New Report Promotes Need for Fashion Industry Action

By Linda Greer

The fashion industry doesn't necessarily have the biggest nose-to-the-grindstone, follow-the-numbers reputation of an industry, let's face it. It is better known for its creativity, innovation and trendsetting.

But this sector packs a major punch environmentally, let me tell you—in terms of climate impact, water use and pollution. We urgently need a serious and professional effort in the ranks, but we are suffering from what I like to think of as the sector's "youthful exuberance" on the sustainability front, which is generating much more buzz than meaningful results to the planet.

A path-breaking report issued Tuesday from ClimateWorks Foundation and Quantis should really help us all.

First, the headline news: The fashion industry is estimated to contribute fully 8 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. What! That surprised even me, falling just short of the contribution of the entire global transportation sector! (14 percent, according to IPCC.)

How is that possible? Well, a perfect storm of globalization (which moved manufacturing to countries without strong environmental controls) population growth, rapid increase in GDP (and hence purchasing power) around the world, and, most notably, fast fashion trends (that rapidly multiplied the amount of clothing people buy per capita)—and the sum of these trends has increased this sector's climate impacts by 25 percent in a little over a decade. Yup, that much since only 2005! In case those figures are not enough to wake you up, the sector is projected to further sharply increase its climate impact by nearly half as much again by 2030. That is, unless we change the status quo.

These numbers should better motivate all of us—multinational apparel retailers and brands, designers, policy wonks, NGOs and ordinary customers alike—to more urgent and effective action to stem the tide of the accelerating damage that the fashion industry is causing.

Fortunately, the ClimateWorks/Quantis report also provides some uniquely helpful information to craft a path forward for the serious reductions we need. By diving deeper into each phase of apparel manufacturing than previous analysis, this study identifies the specific hot spots in the manufacturing process which need the most attention. In a nutshell, it directs the industry's focus to the areas that matter the most, so that companies don't waste time on the small stuff.

Spoiler alert! The biggest hot spot of concern in the global fashion industry is fabric dyeing and finishing, weighing in at 36 percent of the sector's total carbon footprint. That's where a tremendous amount of the pollution comes from as well, by the way, and is precisely where NRDC's Clean by Design program has focused for more than five years. We're here to tell you that there are plenty of opportunities to significantly reduce climate, water and chemical use in this phase of apparel manufacturing with fixes that will save you money. We're also here to tell you that despite the stellar and well-documented results of Clean by Design at more than 100 fabric mills around the world, participation in the program is nowhere near what it should be. "Rise up," we have been saying to multi-national apparel retailers and brands, without enough response.

And the smallest impact in the manufacturing process? The cut-and-sew garment factories. Weighing in at a lowly 7 percent … and at the very spot where so many companies are focusing their supply chain efforts. This final step in manufacturing may be where companies find it easiest to start, I know, and is where many labor issues lie. But it is not where it is most important to work, as far as environmental impact is concerned. Given the urgent timeline under which we need to reduce climate impacts, we really do need to focus our efforts where the impact is greatest, rather than waste time in areas of marginal impact.

So, hear ye, hear ye!! A shout out to those companies in the apparel sector that have joined the "We Are Still In" post-Paris movement and/or those otherwise interested in putting their shoulder to the wheel by committing to set Science Based Targets (SBT) for climate reductions consistent with no more than a 2 degree increase in temperature. Tuesday's report empowers you to step up and set ambitious, achievable targets for your reductions.

Report in hand, NRDC has just launched an effort to create model SBT's for the fashion industry. We'll include a specific roadmap of reductions you can pursue to achieve the targets we propose. We'd love to hear from anyone already at work on this mission and/or from those who would like to just follow along. Stay tuned for more.

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