World Intellectual Property Day 2020 – Innovate for a Green Future

Climate crisis drives shift towards sustainable fashion

By John Zarocostas, freelance journalist

Growing concerns over the existential threat that climate change and the impact pollution, toxic waste and the depletion of essential resources pose for health and the earth's natural environment is also driving a paradigm shift towards sustainability in the fashion industry.

The way consumers use their clothes also has a large environmental impact due to the water, energy and chemicals used in washing, tumble drying and ironing them. Less than half of used clothes are reused or recycled. Most end up in landfills or are incinerated. (Photo: Getty/vuk8691)

Aside from its glamour, the industry is perceived increasingly as a high user of harmful chemicals, pesticides, and a big generator of carbon emissions, waste and environmental pollution. New trends suggest that the commitment of fashion brands to sustainability is strengthening for a number of reasons, including the need to safeguard brand values. However, if the fashion industry is to move the dial on its green credentials, it can no longer simply pay lip-service to sustainability; it needs to take concrete steps to improve its environmental performance.

Researchers call out fashion on sustainability

A batch of recent research reports shed light on the sector's large carbon and environmental footprint from the input of raw materials to manufacturing, distribution, consumer use, recycling and end-of-life disposal. These reports underline the need to move away from promotional platitudes toward concerted action to improve the sector’s environmental credentials.

A report by McKinsey& Company and the Business of Fashion on "The State of Fashion 2020" confirms this, noting that when it comes to sustainability, "the industry's track record is a source of concern". The sector, it says, "still represents 6 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions and 10 to 20 percent of pesticide use. Washing, solvents, and dyes used in manufacturing are responsible for one-fifth of industrial water pollution, and fashion accounts for 20 to 35 percent of micro-plastic flows into the ocean. Consumers are increasingly waking up to this reality".

An earlier joint assessment by Quantis and the ClimateWorks Foundation, "Measuring Fashion PDF, joint assessment by Quantis and the ClimateWorks Foundation”, estimated that combined the global clothing and footwear industries “account for 8 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions".

Another study by the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) on the environmental impact of the textile and clothing industry PDF, study by the EPRS on the environmental impact of the textile and clothing industry found that clothing alone, "accounts for between 2 percent and 10 percent of the environmental impact of EU consumption".

The fashion industry represents 6 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions and 10 to 20 percent of pesticide use according to a report by McKinsey & Company and the Business of Fashion. The report also notes that fashion accounts for up to 35 percent of micro-plastic flows into the ocean. (Photo: Getty/ Andrei Stanescu)

Consumers also play a role

The EPRS analysis observes that the way consumers use their clothes also has "a large environmental footprint due to the water, energy and chemicals used in washing, tumble drying and ironing, as well as to micro-plastics shed into the environment. Less than half of used clothes are collected for reuse or recycling...and only 1 percent are recycled into new clothes".

It is an uphill battle for people to understand that sustainability is not just green but also has a social component, particularly in the fashion industry.

Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, Research Director at the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights

In a similar vein, the recent Dovetail Partners Consuming Responsibly Report, No. 13, “Environmental Impacts of Clothing Manufacture, Purchase, Use and Disposal,” concludes that the rise of fast fashion is a major issue for the clothing industry, that is, the "relatively recent practice of marketing low-cost, short-lived fashions, leading to rising rates of both per capita clothing consumption and discards".

"Disposal of clothing has become an issue globally," the report says, citing research findings that estimate that four-fifths of discarded clothing globally goes into the waste stream, of which about 57 percent ends in landfills, and most of the rest is incinerated.

Sustainability becomes a higher priority

The drive towards sustainability now sweeping the industry has been triggered by a combination of factors. These include a determination to redress the damaging public image and shortcomings of the industry documented by researchers, new sustainability compliance regulations and targets by some major economies, voluntary sustainability initiatives launched by fashion industry leaders and groupings, and a growing awareness by consumers of the threats posed by climate change and environmental challenges.

The climate crisis is one of the most important issues to tackle. As a global fashion retailer, we have a big role to play and collaboration is key.

Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of H&M Group

Many of the new initiatives have proliferated in the aftermath of the historic 2016 Paris Agreement to combat climate change and intensify action towards a sustainable low carbon-future, and the adoption by the United Nations in 2015 of the Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs). These milestone initiatives have helped push sustainability issues up the priority agenda of the fashion industry and policymakers, alike.

A major landmark initiative – the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action – was launched in December 2018 at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, by 43 leading brands, retailers, and supplier organizations, including Adidas, Burberry, Gap Inc, H&M Group, Hugo Boss, and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

The Charter states that the fashion industry "needs to embrace a deeper, more systemic change and scale low-carbon solutions.” Its vision is to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. And its objectives include a 30 percent reduction (from 2015 levels) in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030; a commitment to favor low-carbon logistics and materials with a low-climate impact; and to pursue energy efficiency measures and renewable energy in the fashion value chain.

"The climate crisis is one of the most important issues to tackle. As a global fashion retailer, we have a big role to play and collaboration is key," declared Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of H&M Group, in a public call by a group 86 fashion companies during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 25) in Madrid in December 2019.

Urging political leaders to deliver ambitious climate action, he said, "All actors need to take responsibility to drive change towards cutting emissions and staying within planetary boundaries. Companies need to commit to this change and governments need to facilitate the process with the right laws, regulations and implementation thereof."

The Fashion Pact is another high-profile initiative. The pact includes a global coalition of 56 companies representing around 250 brands in the fashion and textile industry (ready-to-wear, sport, lifestyle and luxury,) along with suppliers and distributors, committed to a common core of environmental goals in three areas: stopping global warming, restoring biodiversity and protecting the oceans.

About the Fashion Pact

The Fashion Pact is a global coalition of fashion and textile companies, including their suppliers and distributors. The coalition is committed to achieving environmental goals in three areas, namely, stopping global warming, restoring biodiversity and protecting the oceans.

Members include: the Armani Group, Carrefour, Chanel, Inditex, Fung Group, H&M, Kering, Nike, Puma, Prada S.p.A, PVH Corp., Ralph Lauren, and Stella McCartney.

The Fashion Pact was a mission given to François-Henri Pinault, Chairman and CEO of French Luxury Group Kering, by French President Emmanuel Macron.

The Pact was presented to Heads of State at the G7 Summit in Biarritz (France) in August 2019.

Room for improvement

International experts agree that sustainability has become and will continue to be a top priority for the fashion industry. However, they also point to a lack of rigor with respect to reporting criteria and due diligence standards across the industry.

"The brands, the retailers, know they need to deal with supply chain issues and social-labor issues and compliance and human rights due diligence, but at the same time they need to deal with environmental issues related to climate, and to resource efficiency," says Joseph Wozniak, Head of the Trade for Sustainable Development Program at the International Trade Center (ITC).

"It has become, in particular with fast-fashion, a top-of-the-mind issue across most brands that are Europe-based but also those in North America... and also for consumers," he says.

These assertions are supported by a recent ITC survey, which found that at least 95 percent of retailers and brands expect demand for sustainable products across a basket of major consumer goods, including clothing, to stay high over the next five years at a minimum. The study, funded by the European Union (EU) covered 1,500 companies in France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and Spain.

In general, however, there are gaps in terms of reporting and documenting the impact of industry-led initiatives. John Christiensen, Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – TUD (Technical University of Denmark) Partnership notes that "[while] the potential is huge, the documented impact is still relatively poor. I don't know if the results are poor, but the documented results are. Many of them don't have strict reporting rules with uniform approaches, so it is hard to say."

Kathryn Fernholz, President and CEO of Dovetail Partners, Inc, suggests if the primary starting point is "understanding the energy footprint and the source of energy, – whether it’s energy in the manufacturing, distribution, collection, or in the disposal –– then progress can be made. Ms. Fernholz expects to see increased focus, in particular, on limiting the contribution of clothing to micro-plastic pollution, which will require coming up with more effective new technologies.

The solutions are complex in terms of removing micro-plastics and the technology required for that and for preventing materials from entering our water systems. The issue is critical but it will be difficult to address given the technology needs and the many ways these materials enter the water system.

Kathryn Fernholz, President and CEO of Dovetail Partners, Inc.

According to the UNEP, of the estimated 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste produced since the 1950s, only 9 percent has been recycled and another 12 percent incinerated. It estimates that 100 million tonnes of plastic, up to 90 percent of which has come from land-based resources, are in the world’s seas.

Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, research director at the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights says, "It's still an uphill battle for people to understand that sustainability is not just green but also has a social component, particularly in the fashion industry." Professor Baumann-Pauly says companies in the sector “need to start looking into human rights issues in the global supply chain [and] labor rights in those factories where they produce their clothes."

But the way things are moving, some experts believe that a number of governments, at least in Europe, are taking sustainability matters into their own hands. For example, in 2017, France adopted its Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law (2017-399), which requires large companies to publish due diligence plans to prevent serious human rights and environmental impacts related to their operations and supply chains. The law holds companies liable for any damages inflicted if they fail to comply with it.

Professor Baumann-Pauly says Switzerland is also planning to introduce a human rights due diligence law under its responsible business initiative.

Notable sustainability trends in the fashion industry

Many fashion and textile companies have launched initiatives to affirm their commitment to achieving environmental goals. Initiatives by brands and industry groupings are a step in the right direction, but the fashion industry still has some way to go before it gains a firm eco-friendly footing. (Photo: Getty/Björn Forenius)

Sustainability trends of interest in the fashion industry, experts say, include commitments by some companies:

  • to use only more sustainable or organic cotton (C&A);
  • to switch to renewable sources of energy and eco-friendly materials and resources; and
  • to increase levels of recycling and re-use and the introduction of collection schemes (Nike), and a circular economy mindset in their operations (Kering), (see box for examples).

Finally, some experts and fashion companies are advocating a switch to slow fashion, with consumers encouraged to buy less but better quality and longer-lasting fashion items.

Michael Stanley Jones, Co-Secretary of the United Nations Alliance for Fashion at UNEP, notes that progress has been made in the fashion sector in two areas: First, in terms of traceability and accountability, which have been supported by new technology applications, such as blockchain and product passporting. And second, in terms of measuring the carbon emissions generated across the value chains of individual companies through, for example, the Science-based Targets Initiative, which “champions science-based target setting as a powerful way of boosting companies’ competitive advantage in the transition to a low-carbon economy.” The initiative provides companies “with a clearly defined pathway to future-proof growth by specifying how much and how quickly they need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.”

More needs to be done

Sustainability experts believe that the initiatives by brands and industry groupings are a step in the right direction, but the fashion industry still has a long way to go before it gains a firm eco-friendly footing.

Mr. Stanley-Jones stresses that brands that claim to have credible plans to reach no net GHG emissions rely principally on carbon offsets, but that “in the long-run, the gains toward carbon neutrality will need to come from improvements in production processes and supply chain rather than through offsets.”

“UNEP would like the mix to be of the order of 90/10 with offsets providing the minor share,” he says.

“Not a single global brand has yet to offer a carbon-neutral capsule collection, giving consumers the choice of buying clothes for their everyday needs that do not contribute to the burning of the planet. Until they do, they may continue to lose market share to alternative market options, including second-hand, repair and private ‘wardrobe surfing’ (where friends visit each other’s wardrobes and share their contents),” Mr. Stanley-Jones observed.

“The industry overall is performing poorly on its carbon footprint, with greenhouse emissions for apparel and footwear calculated to be 8.1 percent (2018) of the global total,” he concluded, noting that while new trends are promising, none of them has “so far moved the needle on the challenge of turning the fashion industry into an engine of sustainable development.”

Examples of fashion companies with an evolving sustainability mindset

KERINGKering has developed an innovative tool for measuring and quantifying the environmental impact of its activities. Billed as “a key enabler of a sustainable business model,” Kering’s Environmental Profit & Loss account measures carbon emissions, water consumption, air and water pollution, land use, and waste production across the supply chain, in order to make the environmental impact of the Group’s activities visible, quantifiable, and comparable. These impacts are then converted into monetary values to quantify the use of natural resources. The company uses the tool “to guide its sustainability strategy, improve its processes and supply sources and choose the best adapted technologies.”

C&A – Global apparel retailer C&A’s goal for 2020 goal is for 100% of the cotton it uses to be more sustainable. C&A is the world’s leading buyer of organic cotton, which has a lower environmental footprint than traditionally farmed cotton. In 2018, 71 percent of the cotton it sold was either certified organic cotton or sourced as Better Cotton. By sourcing more sustainable cotton, the company is seeking to normalize better practices across the cotton industry and to demonstrate that sourcing 100 percent more sustainable cotton is possible.

NIKENike is helping to protect the future of sports for all athletes, which requires a healthy planet, through a range of initiatives, including Move to Zero, which signals the company’s journey toward zero carbon and zero waste. Nike's goal is to achieve zero carbon operations by 2025 and eliminate waste from its supply chain by designing it out of their products and optimizing their manufacturing processes. Nike ships huge numbers of orders every year globally and is looking for ways to do this more sustainably. For example, its newest distribution center, in Ham, Belgium, called The Court is powered completely by renewable energy from five local sources: wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric and biomass and recycles 95 percent of the waste it generates onsite.

NEW BALANCE – The sporting goods company, New Balance, believes in “treading lightly on limited resources” and “striving for zero waste” in what it does and in assessing the “life cycle impacts” of its products and activities. Its aim is to create products that are completely recoverable, create no waste, do not involve the use of toxic substances, and that have no negative environmental impact. More at:

PATAGONIAWornwear is Patagonia’s hub to extend the life of your gear. It notes that keeping clothing in use for nine additional months can reduce related carbon, water and waste footprints by up to 30 percent. “The best thing we can do for the planet is cut down on consumption and get more use out of stuff we already own,” the company’s website explains.