Apparel and footwear manufacturing has always been counted among the environment’s greatest pollutants, but now a new study outlines just how that production is impacting the climate.
Highlighting what it says is apparel’s “major impact” on climate, the study, “Measuring Fashion: Environmental Impact of the Global Apparel and Footwear Industries,” said combined, the global apparel and footwear industries account for roughly 8 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
To give that some perspective, “that’s nearly 4 metric gigatons of CO2-eq [carbon dioxide equivalent], almost as much as the total climate impact of the European Union!” according to ClimateWorks Foundation and Quantis, which published the study.
Part of the problem has been over-consumption—a concern some say has been further fueled by fast-fashion’s stamp on the sector.
The average global citizen, according to the study, consumes 11.4 kg (25 pounds) of apparel each year. That translates to 442 kg of CO2 emissions per capita, or the same amount it would take to drive a car for 1,500 miles.
Apparel, not surprisingly, makes up the lion’s share of that total, accounting for 83 percent, while footwear contributes to 17 percent of those emissions.
And the situation is only expected to worsen.
“In a business-as-usual scenario, the apparel industry’s climate impact is expected to increase 49 percent by 2030, meaning the apparel industry alone will emit 4.9 metric gigatons of CO2-eq, nearly equal to today’s total annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions,” the study noted.
A closer look at each link in the apparel supply chain
For a more precise look at where the biggest problem areas are in the apparel supply chain, the study investigated each of the seven different stages in the garment life cycle.
What the research revealed, is that more than 50 percent of emissions are coming from just three stages: dyeing and finishing, yarn preparation, and fiber production.
Fiber production, the first noted stage in the garment life cycle, accounts for 15 percent of apparel’s total climate impact. Yarn preparation accounts for 28 percent and fabric preparation, including knitting and weaving, contributes to 12 percent of apparel’s impact on the climate. Dyeing and finishing alone contributes to 36 percent of the impact, as it demands the most energy and substantial amounts of heated water. Cut and sew assembly accounts for 7 percent of the adverse contribution to the climate, while distribution accounts for 1.3%—though that number could climb if companies increase their reliance on airing goods in response to speed to market demands.
Naturally, these amounts would vary by fiber, but the study looked at averages based on a volume of fibers that included 64 percent polyester, 24 percent cotton, 6 percent natural fibers like linen, and 6 percent cellulosic.
Thanks to shifts in materials used, consumption habits and production locations, apparel’s climate change impact increase by 35 percent between 2005 and 2016, and continuing on the same trajectory is what will see that percentage jump another 49 percent between now and 2030.
Where footwear falls
When it comes to footwear, more than 60 percent of the emissions come from two stages: manufacturing and raw material extraction, according to the study.
The process of obtaining the raw materials to make shoes accounts for 20 percent of footwear’s overall impact on climate. Processing those raw materials, like spinning, weaving and tanning, contributes to 14 percent. The bulk of the emissions problem, however, lies with manufacturing, which accounts for 43 percent.
“For synthetic and textile shoes, the manufacturing stage represents the biggest impact area,” according to the report. “However, for leather shoes, the raw material extraction and processing (tanning) stages account for over 50 percent of their climate impact.”
Sewing and assembling footwear can be credited for 20 percent of emissions, packaging and production 1 percent, and transportation from factory to store accounts for just 2 percent.
What’s the sector to do?
There’s no shortage of efforts out there to improve sustainability in the apparel and footwear industries, but it’s going to take a more robust collective approach to realize substantial improvements.
For one, companies will need to rethink energy.
The biggest pollutants in the apparel supply chain depend on coal and natural gas to heat and power them, which means a massive reliance on fossil fuels. If manufacturers could shift to 60 percent renewable energy and reach 60 percent energy efficiency by 2030, the study’s findings show that could contribute to an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
The other area of focus should be digitalization and encouraging new consumption models.
“On the supply side, digitalization can lead to process efficiency improvements by reducing raw materials and waste. New technologies can also improve energy efficiency to further reduce emissions in key life cycle stages like Dyeing and Finishing and Yarn Preparation,” according to the study. “On the demand side, smart(er) consumption models, such as garment and accessory leasing or take-back programs, can extend the use phase of the article, reducing demand for new products.”
The final key area of focus expected to drive a significant reduction in apparel’s environmental impact, is looking to more preferred and recycled fibers.
What it will come down to, is material selection.
“More sustainable choices include preferred fibers with a lower environmental impact (such as cotton using regenerative organic agricultural practices), emerging materials that use less energy intensive processes, and recycled fibers available thanks to new chemical recycling processes,” according to the report.
Though circularity has been among the biggest of the industry’s buzzwords in the past year, moving to a more circular economy, it seems, can’t be the only solution either.
“Circular material flow alone is not enough to ensure the apparel sector greatly reduces its impacts by 2030, as such solutions (that focus primarily on increasing rates of clothing recycling and recycled fiber content) do not alter the impacts of key production stages, such as dyeing and finishing,” the study noted.
Reclaiming and recycling fibers alone might only lead to a 10 percent emissions reduction across the broader apparel value chain, according to the study, and even if the industry could reach the goal of recycling 40 percent of clothing fibers by 2030, that might only reduce emissions by between 3 percent and 6 percent. As such, improvements to both circular and linear manufacturing will have to be considered.
“Garment recycling is only sustainable when combined with a reduction in consumption of fast fashion and must take into account global equity considerations (evidenced by increasing bans on imports of second-hand clothing in developing nations),” the study noted. “The scale of impact reduction this industry must achieve in the coming decade will only be possible with a combination of increased circular material flow, rapid transition to renewable energy sources, a significant increase in manufacturing process efficiencies, and smart design.”