The Fashion Industry Could Reduce Emissions—if It Wanted To

The fashion industry is in the mood to commit lately.

In 2019, some of the largest fashion brands in the world put their names on science-based climate targets, saying they would reduce their greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2030 in order to stay in line with a UN-endorsed pathway to keeping the climate from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Just a couple of years later, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which has over 130 brand members—including Amazon, Gap, H&M, Nike, and Under Armour—upped that target for its members to a 45 percent reduction in emissions by 2030. At the COP26 climate conference last week, 130 companies joined in an announcement that they would reach net-zero emissions no later than 2050.

But to reduce greenhouse gasses, fashion’s climate fight hinges on another commitment: cleaner factories.

Forget swapping in energy-efficient light bulbs in retail stores—according to the World Resources Institute, 96 percent of a fashion brand’s footprint is in its manufacturing supply chain. In other words, it’s the factories (and to a lesser extent, farmers who grow cotton and raise sheep for wool and cows for leather) who will have to do the work so brands can reach these lofty, well-publicized goals.

Unfortunately, when it comes to factories, brands seem to have more commitment-phobia than a 24-year-old on Tinder.

“We’re a migratory business,” says Sanjeev Bahl, founder and chief executive of Saitex, the sustainable Vietnamese denim supplier. Like a digital nomad crypto bro, brands roam from factory to factory and country to country, looking for the facilities that can offer them the cheapest prices and the fastest turnaround.

During the pandemic, that fact became clear to the public. As the retail stores abruptly closed, brands and retailers ghosted their suppliers, breaking contracts, canceling orders, and asking for steep discounts or refusing to pay for orders that in some cases had already shipped. “You’ve seen what’s happened pre- and post-Covid. Most factories, why would they invest [in low-carbon technology]?” Bahl says.

In fact, a study from The Climate Board released this month found no correlation between bold climate commitments from brands and actual carbon reductions. In order for the fashion industry to truly decarbonize, brands are going to have to stop being such flakes.

We Have the Power

The fashion and climate experts I spoke to largely believe that the technology exists to halve the fashion industry’s emissions in 10 years.

There are four big levers apparel retailers could pull to get there. One is switching factories from coal to renewable energy. Solar and wind are well-established and cost-effective sources. Rooftop solar alone can handle 10 to 20 percent of a factory’s energy needs, and the rest can be bought from an offsite solar or wind farm.

“The barriers are mainly policy,” says Michael Sadowski, a research consultant with WRI. As he and others pointed out, it’s difficult to decarbonize when most fashion is made in countries that run on coal. For example, Vietnam, where a large portion of the world’s fashion is made, doesn’t allow businesses to purchase renewable energy generated offsite. But that could change as early as this year, with the Vietnamese government poised to approve a pilot power purchase agreement program.

Figuring out how to decarbonize thermal energy—used for heating water and making steam—will be more difficult. According to AII’s and Fashion for Good’s forthcoming report, “Unlocking the Trillion-Dollar Fashion Decarbonisation Opportunity,” just over half of fashion’s manufacturing emissions come from the dyeing and finishing of material—called wet processing—and almost all of the industrial boilers that produce steam and hot water run on coal. The rest run on fossil gas. The United Nations Fashion Charter for Climate Action committed to stopping the use of coal by 2025, but Nike is the only brand that has taken real action in this area, by helping its footwear suppliers electrify all of their boilers.

Gary Cook, the global climate campaigns director at the advocacy organization Stand.Earth, says this particular puzzle could be solved by electrifying boilers, installing solar thermal systems, or using hydrogen made from renewable resources. These are all expensive propositions, though an H&M representative said by email that the company plans to test solar thermal in the near future. The denim supplier Saitex, which made its own commitment to becoming climate neutral by 2025, built a new boiler that burns industrial waste sludge as its fuel source. “It’s expensive; it has a seven-year break-even point,” Bahl says.

Some dry-processing technologies have also been invented for dyeing and finishing textiles—plasma, supercritical CO2, foam, or ultrasonic technology—that would drastically reduce the industry’s reliance on boilers.

The second big carbon-saving switch for the fashion industry would be to move away from materials like polyester, nylon, and others derived from fossil fuels. Many of these alternative materials are exciting. Last month, we reported on AirCarbon, a carbon-negative leather-like material. There’s also Fairbrics, which creates polyester out of captured carbon; Full Cycle, which creates bio-polymers out of organic waste; and Bloom by Algix, which uses algae harvested from lakes to create synthetic rubber.

The third lever would be shipping products across the world on boats using clean fuel. In this area, hydrogen fuel is showing promise as a more eco-friendly alternative to the dirty diesel ships currently use, and in October a small consortium of brands committed to using zero-carbon shipping fuels by 2040. (There are those commitments again.)

The fourth—powerful—way to reduce the industry’s impact: Make less stuff. Brands of all sorts are experimenting with rental, repair, and resale services that promise to shift some of their revenue away from manufacturing goods in favor of providing fashion services.

So in theory, fashion could reach its ambitious targets. But when I asked experts if the fashion industry is on track to hit its 2030 goal, all I heard was, “No.”

“The reality is, whether the technology is there or not, the demand doesn’t exist,” says Kurt Kipka, vice president at the Apparel Impact Institute, which was founded to help brands do this exact decarbonization work. Brands don’t so much demand as “invite” and “encourage” a select few of their biggest suppliers to set emission reduction targets.

“I mean, I come from a climate background. So I really want 45 percent,” says Vidhura Ralapanawe, the executive vice president for sustainability and innovation at Epic Group, a large Hong Kong-based apparel manufacturer. “I really would like to see more than a 45 percent reduction. But I don’t see the conversations happening.” He should know—before he worked in fashion, Ralapanawe was an independent climate researcher at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and he now sits on Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s board. “You talk about the technology side. We haven’t talked about the business model. Where are the incentives? How is the risk and reward shared between different partners in the value chain? We don’t have a discourse around this, apart from, you know, standard catchphrases.”

‘Like Falling Off a Log’

Long before any of these whizbang technologies get implemented, emissions could be cut just by making other efficiency improvements, like upgrading machinery and insulating steam vents. It’s not very sexy, but it’s effective and—crucially—affordable.

“There are production efficiency improvements that are like falling off a log,” says Linda Greer, global fellow at the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs, a Chinese environmental research nonprofit. In 2007, she founded the National Resource Defense Council’s Clean by Design program, which morphed into AII’s program.

Factory owners are by and large happy to invest in efficiency improvements as long as they get a little help from brands with planning and logistics. “These folks are business owners, right? They’re gonna save money,” says Sadowski.

In 2019, Adidas released a very detailed guidebook for factories seeking to reduce their energy usage, water usage, and waste. But few other brands have even made moves to help their manufacturing partners with these minor, affordable upgrades. According to a recent report from Planet Tracker, the average cost of lowering the footprint for a wet processing facility, where textiles are finished and dyed, is $455,000. Even though the factory would earn back that amount in less than two years, facilities have dragged their feet on such upgrades because they lack the know-how and access to bank loans.

“They can’t even do the little stuff,” says Greer of fashion brands. “If we saw an industry that was harvesting the low hanging fruit everywhere they could get it and then they were hitting the brick wall when it came to a technological barrier, then I would feel sympathetic.” She would like to see fashion brands map out their supply chain, help suppliers accurately measure their emissions and energy usage, and then choose suppliers based on their environmental performance. “This is not rocket science at all,” Greer says. “I mean, this is like, get a few sharp summer interns and pull them in for three months and have them go through this.”

Instead, the fashion industry has been harping on the Circular Economy, a concept in which materials are recycled endlessly through the supply chain. You see gestures toward this in capsule collections of jeans made with 20 percent recycled cotton and the proliferation of products made with recycled water bottles. Here’s the thing about that, though: In the short term, polyester made from recycled water bottles does have a lower carbon footprint. But once it’s made into fashion, it can never be recycled again—the next stop for such apparel is the trash. Less than 1 percent of all clothing is currently recycled into new clothing. And nobody has actually done the calculations to confirm whether recycling polyester into polyester would lower our emissions—it’s a pretty energy-intensive process.

Greer says these initiatives are like the limited-edition, heavily marketed capsule collections common in the fashion industry: “meant to catch your eye, and sort of cool and a little glittery. But if you really look hard at it, it’s not gonna come to scale.”

That’s not to say absolutely nothing is being done. Both Stand.Earth and IPE rank companies on their climate commitments and actions—the latter focusing only on pollution in China—and a few brands consistently come out on top: Nike, Levi’s, Adidas, Puma, and H&M. They’re setting targets, calculating their emissions, and starting on projects to reduce them. Some of these companies are writing letters to the governments of coal-burning countries and saying they might move their manufacturing elsewhere if the countries don’t modernize their grids.

But each brand in this tiny cabal gets at most a C+ from Stand.Earth for its efforts, and these companies represent no more than a couple percentage points of the world’s volume of fashion being made. Katrin Ley, managing director at the Amsterdam-based accelerator Fashion for Good, says her team once did a back-of-the-envelope calculation that showed the top 200 global fashion brands account for less than 10 percent of the total volume of fashion being sold globally. “You have the Sheins of this world, you have lots of gray market non-brands that are also quite dominating,” she says. Other big brands like DKNY and Roxy haven’t taken any actions or made any pledges that indicate they think climate is even an issue. (They did not respond to requests for comment.)

Meanwhile, fashion’s production is back up to pre-pandemic levels, and the push for newness has only increased as brands rush to catch up with the ultra-fast, ultra-cheap drops of the Chinese behemoth Shein. All those rental and repair programs being launched haven’t made a dent.

“We have to reduce consumption,” says Ralapanawe. “Even if we reduce the carbon intensity of individual products, just the fact that the number of products that we are going to make continues to increase, we will keep pulling up the emissions.”

Who Will Pay for It?

The Apparel Impact Institute and Fashion for Good estimate that it will take a trillion dollars in global investment to decarbonize the industry. Their new report calls it an investment “opportunity,” but brands are not exactly climbing over each other to get involved.

“Financial support? No, zero,” Bahl says. “It’s not the practice that brands give financial support to factories. The suppliers have to figure it out themselves.”

The exception is H&M, which finances early stage innovation with investments in various innovative materials. An H&M representative also told WIRED that the company will soon start investing in bigger infrastructure projects and offer low-cost loans to suppliers. But Perkins of AII sees the money (hopefully) coming from multiple other places: traditional banks, development banks like the IFC and World Bank, private equity, and a little bit of philanthropy.

“The brands don’t have the assets available to underwrite lending to all the facilities; that is the role of the bank,” Perkins says. “What they can offer is stability around the relationship.”

Ah, stability. If brands really wanted to do this, they would commit to long-term purchasing contracts with suppliers to support them throughout the seven-year-plus payback period when they invest in low-carbon technology. Banks know that garment manufacturing is risky, that an important brand can switch factories just like that the next year. A brand committing to a supplier relationship would ease bankers’ minds. But while everyone agrees on this crucial step, nobody could point me to any official commitments from brands.

Kipka and Perkins pointed to Target’s commitment (with AII) that 80 percent of its facilities have science-based emissions reduction targets; Walmart’s recent closing of a green bond, which it says will fund sustainability projects in its operations and supply chain; and Puma’s sustainability-related revolving credit. Levi’s comes close by connecting its best-performing suppliers to IFC financing. These programs hint that brands are getting serious about helping their manufacturing partners modernize to meet climate targets. “We’re feeling the acceleration,” Perkins says.

But these scattershot incentives are not the paradigm shift we need. The answer seems to lie with governments in the countries that manufacture and buy fashion recognizing how important the fashion industry is to their climate goals and regulating accordingly. “You cannot leave it up to voluntary commitments,” Ley says. “You need to have a stronger legislative framework that really levels the playing field.” For what it’s worth, H&M, Levi’s, and Puma have indicated that they’re open to new legislation on this, whether from nations that buy the clothing, nations that produce the clothing, or both.

“The simple answer is legislation, or the lack of it, and taxation, or the lack of it,” Bahl says. “I’ve seen a lot of commitments made and not delivered. Even if you make a commitment, there’s no real threat if you don’t fulfill the commitments. You’re not going to get sued—who’s going to hold you accountable?”


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