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Climate Change Tracker: The trouble with fashion

The fashion industry is a massive greenhouse gas emitter and polluter, but the full extent of the problem is only just coming to light

An Extinction Rebellion activist protests against the fashion industry in London.
An Extinction Rebellion activist protests against the fashion industry in London. (Alamy)

You might have read about Extinction Rebellion activists staging a protest outside the Victoria Beckham show at September’s London Fashion Week. But why were they doing so? Well, as it turns out, the industry is a massive greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter. The strange thing is, despite fashion’s global reach and backend linkages, till very recently there really wasn’t much by way of credible numbers to show just how much the industry contributes to global emissions. In a two-part series, we parse the numbers, look at what’s wrong and what fashion houses and governments are doing about this.

Reliable numbers on the fashion industry used to be in short supply. There was a lot of anecdotal evidence, but no solid reports. This started changing three years ago, with three studies. A 2016 McKinsey report, called Style That’s Sustainable: A New Fast-Fashion Formula, found that in 2015, fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara offered 12-24 new collections every year, with the average number of collections by European apparel companies being five a year in 2011. The report also found that nearly 60% of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being produced. While applauding brands like Levi’s and H&M for their reuse and recycling initiatives, the report cautioned that production chains across the industry need to be re-imagined.

A wide-ranging 2018 study by Quantis, called Measuring Fashion: Insights From The Environmental Impact Of The Global Apparel And Footwear Industries Study, was based on data supplied by LVMH, Hugo Boss, Ikea, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and others. For the apparel industry, the report crunched data on fibre and yarn production, fabric preparation, dyeing and finishing, assembly, distribution and disposal; for footwear, it looked at assembly, manufacturing, the extraction and processing of raw materials, as well as transport and disposal. It found that the apparel and footwear industries contribute over 8% of global GHG emissions, while impacting freshwater resources, ecosystems and human health.

The most consistent of all the studies has been Pulse Of The Fashion Industry, which was first published in 2017, and has been updated for 2018 and 2019. Published by the Global Fashion Agenda, a leadership forum for industry collaboration on fashion sustainability, the SAC and the Boston Consulting Group, it draws upon the SAC’s proprietary Higg Index, industry survey and expert inputs to arrive at a Pulse Score for the industry. The score represents a global baseline for sustainability management, target setting and implementation of sustainable initiatives. This score was 32 (out of 100) in 2017, improved by 6 points to 38 in 2018 and slowed to a 4 point increase, to 42 this year. The 2017 report found that the industry was responsible for 1,715 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, and projected that if unchecked, this would rise by 63% by 2030.

In next week’s Climate Change Tracker, we take a look at the efforts being made by the fashion industry and governments to tackle climate change. Follow the series with #MintClimateTracker

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