Society’s awareness of climate change has revealed responsibilities that were previously hidden. For example, although the oil industry tried for decades to deny the climate impact of fossil fuels, this is now a reality that is known to the general public and can no longer be swept under the rug. But if we look around us, we see that there is perhaps still one issue that is often glossed over, that of consumption. Even if we have come to terms with the fact that our food is not so climate-friendly, the impact of our consumption habits does not end there; a case in point is the clothes and shoes we buy. The fashion industry is a sector seeing explosive growth and is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases (GHG). While the demand for more sustainable products is taking hold in society, is it enough?
The contribution of households to GHG emissions averages around 60% of the global total, if we combine the direct emissions (those due to the use of fossil fuels in housing and transport) with the indirect ones caused by our energy use and all the products and services we consume. Of all this burden, the vast majority falls on housing itself, especially energy consumption, transport, services—such as health, education and leisure—and food, according to a study by the University of Michigan that breaks down the impact of the different categories using US households as a model. According to this data, the impact of our consumption of products would appear to be negligible. In particular, as far as clothing is concerned, the contribution of emissions is so small that it doesn’t raise the share above 0% for US households.
However, this masks another reality, which is that today most of the production of consumer goods sold in developed countries has shifted to other regions of the world. Around 20% of indirect GHG emissions from households aren’t generated domestically, but in those countries that act as the major factories for the world, notably China and India. Of this total of exported emissions, the largest portion, 27% of those caused by US households, is produced in China. And within that same total of emissions exported to other countries by US consumption, 12% is from the garment and footwear industry. In fact, this is the category in which the share of exported emissions is greater than domestic emissions.
Garment’s carbon footprint
Thus, the contribution of our wardrobe to climate change is by no means negligible. In total, the textile industry is responsible for between 4% and 10% of global emissions, according to various estimates, and this could reach 26% by mid-century. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) points out that carbon emissions from this sector exceed those from all international flights and maritime shipping combined. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the fashion industry’s production chain is the third largest sector in terms of emissions, after food and construction. And, interestingly, the greatest weight falls on materials: the Australian Climate Council notes that two thirds of a garment’s carbon footprint comes from the production of synthetic fibres, which today account for 65% of all textile materials (see box). The consultancy McKinsey & Company estimates that, on its current trajectory, this sector will miss the 2015 Paris agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. To achieve this, it would need to cut its emissions from 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e) today to 1.1 billion tonnes by 2030.
But climate isn’t the only environmental impact of fashion. According to UNEP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, manufacturing a pair of jeans consumes 3,781 litres of water. Textiles is a thirsty industry that uses 93 billion cubic metres of water every year, the equivalent of the needs of five million people. In return, it generates no less than 20% of all wastewater on the planet and a huge amount of waste, as 87% of all fibre is incinerated or sent to landfills. And it’s not just discarded clothes that pollute: the simple washing of synthetic fibre garments each year releases half a million tonnes of microfibres—the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles—into the oceans, adding to the problem of microplastics. A report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 30% of the plastic soup in the seas comes from the washing of textile fibres and the wear and tear of tires alone.
Calls for transformation
Of course, all this avalanche of clothing wouldn’t exist without a mass of voracious consumers to absorb it. And it’s no exaggeration to speak of voracity: global clothing production has doubled since 2000; 60% more clothes were sold in 2014 than in 2000, but they were only worn for half as long, according to the WEF. Studies cited by Bloomberg indicate that, in the US, each citizen throws away 70 pairs of trousers worth of clothing per year; each garment is worn on average only 7-10 times, and one in three Britons consider a garment to be old after wearing it only once or twice. To meet this frenetic demand for fast fashion, brands are stepping up the pace: in Europe, they offered an average of two collections a year in 2000; by 2011, there were already five. Nowadays, brands such as H&M launch between 12 and 16 collections a year, which in the case of Zara reaches 24. The Australian Style Institute points out that what used to be two seasons a year, spring-summer and autumn-winter, have become 52 micro-seasons a year, one every week.
With all this data, it’s no wonder that some experts cite the fashion industry as the least talked-about major player in climate change. But calls for transformation abound. In 2018, major industry players and others came together under the umbrella of the United Nations to launch the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, with the aim of decarbonising the industry to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050, and the following year the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion was born. In recent years, major brands and small startups have adopted different initiatives, from more sustainable production to recycling, a major unfinished business, as less than 1% of textile materials are recycled.
However, beyond industry initiatives, “without consumers making a change, the efforts are in vain,” says the World Bank. “Efforts to green this polluting industry require action from businesses and consumers,” said an editorial in Nature Climate Change. “There is also a push to return to slow fashion, with higher quality garments with longer product life and utilization.” According to the magazine, fast fashion is one of the sectors where consumerism has grown the most in recent years. Today, initiatives of responsible consumption, of choosing more sustainable products, are supported by governments, industries and organisations. Environmental and sustainability labels are easily adopted by consumers. But various experts have been analysing the growth of green consumerism or green materialism, especially among the millennial generation, and they caution: consuming green will not save the climate; we need to consume less. Put quality over quantity, repair clothes, donate and recycle, buy second-hand clothes and, above all, avoid buying what we don’t need: up to 40% of the clothes we buy are never worn. But will governments, industries, organisations and individuals themselves support this call to curb consumption with equal enthusiasm?
Cotton or polyester?
Given that materials such as nylon and polyester are plastics, derived from petroleum, and that the world is facing a major challenge in reducing the scourge of plastic pollution, there is a clear need to reduce their consumption or do without them. Until the end of the 20th century, polyester was a minor player compared to cotton, the king of traditional textiles. But in the 21st century, this synthetic fibre has accounted for virtually all the explosive growth of fast fashion; it now makes up 65% of the total, compared to cotton’s 21%. Every year, some 342 million barrels of oil are used to manufacture synthetic fibres. In 2015, polyester production generated more than 706 billion kg of CO2e; a polyester T-shirt produces 5.5 kilos of CO2e, compared to 2.1 kilos for a cotton T-shirt.
This being the case, the conclusion might seem obvious: abandon synthetic fibres and return to cotton. Unfortunately, the problem is not that simple, and the disappearance of the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake in the former Soviet Union, began to dry up in the 1960s when the rivers that fed it were diverted to irrigate fields. Today it is a desert with scattered small lakes, and the main culprit is cotton, a thirsty crop; it takes about 3,000 litres of water to make one cotton shirt. This huge impact is compounded by the occupation of land and the use of pesticides and fertilisers, which add to cotton’s environmental bill.