Fashion and Sustainability: Can the Two Co-Exist?

November 1st, 2021
Fashion and Sustainability: Can the Two Co-Exist?

The Problem

We hear a lot about carbon emissions and global warming but what does this really mean and how are we contributing to the issue? Carbon dioxide emissions are a complicated topic - too big for any blog post to tackle in its entirety. Put simply, CO2 is one of many greenhouse gases polluting our atmosphere, skyrocketing as human consumption continues to increase annually. Addressing carbon emissions is the first step for us to take in conquering our global climate crisis and as the main contributor to the issue, we need to take charge.

Carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is a problem because of the chemical properties it has which cause the molecules to stay in our atmosphere for substantial amounts of time, radiating heat that has been absorbed. In a simpler term, it's as if the CO2 in our atmosphere is warming the earth slowly like a furnace on a cold winter day, heat spreading throughout the house overtime with the temperature gradually rising.

Our global carbon crisis is not to blame on the behaviors of just one industry. However, the Fashion Industry is one of the largest global carbon contributors . The Fashion Industry, valued at approximately 1.46 trillion dollars worldwide in 2020, has a dark shadow that clouds the future of the Earth. In 2018, the industry emitted 2.1 billion tons of CO2 worldwide; a staggering 4% of total global carbon emissions which is a share larger than France, UK, and Germany’s total emissions combined. This total percentage is predicted to rise to around 2.7 billion tons by the year 2030 (Vogue Business).

The fashion industry is a cyclical process, releasing carbon emissions at all steps in the apparel life cycle. However the first step of the garment manufacturing process is the most detrimental to the environment contributing 71% of the 2.1 billion tons of CO2 (Fashion on Climate). This process begins with the creation of the product: the extraction of raw materials (such as polyester and cotton); the preparation of these raw fibers into yarn to then weave or knit; dying, printing, coating or laminating the fabric to achieve the appearance or quality desired; and finally the transformation of your garments into a finished product by sewing, trimming, cutting, and labeling the product and ending with a quality check before it hits stores.

Once the product reaches the second phase of the cycle: transport, retail, product use and end of use - the steps leave a much smaller but still existent carbon footprint.

In order to combat the carbon crisis the entire industry must work together to create more sustainable policies and standards for production. Brands need to collectively adjust their products, supply lines, and retail options as well as change the culture around consumption. Since 2019, the Industry has begun to set ambitious sustainability goals, such as their vision to achieve net-zero emission by 2050, aligning with those set at the United Nations Climate Change Conferences.

Conscious Consumer

We have become a consumption driven society that feels the need to constantly purchase new items and in the immediate future it is going to take a change in our patterns to help influence the direction that brands will take. Below are some steps that you can take to help reduce your carbon footprint and promote sustainable consumption:

  1. Recycle Clothing
  2. Resale
  3. Upcycle
  4. Shop Less
  5. Make your clothes last longer
  6. Wash your clothes on cold (increases fabric longevity)

Through innovation many of the steps listed above have been made easier. If you are interested in the resale market there are online platforms such as Ebay, TheRealReal, Poshmark, Tradesy, Depop, Vestiaire Collective, Craigslist and more where apparel can be bought second hand.

Businesses Leading the Way

Along with the ways that a consumer can promote sustainable consumption there are also many new innovations and brands who are reducing their carbon footprint and changing the cycles of the fashion industry. Below are some notable initiatives by brands that are backed up by their actions and innovations:

  1. Spinnova: Spinnova is a new sustainable material that is produced from wood or waste that was developed in Finland. The future of the fashion industry lies in these carbon neutral, sustainable raw materials that can be converted into yarn and fabric. Spinnova’s promising technology has received major investments by global powerhouse brands looking into sustainable options for their future including Ecco, H&M, and Adidas.
  2. Reformation: The brand Reformation based out of California is one of the most sustainable clothing retailers in the world and is setting the stage for what steps a “climate conscious” company should be taking. Not only is Reformation 100% carbon neutral it has also invested money in making the company “Climate Positive” by 2025. The company has also developed a “RefScale” that shows how much you're reducing your own carbon emission by purchasing through them compared to the average clothing retailer in the United States.
  3. REPREVE: Repreve is a fabric that is created using recycled plastic from water bottles and spinning it into fibers that make clothing. Repreve has recycled over 25 billion plastic bottles from landfills and has collaborated with brands such as Reformation, Aeropostale, Ford, O’Neill, Patagonia, QuikSilver, Roxy, & Southern Tide. REPREVE sets the bar high for the possibilities plastic can have after it has been discarded by the consumer.

In Conclusion

As the second largest carbon producing industry in the world, fashion must drastically change its trajectory of the industry in order to comply with the Paris Climate Accord. In order to create change there must be an awareness of what is happening, and acceptance of wrongdoing, and a plan to repair and fix the problem within the system. The Business of Fashion, a journalism company based in the United Kingdom has been leading the industry when it comes to research about the carbon emissions problem as well as creating summits within the fashion industry to help grow a team to attack the carbon problem. The difference will need to be made from production and design through the consumer's post-use choices. Luckily for us the future is still in our hands and changes can be made, small and large, to rectify the carbon problem. The future of fashion HAS to be sustainability and it's going to take everyone to truly make an impact!