MHA | Are Carbon Emissions Unfashionable for Fashion?

Are Carbon Emissions Unfashionable for Fashion?

Mark Lumsdon-Taylor · Posted on: January 2nd 2024 · read

Clothes on Rack

The allure of fashion extends far beyond the runways and storefronts, penetrating deep into the economy with a staggering $1.5 trillion in revenue in 2022 (all clothing from sportswear to business-wear, value clothing to statement luxury pieces).

However, this captivating industry conceals a dark secret a significant contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and environmental degradation. In particular, the rise of ‘fast fashion’, the ‘wear then waste’ element of the industry, marked by rapid turnover and disposal of garments, has ignited concerns about its role in climate change. As we explore the intertwining threads of fashion and carbon emissions, we delve into the industry's environmental impact, focusing on biomass use, water consumption and potential solutions.

The Fast Fashion Dilemma: Unravelling the Threads of Carbon Emissions

Financial Might:

The Fast Fashion sector, valued at over $106 billion in 2022, commands attention due to its influence on global trends and consumer behaviour.

According to the BBC (July 2022), the global apparel powerhouse exacts a toll on the environment contributing 8-10% of global GHG emissions surpassing the combined impact of all international flights, maritime activities and shipping.

The majority of the world’s apparel demand comes from the United States and China, which play a significant role in international trade. However, for obvious reasons, every country has a stake in the value chain.

In 2022, the export value of apparel to China was $176 billion.

Apparel Manufacturing Processes

Several fashion and apparel firms have launched ‘eco’ collections, using organic and recycled materials, but it is the processing area of the industry where the real focus needs to be directed.

Biomass Boilers: Misleading Claims and Environmental Conundrums:

Recently, environmental non-profit accused major high street fast-fashion brands of ‘misleading claims’ regarding their use of biomass boilers used to wet fabrics at high temperatures to facilitate dyeing and printing.

According to the Stand-earth report, ‘the increased reliance on biomass boilers poses several threats to our climate, ecosystems and human health, all while hindering the industry’s essential shift to renewable energy in Asia.’

The Report clearly states, ‘there is no such thing as sustainable biomass’, siting the fact that biomass burning can have higher emissions than fossil fuel burning; in particular when ‘accounting for the CO2 emitted during cultivation, transportation and processing phases.’

With rising population numbers taking the carbon dioxide emissions from 2.1 billion tonnes per annum in 2018, to an estimated 2.7 billion tonnes by 2030, the report underscores the threats posed by biomass use, challenging the notion of its sustainability. With rising global emissions, the urgency to shift from biomass to cleaner alternatives is paramount.

An H&M group spokesman has been quoted as saying ‘we recognise that biomass has a temporary role to play’ in markets where the energy source considered to most sustainable, electrification, ‘is not yet viable due to barriers to sourcing renewable electricity, unreliable grid connections or both.’

Inditex, owners of brands such as Zara, Pull & Bear, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Stradivarius and Oysho, has suggested the use of biomass, ‘only as an alternative to fossil fuels in the case of low availability of other renewable energy for the generation of thermal energy’, whilst Puma has been quoted as viewing ‘biomass as a renewable energy alternative to replace fossil fuels’. By all accounts, the ‘science’ would probably disagree.

As biomass boilers have a lifespan of circa 20 years, we question claims such as ‘temporary’.

Quite frankly it is not good enough for the industry to ‘explain’ its use of biomass. It needs to invest in the alternatives. Other industries have invested in cleaner energy solutions such as solar and wind power. As a $1.5 trillion industry, apparel should be doing the same. In December 2022, for example, energy consultancy Global Efficiency Intelligence stated that electric heat pumps or electric steam boilers can provide sufficient heat for the wet processing of textiles. If ever there was a time when fashion needed to be ‘fast’, that time is now and the ‘fast’ should be its development and adoption of alternative energy sources to biomass.

If ever there was a time when fashion needed to be ‘fast’, that time is now and the ‘fast’ should be its development and adoption of alternative energy sources to biomass.

Water, Water Everywhere, but not a drop to spare: The Fashion Industry’s Thirst

Staggering Water Consumption:

If the industry’s biomass use is alarming, its water usage stands as a critical concern guzzling a staggering 215 trillion litres annually. This level of consumption makes it the second most water-intensive industry in the world, the first being Agriculture (which uses circa 70% of the world’s freshwater). This, in a world where around 4 billion people are already experiencing severe water scarcity for at least one month each year according to UNICEF. Urgent measures are imperative.

Sustainable Solutions:

There are potential solutions such as sourcing cotton from certified sustainable farming. According to Textile Exchange (2014), water consumption falls by 91% with organic cotton compared to conventional cotton. Furthermore, research by the Soil Association suggests that pesticide use would drop by 98% if all cotton farming was switched to organic.

It is estimated that around 20% of all global water pollution comes from the dyeing of textiles.

Reducing or removing water from the dyeing process would significantly reduce or even eliminate the levels of toxic effluents. Similar water usage reductions could be gained with water-less technologies in processing and finishing.

The responsibility lies not just in the production process but also in guiding consumers on responsible garment care such as providing clear instructions regarding the amount of water and energy to use in, and the frequency of, washing garments.

A Call for Fashion’s Green Evolution

According to the World Bank, global clothing sales could increase by up to 65% by 2030. This against a current impact that shows cotton for the fashion industry using around 2.5% of the world’s farmland, synthetic materials such as polyester requiring an estimated 342 million barrels of oil each year and clothing production processes such as dying demanding 43 million tonnes of chemicals annually.

The fashion industry stands at a crossroads, balancing on the delicate threads of style and sustainability. As global clothing sales surge, the industry’s environmental impact intensifies.

Whilst the UN’s #ActNow Fashion Challenge serves as a rallying cry, emphasising the pivotal role of the industry in curbing global warming, it’s time for the fashion industry to shed the unfashionable cloak of environmental negligence and embrace cleaner energy, responsible water usage and sustainable practices.

After all, in a world grappling with the consequences of climate change we wouldn’t want fashion to become unfashionable, would we?

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