Apparel and footwear industries worldwide account for about the same amount of emissions as the European Union, a report from sustainability consulting group Quantis commissioned by the nonprofit organization ClimateWorks Foundation has found.
The report “Measuring Fashion: Insights from the Environmental Impact of the Global Apparel and Footwear Industries” used value chain data from the World Apparel & Footwear Lifecycle Assessment Database, which Quantis founded with a consortium of organizations and companies in the industry.
“Together, the apparel and footwear industries account for an estimated 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions,” the report says. “That’s nearly 4 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent, almost as much as the total climate impact of the European Union.”
In the apparel industry, the report found that more than 50% of emissions come from dyeing and finishing, yarn preparation, and fiber production. Of those, dyeing and finishing had the largest share. “The most energy intensive stage, dyeing has a high energy demand due to wet processes which require large amounts of heated water.”
Footwear presented a different picture. The report shows that more than 60% of emissions in this industry come from manufacturing and raw material extraction. Manufacturing, defined here as producing shoe components through cutting and linking processes, accounted for 43% of the emissions.
Besides looking at sources, the study tested different scenarios to help companies reduce their negative environmental effects and achieve industry-wide emissions targets. Quantis shared the following recommendations:
Maximize efficiency and shift to renewables. “To significantly lower emissions and achieve an industry-wide science-based target, fossil fuel dependency needs to be massively reduced while boosting energy efficiency throughout the value chain,” the report says. “The scenario analysis showed an 80% overall greenhouse gas emission reduction in the apparel industry alone may be achieved by shifting to 60% renewable energy and setting a 60% energy efficiency target by 2030.”
Consider disruptive digital technologies and new consumption models. “On the supply side, digitalization can lead to process efficiency improvements by reducing raw materials and waste. New technologies can also improve energy efficiency to further reduce emissions in key life cycle stages like dyeing and finishing and yarn preparation,” the report says. “On the demand side, smart(er) consumption models, such as garment and accessory leasing or take-back programs, can extend the use phase of the article, reducing demand for new products.”
Select materials that have a lower environmental impact. “More sustainable choices include preferred fibers with a lower environmental impact such as cotton using regenerative organic agriculture practices, emerging materials that use less energy intensive processes, and recycled fibers available thanks to new chemical recycling processes.”
In the face of myriad environmental, social, and governance challenges, apparel and footwear companies are adopting new strategies. Denim-maker G-Star Raw completely rethought its value chain, working with partners from the farm to the finish and beyond, adding transparency and incorporating new manufacturing techniques.
VF Corporation, the apparel, footwear, and accessories company with brands that include Vans and The North Face, is currently shifting from a linear business model to a circular one. That entails reversing logistics and scaling them up to accommodate recommerce, vice president of global corporate sustainability Letitia Webster told Environmental Leader.
“It’s one thing to say we’re going to bring back a couple hundred units. If this is going to work, we have to bring back hundreds of thousands of units,” she says. “We need new systems in place that are streamlined and efficient — just as streamlined and efficient as getting the products out the door to the consumer.”
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