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How Can Fashion Meet Climate Goals? McKinsey and GFA Have Some Ideas

How polluting is the fashion industry exactly? Few seem to be able to agree.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, textile production totaled 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide or its equivalent in 2015, which works out to 3.7 percent of the global burden that year. A study by Quantis clocked the clothing and footwear sectors’ production of CO₂ or its equivalent in 2016 at 3.99 billion metric tons, or 8.1 percent of the world’s share. The United Nations estimates that fashion contributes 10 percent of the planet’s total emissions, though it doesn’t back this up with concrete numbers.

A new report by sustainability platform Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) and consulting firm McKinsey & Company, published Thursday, whips out a fresh set of numbers; in 2018, they say, the apparel and footwear industry churned out some 2.1 billion metric tons of CO₂, making up 4 percent of that year’s total. (McKinsey also consulted with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for its oft-quoted 2017 “New Textiles Economy” report, which likely explains the narrower disparity with the latter’s numbers.)

If no further action is taken over the next decade, “beyond measures already in place,” write the authors of “Fashion on Climate,” the industry’s CO₂ emissions will probably tick up to roughly 2.7 billion metric tons a year by 2030, reflecting an annual volume growth rate of 2.7 percent.

The one overwhelming consensus, however, is that clothing and footwear production’s environmental footprint is expanding beyond the emissions limit required to align with the 1.5-degree Celsius pathway—as laid out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and enshrined in the 2015 Paris Agreement—that would mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

The GFA and McKinsey say that the industry needs to turbocharge its efforts and halve its annual emissions to 1.1 billion metric tons by 2030—or risk losing the entire climate fight. The Covid-19 crisis, which has thrown into relief the interconnectedness of humans and nature, only makes action more urgent. Yet only around 50 fashion companies have committed to the science-based targets that the Paris Agreement requires.

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“The time to act is now,” Eva Kruse, CEO of GFA, said in a statement. “The pandemic has shown us how interconnected we are and how we also possess the capacity to change. However, real long-lasting change hinges on the fashion industry’s ability to come together, so we can rise to the occasion and play a leading role in combatting climate change.”

Brands and retailers, GFA and McKinsey say, must collaborate to drive a process of “accelerated abatement” by coordinating decarbonization efforts and creating opportunities for consumers to “make sustainable consumption choices.”

Reducing emissions from upstream operations is a key step. Efforts to decarbonize materials production and processing, minimize production and manufacturing waste and decarbonize garment manufacturing through energy-efficiency schemes or transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy resources can deliver 1 billion tons of emissions abatement, or 61 percent of the total, the authors wrote.

Companies can work to slash emissions from their own operations by improving their material mix (say by incorporating more recycled fibers), increasing use of eco-friendlier transportation, greening their packaging, decarbonizing retail operations and minimizing returns. Cracking down on overproduction can be a vital step, too. Only 60 percent of garments, GFA and McKinsey said, are currently sold without a markdown. Following these steps can nix 308 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and its equivalent by 2030.

“For a prosperous future and an habitable earth, the industry’s ingenuity and creative spirit will be required to decouple value creation from volume growth and to move from commitments to actions,” the authors wrote.

Nudging consumer behavior in a more sustainable direction is also of the essence. By promoting a more “conscious approach” to fashion consumption, encouraging less washing and drying, increasing garment take-back schemes and introducing “radically new,” circularity-focused business models such as resale, rental and repair, brands and retailers can contribute 347 million metric tons of emissions of abatement in 2030, the report’s authors said.

To make a business case for these changes, “Fashion on Climate” quantifies the economics of accelerated abatement by measuring investments against resulting savings. Approximately 55 percent of the actions required for accelerated abatement, GFA and McKinsey said, can be delivered at “net cost savings on an industry-wide basis.” (The remaining actions will require incentivisation in the form of consumer demand or regulations.)

Roughly 60 percent of the abatement will require upfront capital, where brands and retailers will need to “support and collaborate with value chain players to invest for the long-term benefit of society and the environment,” the report’s authors wrote. And around 90 percent of the accelerated abatement can be delivered at a “moderate cost”: below $50 per metric ton of CO₂ emissions.

“Bold” action is required if the fashion industry is to hew to a 1.5-degree Celsius pathway in the next 10 years, said Karl-Hendrik Magnus, senior partner and co-leader of apparel, fashion and luxury group at McKinsey, but the stakes have never been higher or the will for something to change been stronger. The pandemic, in particular, has brought priorities into focus. Two-thirds of  consumers say it has become even more important to limit climate change following Covid-19, McKinsey has found, with “many showing a willingness to rethink how, when and what they buy.”

In other words, bold commitments are nothing without equally bold action.

“The world has changed—consumers are looking for more sustainable companies and brands,” he said. “The good news for the fashion industry is that many of the required actions can be delivered with beneficial economics.”