The carbon cost of clothing

Rising concerns about the climate impacts of the clothing industry is causing concern and has brought protesters out onto the streets...

According to a recent report from the Ellen McArthur Foundation, the textile industry emits more greenhouse gasses each year than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Across the full life cycle of clothing, the industry has an annual carbon footprint close to that of all 28 current EU states combined – at 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2. 

Moreover, the relative impact from fashion is forecast to significantly increase: at current rates, by 2050, it could account for over 25% of the global carbon budget (based on the two-degree scenario).

pie chart: climate impact of clothing by stage of production

Which stages of production do the climate impact of clothing come from?

Clothing has an environmental impact at every stage of its life. From petrochemical-based pesticides used on cotton fields to the production of plastics fibres from crude oil. It also uses non-renewable energy for the production and transportation of finished goods.

New calculations show that the biggest climate impacts, therefore, occur during production and now account for 70% of the carbon footprint for an item of clothing.

This figure means that, for example, the temperature at which we do our laundry becomes much less significant if we are continuously buying new clothes. As we can see from the chart here on the right, laundry is responsible for just 3% of the whole.

The positive side of this is that, if much of the carbon footprint occurs at the start of a garment’s life, by reusing clothing or fabrics once made, we can reduce a significant proportion of an item’s emissions. If we extend the use of clothes by an extra nine months, in the UK, it can apparently reduce the relative carbon, water and waste impacts of that garment by 20-30%.

Image: extinction rebellion die in london boycott fashion
Fashion ‘Die-in’ at Royal College of Art’s Fashion Graduate Show to launch Extinction Rebellion’s call to #BoycottFashion. See our guide to high street clothes shops for more information on their campaign.

What is the fashion industry doing?

Ethical brands have long been producing organic cotton, upcycled or other types of clothing that have a lower environmental impact. See our guide to ethical clothes shops for more about this. 

Lots of more mainstream companies are now also talking about new techniques that reduce the environmental impact of their processes, but a lack of hard data about the extent of their actual use is common. Wider industry commitments are also clearly required.

In the UK, over 80 organisations have signed up to the SCAP 2020 commitments. In 2018, the UN convened stakeholders in the fashion industry to establish the ‘Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action’. You can see which fashion companies have signed up to these commitments below.

SCAP 2020 Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action
15% reduction in GHG emissions by 2020 30% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030
15% reduction in water use by 2020 analyse and set a decarbonisation pathway for the fashion industry
15% reduction in waste to landfill by 2020 publicly report on GHG emissions publicly report on GHG emissions
3.5% reduction in waste arising over the whole product lifecycle by 2020 support the movement towards circular business models
Signatories in our guides  
Arcadia, ASOS, F&F (Tesco), M&S, Next, Oxfam, Primark, Sainsbury's. Gap, Guess?, H&M Group, Inditex, Levi Strauss & Co.

Although this looks like great news, the targets on emissions for both initiatives fall short of what is needed to stay within 1.5 degrees of global heating. (In 2018, the UN’s  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called for 45% emission reductions by 2030 to stay within the necessary 1.5-degree limit worldwide.)

The SCAP targets are also per tonne of clothing so crucially do not address growth. Although the fashion industry is making changes, these are nowhere near drastic enough to address the problem at hand.

Yes, buying from ethical, lower-impact producers will make a difference. But it won’t be enough to meet the 1.5 or even 2-degree goal. 

Fashion cannot afford to stay linear: it is imperative that we move away from the model of produce, use, dispose towards a circular economy for clothing.

Free Issue

Sign up now to our email newsletter for a free digital copy of Ethical Consumer magazine.

Sign up now for our email newsletter