Out of fashion: how the global clothing industry is unfair and unsustainable

1st June 2023

The global clothing industry is not only unfair but increasingly unsustainable. Huw Morris reports

Kaya Dorey sums up how the fashion industry comes with an escalating price tag. “No-one thinks about their $5 T-shirt and how that became $5. People are getting paid lower than liveable wages and working in terrible conditions,” says the founder of Novel Supply Co, a Vancouver fashion company.

“We have this fast-fashion problem. It’s made people think they’re going out of style every week, so they need something new. We’re making products from synthetics derived from petroleum and when we’re fed up, we throw it in the garbage, and it never biodegrades.

“Synthetics and micro-plastics are polluting our waters and now getting into our food. We need to think about what’s going into the product.”

Dorey’s fashion label produces garments free from toxic dyes and synthetics. Instead, it uses hemp and organic cotton and environmentally friendly inks. Her company employs a “closed-loop” philosophy of production, taking back the garments it creates when they are worn out. Novel Supply Co has an automated manufacturing hub to make its products locally. Those products are also biodegradable. “We’re making more products, pay people more, it’s more ethical, more just and more efficient.”

Dorey, who was named a Young Champion of the Earth by the United Nations (UN) in 2017, is in a minority. The fast-fashion business model is responsible for numerous damaging environmental, social, and economic consequences. These are found all along the supply chain, from overproduction to harmful manufacturing processes through to problems with waste disposal, says Willis Towers Watson director David Bennett.

“It’s arguably economically impossible to manufacture, ship and retail a $5 T-shirt or £12 dress in a way that does no harm to the environment, the workers who make it, or the countries left to process the waste.”

Stark figures

Water is one example. Around 7,500 litres is needed to make a single pair of jeans, equivalent to the amount the average person drinks in seven years. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, around 93 billion cubic metres of water, enough to serve five million people, is gulped down by the fashion industry annually.

But starker consequences loom. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicts that without urgent action the whole industry is on track to chew up a quarter of the global carbon budget by 2050.

Estimates of the global emissions from fashion vary, with reliable data, industry transparency and peer-reviewed scientific research all lacking. McKinsey & Company and Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) put the figure at 4.8%, the UN says it is at least 8% and the World Bank 10%.

Elisa Tonda, head of the UN Environment Programme’s consumption and production unit, says with global clothing and footwear manufacturing concentrated in Asia, the industry relies on hard coal and natural gas to generate electricity and heat. “If we continue with a business-as-usual approach, the greenhouse gas emissions from the industry are expected to rise by almost 50% by 2030.”

That means the global fashion industry will be emitting the same amount as released by India in 2021, a nation of around 1.4 billion people and the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the US.

"Around 93 billion cubic metres of water, enough to serve five million people, is gulped down by the fashion industry annually"

Fashion consumption is highly unequal between G20 countries, according to research by the Hot or Cool Institute, published jointly with the Rapid Transition Alliance. Australia has the highest footprint, heading for 503kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO₂e) per year by 2030, resulting from average per capita consumption of around 2kg of new clothing per year and clothing discards of around 23kg. India, at the other end of the scale among G20 countries, has the lowest per capita fashion consumption footprint at 22kg of CO₂e per year, despite rapidly rising consumption levels and an expanding middle class. That is less than 5% of Australia’s footprint.

Even working to a very conservative estimate that fashion contributes 4% to global emissions, the industry would have to slash its emissions to 1.1 billion tonnes of CO₂e to be on the 1.5°C pathway under the Paris Agreement by 2030, according to the research.

The study also reveals the per capita footprint target for 2030 is exceeded in 14 of the 19 G20 countries – the EU is not included – indicating that rapid and radical reductions in fashion consumption are needed. Estimates of current average per capita footprints by country were calculated as of 2020 and projected to 2030 by considering expected changes in population and gross domestic product (see overleaf).

Indeed, without decarbonising its operations, the fashion sector will be belching out an estimated 2.7 billion tonnes of CO₂e in 2030, say McKinsey and GFA. They estimate that around 70% of fashion’s annual emissions occur in the production and processing stages, 10% in transport and retail, whereas 20% are generated in the use phase.

Other commentators say figures for the use phase can vary, depending on the type of fibre. The highest emissions from cotton clothing, for example, occur during washing and drying.

The cost of haute couture

Yet cheaper clothing is only a part of the problem. The Hot or Cool Institute research found that carbon emissions from fashion consumption by the richest citizens across G20 nations are 10 times higher than those from the bottom income groups in the same countries.

Such findings counter the dominant narrative that it is poorer citizens, buying cheap clothes, who make the fashion industry unsustainable. In fact, it is the scale of purchasing by the richest citizens in countries such as the UK, US, Japan and Germany that is responsible for much of fashion’s climate impact, says the study. The cost of haute couture and designer outfits is borne by more than the credit cards of the wealthiest.

The carbon footprint of fashion consumption among wealthy G20 nations – such as the UK, US, Germany, Japan, and Saudi Arabia – must fall by 60% on average by 2030, the study says. For upper-middle-income nations, like Brazil and South Africa, it needs to fall by 40%. In nations like India and Indonesia, the average carbon footprint of fashion consumption is below the 1.5°C limit.

To bring fashion in line with the global climate commitment of 1.5°C, the richest 20% in the UK, with an average disposable income of £69,126, must cut their consumption footprint by 83%, while the richest 20% in Germany and Italy must cut theirs by 75%. In France, that target should be 50%.

Buying fewer new clothes is four times more effective at cutting emissions than increasing how long they last, the next best solution. To keep the 1.5°C target alive, the study says per capita fashion consumption needs to return to 2010 levels in most high-income countries, alongside reformed business models and slashed emissions in the production, retail and disposal of garments.

In short, system and behaviour change, “especially by wealthy consumers with bulging wardrobes, need to come together so that people dress themselves within planetary and climate boundaries”, says Rapid Transition Alliance coordinator Andrew Simms. “The fashion industry needs to change its ways as quickly as a catwalk model changes their clothes.”

"The fashion industry needs to change its ways as quickly as a catwalk model changes their clothes"

Fashion and net zero

Fashion companies may be increasingly turning heads with their net-zero pledges, but many of these “are not worth the paper they’re written on”, according to Stand.earth. The North America-based environmental campaigners assessed 10 large fashion firms’ plans for reaching net-zero emissions. The companies – American Eagle, Fast Retailing, Gap Inc, H&M, Inditex, Kering, Levi’s, Lululemon, Nike and VF Corp – have targets to at least halve their direct or scope 1 and power-related or scope 2 emissions by 2030. However, Stand.earth points out that the Science Based Targets initiative has not verified half of the brands’ emissions goals. Half have not published interim goals before 2030.

Supply chains are another problem. Only H&M and Kering, have pledged to at least halve their indirect or scope 3 emissions this decade. They are the only two committed to 100% renewable energy across their supply chains by 2030. Only half of the brands have set independent targets to phase out thermal coal in supply chains. None shares baseline data on coal use.

Stand.earth also warns none of the 10 has public targets to reduce fossil-fuel-derived material use this decade, despite these representing around 15% to 20% of the fashion sector’s emissions footprint.

G20 countries’ projected fashion footprints

Countries need to aim for a per capita fashion consumption footprint of 128.7kg of CO₂e by 2030 to comply with the 1.5°C aspirational target of the Paris Agreement.

The 2030 average carbon footprints of fashion consumption for the G20 countries, measured in CO₂e and ranked from highest to lowest, is on track to be:

Huw Morris is a freelance journalist

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