How Can Sustainable Fashion Practices Help Companies Reduce Carbon Emission?

How do sustainable fashion practices help companies reduce carbon emissions?

Fashionable apparel at a cheap price has a cost — the fashion industry is responsible for emitting an enormous amount of carbon emission per year, about 10% of all carbon emissions globally.

Consumer trends like fast fashion drive these emissions, but so does apparel production. From the way the fabric is grown, harvested, or synthesized to the way it is transformed in factories to make the clothes we wear, the apparel production process can require large amounts of water, energy, and chemicals and significantly impact carbon emissions. Producing apparel that looks and feels good while reducing environmental impact remains a severe and industry-wide challenge. 

Many designers and companies in the fashion industry are tackling this challenge head-on. In 2018, leading members of the apparel industry signed the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, which committed to a plan for net zero emissions in the industry by 2050 in keeping with the UN-endorsed 1.5 °C pledge. To stay on track for 2050, the charter included a plan for a 30% reduction in emissions by 2030, which was eventually increased to a 45% reduction. 

The ways that companies have chosen to commit to this goal are diverse. From recycling old clothing to synthesizing more environmentally conscious fabric options, companies are innovating stylish designs and fighting climate change at each step. Here is how leaders in the fashion industry are working towards the goal of net zero carbon emission. 

How Can Companies Reduce Carbon Emissions? 

Reducing the Impact of Production

While insatiable global consumption is one of the significant hurdles of a net zero plan for fashion, the apparel industry’s upstream operations pose an even more significant challenge. Clothing isn’t just made in factories; before the material is made into fabric and fabric into clothing, it has to be grown or synthesized. Fabrics like cotton require enormous amounts of water and energy to grow and harvest. Traditional cotton production is also a chemically-intensive process, which can create harmful run-off and soil contamination. While not as massive an industry, leather production involves similar environmentally harmful processes and can be even more harmful when you factor in the environmental impact of rearing livestock. 

This is why many companies prioritize new fabrics and processes for farming or synthesizing material as central to their designs and missions. Organic cotton and hemp use far less energy and water, and hemp has even been shown to absorb carbon dioxide at a higher rate than any other commercial crop. Organic farming also involves growing crops in rotation to replenish and maintain soil fertility and support biodiversity. Research has shown it to be crucial to reducing emissions and tackling climate change. Companies are also replacing leather and fur from animals with materials like banana stalks, pineapple leaves, and fungal threads.

Synthesized materials like TENCEL™, a type of lyocell, are made from recyclable, bio-based components such as plant pulp. The bio-based material for TENCEL is grown in low-impact forests instead of commercial crop fields, meaning less water and pesticide usage. Other exciting bio-based, biodegradable materials include sugarcane bagasse and castor seeds. Using bagasse, the fibrous residue from sugarcane, has an additional benefit– sugarcane plants store carbon in their roots, meaning that even after crops are harvested, they continue to support the environment. 

Circularity in Fashion

One commonality in how apparel companies are reducing carbon emissions is in their collective commitment to circularity. “Circularity” refers to the concept that the entire life cycle of an article of clothing should be accounted for — from growing and sourcing materials to production, purchase, and (eventually) recycling, repurposing, and reusing. Circularity could have a monumental impact on reducing the fashion industry’s carbon emissions. Producing new materials from scratch results in emissions, but reusing products eliminates emissions associated with the first step of production.  

Recycled material projects like NuCyl and Circulose are popularizing circularity by partnering with brands and designers to center recycling and sustainability in their production process. Both projects divert textile waste from landfills and repurpose it using cutting-edge technology so that products can be regenerated. Other brands encourage buyers to return old jeans or outdoor wear to their stores in their efforts to recycle apparel and limit both waste and emissions. Some companies recycle cotton, wool, and cashmere through a process that begins not with the consumer but with pre-consumer off-cuts, which refers to the textile waste that can be found on factory floors and otherwise would end up in a landfill. In theory, an increasingly circular economy should alleviate both the challenges of sourcing and recycling fabric in the long term.

Albeit challenging to implement broadly, circularity might be the fashion industry’s best chance at meeting its net zero emissions mark, and environmentally-minded consumers of apparel are starting to take notice. A recent study by Condé Nast found that consumers are increasingly factoring in sustainability when making fashion purchases. Barriers remain, however, including the cost of sustainable apparel and lack of critical information, so finding companies committed to circularity is ultimately up to the consumer. 

The climate crisis affects us all.  Since it is global in its impact, effective solutions must be similarly wide-reaching. While companies may have varied approaches, they all have a  common goal– to reimagine the fashion industry as a leader not only in style but in sustainability and environmental stewardship. 

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