It’s all about footprints
Climate neutrality for Fashion could be an opportunity to reduce the impact of one of the most polluting industries, but only if companies are able to track scope 3 emissions this could have a real impact on the environment and society.
It accounts for approximately 2.1 billion tons of Co2-e emissions per year — that’s 4 percent of annual global emissions : that is fashion, one of the biggest polluters, which have a bigger impact than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
Looking at our wardrobe in the morning, deciding what to wear to tackle a new day, impress the new boss or dress up for a lady’s night, Co2 emissions are not our first thought.
We buy new clothes as they are accessible, trendy, a social statement, a fun hobby to distract from the covid lockdown. But the choices we make, season after season, have a massive impact on the environment.
Fashion is responsible for several damages along the whole value chain: soil degradation, water usage, chemicals and oils used, Co2 emissions, microplastics, and eventually methane produced by entire collections of clothes ending up in landfills; not to mention the workforce, mainly constituted of women, often working below welfare conditions.
The lifecycle of a garments covers geographically a worldwide tour. It touches the life of the poor people of Bangladesh, travels across all continents, to end up in the landfills of Africa.
It is impossible nowadays not to expect that the industry takes a further step to improve the actual system.
Luckily most of the companies are acting; unlikely this is not enough.
To limit the increase in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — and make progress towards net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the world needs to cut Co2-equivalent (Co2-e) emissions in half before 2030 (countries have reduction target of 45%). Fashion brands are part of this challenge.
Various are the commitments already taken by fashion companies and its supply chains, among the most famous the Fashion Pact and the Fashion Industry Charter which both sets clear guidelines to reduce the GHG emissions in scope 1, 2 and 3 together with a decarbonization pathway based on the Science-Based Targets Initiative.
Amongst the most supported initiatives Circular economy is the strategy often brought as driver for sustainable fashion. According to the latest McKinsey report “The State of fashion 2022”, 60% of fashion executives have already invested or plan to invest in closed loop recycling next year.
This is an extremely good sign that after years spent claiming organic certified cotton and recycled polyester, brings a more concrete and innovative approach for reinventing fashion and telling new stories.
Circular economy is based on the idea of creating a continuous loop of raw materials and products in order not to waste any resources; based on the principle of the 7 R’s, the whole idea is to rethink the process inventing new ways of producing, using and keeping alive the garments for as long as possible.
In fashion this applies in multiple approaches, including modular design, re-use of production waste materials, rental, repair, second hand and eventually recycle the garments, or the textiles.
If we think about the amount of soil, water, pesticides, energy used to produce the garments, to be able to reuse them and bring them back to life could have a meaningful impact on multiple areas, benefitting both the environment, but also bringing economic benefits.
That is why laws like the ones introduced by the Italian and French governments that prevents clothes to end up in the landfills have been happily acclaimed.
But even the closed loop cycles still have an impact on climate change. Often the materials are collected in one country, transformed in another, and sold in other one, with massive amount of emissions produced by the logistic system, that is currently not been electrified yet.
An important work done in 2021 by Enel X and SDA Bocconi School of Management, has identified few macro trends in the fashion industry, analyzing the capacity of companies to adapt Circular Economy principles along the value chain.
The results of the report which analyses 14 partner companies, has shown that despite efforts made on the design phase, the support of digital and regulation which push and help the transition, a big gap is still on the electricity consumption. Only few companies in fact are using renewable energy or monitor and make energy use more efficient. From the report emerges that swapping to green energy could save almost 30% of Co2 emissions.
As we see the topic of Co2 emissions and decarbonization is a key theme if we want to talk about sustainable fashion.
Circular economy alone cannot be the solution. Most of the technologies for recycling the materials are not yet fully implemented on a large scale, collecting systems are still under development in most countries and even so lot of Co2 will still be emitted.
At the current status, between 60-70% of the emissions comes from production processes, with the remaining from retail, logistics and product use (such as washing and drying). We need therefore to work on a more systemic approach, which involve a strong engagement of the supply chain: this is a win-win strategy that fashion must adopt to survive.
Despite the difficulties, working with a long and wide network of contractors and sub-contractors, often far away from headquarters, could be a very well paid back effort.
Engage your suppliers means to build a more resilient world, that despite the reshoring of supply chain and the diversification of raw materials sources, give the economic and professional tools to create a better world, less resilient on carbon, less polluted, less dry, and therefore less at risk of global warming effects. Without forgetting the impact that this can have on the social aspect, as the latest event in Xinjiang region has brought to light.
Another method could be to introduce a more defined scope 3 emisisons tracking in the reporting system. A recent article published on the HBR unveils a possible new approach called e-liabilities that proposes an environmental accounting system that channels GHG information across companies’ purchase and sale contracts for products and services in the same way that cost/price information moves from suppliers to customers along even the most complex, multi-tier supply chains.
Reshoring could be a quicker response and sometimes worth considering, but in an economic system set on globalization, will not probably be the fastest route and emissions will still account, even thou EU countries have a lower dependence on carbon than Asia.
Retail is also demanding and driving the change. Zalando for example is leading the way, pushing the boundaries, and forcing the brands which sell on its platform to set climate strategies.
Understanding the challenges of defining sustainability within the fashion industry they have partnered up with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to develop an industry-wide definition for how to measure environmental and social impacts of products to drive reductions and for how to communicate sustainability within the apparel industry. By 2023 the e-com platform will only sell products from brands that have met their new standard.
This is a very important message for the industry, where retailers are leading the movement.
To close, all the effort made by companies already busy setting GHG emissions reduction targets, protect biodiversity, invest in offsetting and insetting projects, work on eco/design products, implementing renewable energy, will not be enough if fashion brands are not able to engage their supply chain.
In a fashion world dominated by the problem of tackling the supply chain disruptions or how to keep consumers’ interests alive, or engaging with the metaverse, the real good question should be “How to do that with the least impact on climate?”
Here is where carbon neutral fashion comes to play.
Carbon neutral fashion means to achieve a system where companies have measured their impact together with their supply chain. It means to know the carbon footprint of the processes as well of the products, reduce those and offset the residual ones.
It consists in concrete strategies to reduce the emissions, be in through:
- More sustainable materials (recycled and recyclable)
- Utilize renewable energy (or buy green certificates)
- Reduce waste, chemical and water usage
- Reduce production
- Reduce packaging and plastic
- Optimize logistic
- Communicate transparently
- Commit to quantify, track and publicly report the GHG emissions and developing a work program and tools necessary to achieve the GHG emission reduction targets; 
- Offset and invest in insetting projects that restore soil and biodiversity, until Co2 capture technologies will be more affordable.
If we do not act fast fashion will soon be a victim of itself; now more than ever it is critical than the fashion industry takes responsibility of its own emissions.
The giant is too big to fail but cannot fail consumers.
 “Landmark French law will stop unsold goods being thrown away”, Kim Willsher, The Guardian, 30th Jan 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/30/france-passes-landmark-law-to-stop-unsold-goods-being-thrown-away
 Una transizione sostenibile per il settore della moda, 20th Sept 2021, https://www.enelx.com/it/it/news/2021/09/monitor-for-circular-fashion-report
U.S. bans cotton imports from China producer XPCC citing Xinjiang ‘slave labor’, David Lawder, Dominique Patton, Reuters, 2nd Dec 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-china-idUSKBN28C38V
 “Accounting for Climate Change”, Robert S. Kaplan, Karthik Ramanna, Harvard Business Review, Nov-Dec 2021, https://hbr.org/2021/11/accounting-for-climate-change
 Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/Industry%20Charter%20%20Fashion%20and%20Climate%20Action%20-%2022102018.pdf