, drying, and ironing, and waste disposal in landfills or recycling.
As per the studies carried out, the majority of the environmental impact is from fiber production(19%), followed by wet treatment -dyeing and finishing(16%), use-phase laundry, fabric production, etc.
Energy consumption during garment life cycles (Source: data from Sandin et al., 2019. From the article “The need to decelerate fast fashion in a hot climate – A global sustainability perspective on the garment industry, February 2021, Journal of Cleaner Production 295(11):126390; DOI:10.1016/j.jclepro.2021.126390 )
Unlocking the potential of sustainable fashion by adopting practices that matter
Sustainable fashion is the process of designing, making, and selling clothes and accessories that are good for the environment and people. One of the primary ways sustainable fashion helps lower carbon footprints is by reducing energy consumption during production. By using renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, sustainable fashion brands can significantly reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and decrease the number of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.
Waste reduction is another way sustainable fashion lowers carbon footprints. Fast fashion wastes a lot of clothes and fabric, however, sustainable fashion emphasizes using recycled materials and minimizing water and chemical use in production. Brands may promote circularity – refurbish, repair, and resell used clothing, reducing the need for new clothing production and extending garment life.
Animal leather, silk, synthetic materials and chemicals, which can be harmful to the environment and human health, are widely used in traditional textile manufacturing processes. The textile industry has a significant opportunity to improve its sustainability and lower its carbon footprint by increasing the use of sustainable fabrics. The chart below shares the cradle-to-gate environmental impact of the various materials used in the garment industry.
Source: ILO, Global Fashion Agenda, and Boston Consulting Group 2017.
Environmentally friendly materials and fibers, such as organic cotton, industrial hemp, and bamboo, are grown without harmful chemicals and pesticides, leading to a decrease in air and water pollution, and with the use of eco-friendly manufacturing processes, such as water conservation and renewable energy sources can lower the carbon emissions of the fashion industry further.
CoreCarbonX has partnered with Alaknanda Ghati Shilpi Federation (AAGAS Federation) on the Industrial Hemp Cultivation project in the Central Himalayas for carbon sequestration and economic sustainability.
Hemp is a highly sustainable fabric option that has gained popularity in recent years due to numerous benefits it offers to both consumers and the environment. Hemp plants are naturally resistant to pests and do not require the use of pesticides or herbicides, making them environmentally friendly. Additionally, hemp requires less water than other crops and can be grown without the need for irrigation. The fibre produced from the hemp plant is durable and can be used to create a wide range of clothing and textile products. Hemp is also biodegradable, which means that it can easily break down in the environment without causing harm.
Lastly, to offset the residual carbon emissions, the textile industry can invest in high-quality carbon credits generated from nature-based projects like sustainable agriculture, agroforestry, natural farming, etc.
In conclusion, adopting sustainable fashion is an effective way to lower carbon footprint and create a more sustainable future for the fashion industry. By reducing energy and water consumption, lowering waste, using eco-friendly fibres and materials, mitigating carbon emissions during various processes and encouraging circularity, sustainable fashion offers a solution to many of the environmental and social challenges faced by the fashion industry.
Sustainable fashion also needs more awareness so as to encourage consumers to buy high-quality, long-lasting, and eco-friendly clothes. This consumer behavior change could reduce fast fashion demand and the fashion industry’s carbon footprint.
Regulations, certifications, industry standards, and technology can also play a huge role in preventing greenwashing and bringing transparency to the entire value chain.
Niroj Mohanty, Managing Director and CEO, CoreCarbonX Sols Pvt Ltd.
As Managing Director, Niroj leads a global team that is responsible for all aspects of CoreCarbonX business in the field of climate change and sustainability advisory and asset management. CoreCarbonX also works very closely with Farmers community to help them adopt sustainable crop production and earn carbon revenue.
Niroj has over seventeen years of experience in developing and financing projects in the field of climate change mitigation/adaptation, biodiversity challenges, natural resource management, and renewable energy field.
Before his current position, Niroj was Associate Vice President at CantorCO2e (BGC Environmental Brokerage Services, L.P.) managing the carbon business for Southern India. Niroj has also held a variety of roles during the early stage of the carbon market at running sales, account management, and delivery functions at PricewaterhouseCoopers and NetPEM to name a few.