Fashion’s GHG Emissions: It’s Not Pretty in Pink

It’s more brazen in brown and here’s why:

The fashion industry is one of the largest polluters in the world.  According to United Nations Climate Change, the industry contributes 10% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due to its long supply chains and energy intensive production. Quantis reports that over 90% of emissions for apparel come from four activities in those supply chains: dyeing and finishing, fabric preparation, yarn preparation, and fiber production.

The climate is in crisis.  We are already paying the price of ignoring warnings on climate change from scientists while bearing witness to consequences that continue to escalate.  A sobering United Nations-led report shows just how dire it really is.  Scientists are observing changes in the Earth’s climate in every region and across the whole climate system, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report. Many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented and some changes are irreversible, such as rising sea levels.

The report, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, the Working Group I contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report, was finalized on 6 August 2021 during the 14th Session of Working Group I and 54th Session of the IPCC.  With 234 authors from 66 countries referencing over 14,000 scientific studies, the report received widespread media coverage from all corners of the world due to it’s grim assessment.  It’s a massive wake-up call to all governments, businesses, and people to rapidly reduce GHG emissions.

What’s clear is climate change is human caused.  The IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair Valérie Masson-Delmotte says, “it has been clear for decades that the Earth’s climate is changing, and the role of human influence on the climate system is undisputed”.

Climate change has intensified weather patterns and climate events such as extreme and longer heat waves; noting July 2021 was the Earth’s hottest month ever recorded; heavy rainfalls, and changes to winds, snow and ice, coastal areas and oceans.

The report projects that in the coming decades climate changes will increase in all regions. Global warming average temperature could reach or exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040, the limit set forth in the 2015 Paris Agreement, however, 10 years sooner than expected.  The Paris Agreement, signed by 196 countries, is to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels.  For 1.5°C of global warming, there will be increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons. At 2°C of global warming, heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health. The evidence is clear that carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main driver of climate change, even as other greenhouse gases and air pollutants also affect the climate.

Can we slow the rate and limit the amount of global warming?  Only if we take aggressive action now.  The IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair Panmao Zhai says, “stabilizing the climate will require strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and reaching net zero CO2 emissions. Limiting other greenhouse gases and air pollutants, especially methane, could have benefits both for health and the climate.”

The 3,900 page report can be referenced for further study below, but given that the fashion industry is a contributor to climate change, what does the report mean for the industry?

Designer Victoire Laffineur, photo: Pascal Lefebvre

Here is what you need to know and do:

  • Let’s acknowledge the facts stated earlier: the fashion industry contributes 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 90% of that comes from the supply chain.  Basically, factories in the supply chain have to stop using oil, coal, and gas as energy and move to renewable energy.
  • Defining Net Zero:  Reaching net-zero emissions for a company means achieving a state in which the activities within the value-chain of a company result in no net impact on the climate from greenhouse gas emissions. This is achieved by reducing value-chain greenhouse gas emissions, in line with 1.5°C pathways, and by balancing the impact of any remaining greenhouse gas emissions with an appropriate amount of carbon removals.
  • In 2018, the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, chartered by 43 industry giants, now over 100+ signatories, was launched in response to the challenge.  Under the umbrella and facilitation of UN Climate Change, fashion stakeholders work to identify ways in which the broader textile, clothing and fashion industry can move towards a commitment to climate action.  Fashion platforms, initiatives, and coalitions are getting involved, as well.  Since the initial charter, there are close to 50 supporting organizations that have signed on like British Fashion Council, Fashion Revolution, and Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
  • Fashion Industry for Climate Action has taken the first of their commitment with a how-to, action-oriented book called the Climate Action Playbook. The 72 page Playbook was developed by the industry, for the industry, with an intent primarily on less experienced fashion companies that have not taken on the challenge of climate change but want to.  It’s an initial document that will help all fashion stakeholders identify what actions to take and which initiatives and programs could support them. The Playbook is comprehensive in its scope of background data with an actionable road map to a 45% carbon reduction by 2030, net zero by 2050.  It presents case studies, statistics, tips, solutions, tools, and cites best practice examples from the supply chain.  Read Chapter 6 – Emissions Reduction – 15 pages specific to the reduction of GHG emissions.
  • Consumers: buy less, but better to last longer; shop and restyle clothes in your closet; launder your clothes less, wash cold, air-dry; repair and recycle; support government and community action; demand action from the brands you wear.

China’s clothing production capacity is unmatched in the world.  It is the top supplier for most fashion brands.  It is the primary supplier for fast fashion brands, like the majors ZARA, H&M, and Uniqlo, because of cheap labor costs.  The demand for fashion and, in particular, fast fashion, is projected to grow in value, despite the set back from the pandemic. When you look at China as the major supply chain – fiber, yarn, fabric, finishing, and garment production – the question is what are they doing to reduce GHG emissions and how are they tackling renewable energy.

John Kerry, United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, spoke to Fareed Zakaria on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS show and said a country’s first choice should be to use renewable energy “without any question”.  Kerry recognizes China’s monumental role in reducing GHG emissions and suggests because of its size could do more.  He says, “China is the largest producer of renewable power and it has already deployed more renewable power than any other country in the world, but because China is bigger than any other country in the world, it needs to reduce more rapidly”.

What are the next steps?

More climate assessment reports.  This is not new.  IPCC was established in 1988 and have delivered five Assessment cycles with Working Group l as the first contribution to the Sixth Assessment.  Reports from IPCC Working Group ll, which assesses the vulnerability of socio-economic and natural systems to climate change, negative and positive consequences of climate change and options for adapting to it, and IPCC Working Group lll, which focuses on climate change mitigation, assessing methods for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere are delayed due to disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The United Nations 26th climate change summit, the COP26, will be held in Glasgow, November 2021.  It will bring the 196 parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

References and Further Study:

Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, the Working Group I contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report. It was finalized on 6 August 2021 during the 14th Session of Working Group I and 54th Session of the IPCC.

United Nations Climate Change – The Paris Agreement

Fashion Industry Waste, Environmental, Recycle, Second-Hand Market Statistics.

Circular fashion system: NO EXIT, NO WAY OUT: close the loop on fashion

About IPCC:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the UN body for assessing the science related to climate change. It was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988 to provide political leaders with periodic scientific assessments concerning climate change, its implications and risks, as well as to put forward adaptation and mitigation strategies. In the same year the UN General Assembly endorsed the action by the WMO and UNEP in jointly establishing the IPCC. It has 195 member states.

Thousands of people from all over the world contribute to the work of the IPCC. For the assessment reports, IPCC scientists volunteer their time to assess the thousands of scientific papers published each year to provide a comprehensive summary of what is known about the drivers of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and how adaptation and mitigation can reduce those risks.

The IPCC has three working groups: Working Group I, dealing with the physical science basis of climate change; Working Group II, dealing with impacts, adaptation and vulnerability; and Working Group III, dealing with the mitigation of climate change. It also has a Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories that develops methodologies for measuring emissions and removals.

Nobel Peace Prize:

In 2007, the IPCC and U.S. Vice-President Al Gore were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”.

Images credit:

Renaissance, a collection inspired by pollution in the oceans, Victoire Laffineur, designer.  A Collection Fit for a Museum | EDGE Talks to Victoire Laffineur

Photography – Pascal Lefebvre; Models – Marie Loridan and Capucine Dhenry; Makeup and Hair – Clémence Delabre; Headdresses – Jodie Cartman; Design – Victoire Laffineur

Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor