Last year Burberry became the first luxury fashion company to see its net-zero emissions target approved by the SBTi, the Science Based Targets initiative.
SBTi is a partnership between CDP (ex-Carbon Disclosure Project), UN Global Compact, WRI (World Resources Institute), and WWF, which aim is to support decarbonisation and contain the increase in global temperature below 1.5°C, compared to the pre-industrial era. To achieve this goal, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must be reduced by around 45% by 2030 and be zero by 2050.
But why is it important for fashion companies to participate in the net-zero challenge?
About the net-zero target
Most of the GHG emissions are fuelled by seven energy and land-use systems:
- Power (electricity and heat generation): 30 percent of CO2 emissions and 3 percent of nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions;
- Industry: 30 percent of CO2 emissions, 33 percent of methane emissions, 8 percent of N2O emissions;
- Mobility: 19 percent of CO2 emissions and 2 percent of N2O emissions;
- Buildings (from heating to cooking): 6 percent of CO2 emissions;
- Agriculture (direct on-farm energy use and emissions from agricultural practices or fishing): 1 percent of CO2 emissions, 38 percent of methane emissions, and 79 percent of N2O emissions;
- Forestry and other land use: 14 percent of CO2 emissions, 5 percent of methane emissions, and 5 percent of N2O emissions;
- Waste (solid waste disposal and treatment, incineration, wastewater treatment): 23 percent of methane emissions and 3 percent of N2O emissions.
As we can see, the textile and fashion sector is involved in almost all of these systems, from energy consumption to waste, from agricultural production to mobility. This means that the net-zero challenge is particularly daunting for fashion companies. However, the sector has welcomed the challenge and in 2018 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action was signed up to support the goals of the Paris Agreement. The signatories of the Charter have thus committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030 (taking 2015 as a reference) and to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The fashion industry and GHG
The ILO paper "Taking climate action -Measuring carbon emissions in the garment sector in Asia" gives us some interesting data about the emissions contribution of the textile and clothing sector. For example:
- the industry seems to be the source of about 6 to 8 percent of total global carbon emissions, about 1.7 billion tons annually. Most of these gases come from the use of energy;
- the type of fiber has a different impact. On the one hand, natural fibers have a strong environmental impact due to the use of water and pesticides in the cultivation of raw materials. On the other hand, synthetic fibers require the use of nonrenewable resources and are the cause of increasing levels of microplastic pollution. However, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, leather, silk and wool have the highest emissions per kg of material, while polypropylene and acrylic fibers have the lowest;
- the use of garments may be the largest contributor to emissions in the fashion industry value chain. For example, a study commissioned by the British brand Marks & Spencer (M&S) found that washing and drying greatly affect energy consumption and thus emissions, even more than transportation.
What fashion brands can do to win the net-zero challenge
In order to meet their commitments within the UNFCCC Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, fashion brands need to implement sustainability initiatives from design and manufacturing processes to transportation and use of the garments by consumers.
At a production stage, companies can reduce their emissions through energy efficiency programs (including a switch to renewable energy) and waste management systems. They can also focus on sustainable raw materials if the goal is to reduce their overall carbon footprint.
At the transportation stage, fashion brands should look for solutions for green shipping and freight forwarding.
Finally, at the use of garments stage, companies need to raise awareness among consumers. Even the collection and reuse of fabrics and clothes can have positive effects since they offset the production of new products. For example, the aforementioned M&S study found that replacing every kg of new clothing with second-hand clothing could save 65 kWh for cotton and 90 kWh for polyester. Another key variable to ensure an environmental benefit is the extension of the garment life.