Climate Change: Fashionably Cautious

By: Rachel Doretsky  |  November 1, 2020

By Rachel Doretsky, Staff Writer

When examining current events, climate change is amongst the most polarizing topics. Climate change deeply affects a multitude of industries, particularly the fashion industry. With an increased pressure coming from both regulators and consumers, the fashion industry must find a way to trend closer to emitting greenhouse gases.

According to McKinsey’s research, the sector was responsible for 2.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions in 2018, accounting for 4% of the global total. To put that into perspective, the fashion industry contributes around the same quantity of GHGs annually as the entire economies of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined. The goal set for the fashion sector is to reduce their emissions by 1 billion metric tons; due to COVID-19 however, emissions are expected to double by 2030. In order to reach this goal of decreasing GHG emissions, the industry should be implementing more abatement actions and decarbonization efforts. Sources estimate that emissions can be reduced by 60% through initiatives such as energy-efficient adjustments and a switch to renewable energy. Furthermore, 18% of GHGs emitted can be stopped by brands improving their operations. Even more encouraging, 21% can be saved through changes in consumer behavior. Overall, these efforts can transform the fashion landscape.

There are three key areas for potential industry improvement. The first is cutting emissions from upstream operations through switching to energy efficient methods and a transition from fossil fuels to renewable-energy sources. By implementing these changes, 1 billion metric tons of GHG can be reduced by 2030. The second area involves reducing brand’s emissions produced by operations, altering their material make up, incorporating the use of recycled fiber, relying more heavily on the use of sustainable transport, re-creating their packaging, decarbonizing their retail operations, minimizing returns, and reducing overproduction which would make a huge difference. Lastly, encouraging viable proactive consumer behavior. This would entail an increase in promoting garment rental, resale, repair, refurbishment, and most easily implemented, washing and drying clothing less or in a more environmentally conscious way. In addition, an increase in recycling old clothing would reduce the amount of landfill waste generated. Having the industry switch to a model based on closed-loop recycling (re-creating a product back into itself by recycling) will make a large positive impact. 

There are a number of companies that are leading the way in sustainability. A few of them include Patagonia, Levi’s, H&M Conscious, Eileen Fisher, Everlane, and more. Patagonia has two different approaches to combating this issue. They use sustainable materials in their outerwear, as well as help customers fix their clothing rather than buying new garments. Patagonia abides by fair-trade rules and closely monitors its supply chain to ensure it’s safe for the environment, workers and buyers. Their goal is to find solutions to environmental issues without harming the world. Their products are so durable and therefore customers are encouraged to recycle old Patagonia gear and purchase items second hand. As for the Denim Department, it’s notorious for requiring very large amounts of water to make one pair of jeans, but Levi’s new initiative uses up to 96% less water than usual. Levi’s is devoted to sustainability from their design to the manufacturing process and is working towards 100% sustainably sourced cotton and even recycling old jeans into home insulation. 

Another familiar brand is H&M who is drifting from its fast fashion roots via their Conscious Collection. This line of clothing is made of materials like organic cotton and recycled polyester. The brand hopes to minimize its environmental footprint by using eco-friendly fabrics and more sustainable ways of production. Similar to Patagonia, customers are encouraged to recycle unwanted garments at H&M stores and in return receive a discount on future purchases. The overall H&M brand is determined to use only sustainably sourced materials by 2030. 

Eileen Fisher’s design and manufacturing process is like H&M in the sense that it’s built to be as sustainable and eco-friendly as possible, from their inputs to the way they treat their workers who make the clothing. The company avoids transporting products via airplanes and uses innovative methods to limit fabric waste. Eileen Fisher follows the trend of buying back used garments to recycle into new items or even turn into artwork if it can’t be resold.

Lastly but not least is Everlane. They combine sustainability with transparency by communicating with customers a clear breakdown of the cost of each garment and showing the sites where their clothes are made. The company forms tight relationships with factory owners to make sure the employees and production methods meet Everlane’s high ethical standards. Most recently, Everlane released a line of clothing composed of recycled plastic bottles and other reused materials. 

The possible key efforts should be pursued by policy makers, companies themselves, and investors. Governments and regulators should push for sustainable practices along with more conscious buying habits. Incentivizing entities to implement decarbonization methods that have high abatement potential is another way to effect change. Brands are constantly trying to appear more socially responsible to encourage people to buy from them and invest in their company. Patagonia, Levi’s, Eilen Fisher, and Everlane are among the most proactive companies within the fashion industry. As for investors, they can make an impact by supporting plans for decarbonization, emission transparency, and innovation efforts centered around sustainability among the companies in their investing portfolio. 

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