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The carbon cost of clothing

Josie Wexler talks about the sack of coal you’re carrying on your back and asks can we reduce the climate emissions of clothing?

Estimates of the emissions of the clothing sector vary from 2% to 10% of global emissions, with some people seeming to hedge their bets by going for both figures, claiming that the sector accounts for “1.2 billion tonnes CO2e or 10% of global emissions” – 1.2 billion is two percent, not ten percent.

In general, there is a lack of reputable numbers, but 10% does seem too high, as it would mean that clothing would take up almost all of the emissions generally attributed to the whole industrial sector, apart from iron, steel and chemicals.

However, clothing emissions are definitely significant.

At the EU level, one estimate puts it at 4% of household emissions, and the UK consumption statistics released by DEFRA put it at about 2%. In both of these cases, clothing is estimated to make up a similar or greater proportion to electronics.

Where are the emissions coming from?

Everyone agrees that most of the emissions of clothes happen during the production of the fabric. One analysis divided emissions to the point of sale as set out below:

Pie chart emissions clothing sector
The emissions produced during the making and distribution of clothes.

The reason for most of these emissions is the energy intensiveness of the activities – dyeing is particularly so because it involves heating large quantities of water, and spinning and weaving use a lot of electricity. Most of the energy is coming from fossil fuels, and often coal.

This is partly due to where clothes are made.

The top global clothing exporters are China (35% of the global total), EU (29%), Bangladesh (7%), Vietnam (6%) and India (4%). Coal is the biggest fuel for electricity generation in all of these regions except for Bangladesh and the EU (Bangladesh’s grid is mostly gas. Renewables are now the biggest source in the EU). And despite decarbonisation targets, it is expected to go on being mostly like this for the next decade.

The emissions of fibre

A WRAP analysis of the greenhouse gas emissions of various fabrics from 2012, is given in the table below. This takes into account the emissions released during all parts of the lifecycle.

Fibres Estimated Kg CO2 equivalent produced per Kg fabric
Wool 46
Acrylic 38
Viscose 30
Cotton 28
Silk 25
Polyester 21
Polyurethane 20
Flax linen 15

Wool is unsurprisingly a high emitter per tonne, given the sheep’s status as top climate villain.

But it is overall cotton and polyester that are the biggest deals, because of the amounts used. Together they account for about three quarters of all fibre in clothing. Their relative CO2e emissions are disputed – some put polyester’s as higher than cotton’s. But we didn’t think that there was a clear-cut case either way. (A very commonly quoted claim is that a polyester T shirt has more than double the emissions of a cotton one, which was made by the Environmental Audit Committee in 2019. But the report it cited does not actually contain the claim, or the 2.1 kg CO2e figure quoted for a cotton T shirt.)

Organic cotton is generally estimated to have about half the emissions of conventional cotton, although it does use more land. And 'Better Cotton Initiative' cotton, in which inputs are used more judiciously, was estimated by one study to reduce emissions by two thirds as much as organic cotton.

Another way to cut emissions is buying second-hand, repairing and upcycling clothes and to buy clothes made from the more sustainable fabrics.

Woman weaving in Vietnam

What can be done?

Clothing emissions could be cut a long way reasonably easily.

The World Economic Forum analysed various sectors and decided that clothing was the cheapest one to decarbonise. In its analysis, about 15% of the job is done by increasing efficiency through machinery upgrades, 45% by switching to renewable electricity, 20% through switching to renewable sources of heat, 10% by changing from wet to dry production processes, 10% by changes to fibre production such as growing cotton more sustainably, and 2% each through recycling and low-carbon transport. (Figures rounded up.)

But nearly all of this would have to happen at the other end of the supply chain from the glittery brand logos and slick annual reports. And for many companies, what is happening down that end is murky.

We look at whether companies report on their supply chain emissions as part of our Climate rating. In our Ethical clothing and High street clothing guides companies were rated as follows:

Brands scoring 60+ for climate:

High street brands:

Nobody’s Child, Seasalt, M&S, & Other Stories, Arket, COS, Monki, H&M, ASOS, Miss Selfridge, Topshop, Fat Face, Next, Mango, River Island.

Ethical clothing brands:

(Small companies which are doing good things and discuss how they are reducing their emissions are let off the requirement to report figures.)

Many scored highly: MUD, Rapanui, THTC, Where Does It Come From, Lucy and Yak, Kuyichi, Ninety Percent, BAM, Nudie, Earthmonk, Finisterre, Greenfibres, Brothers We Stand, Living Crafts, Outsider, Komodo, Howies, Community Clothing, Bibico. 

Secondhand sellers scored highly by default: Rokit, We Are Cow, Preworn, Thrifted.

Average climate scores 

Patagonia, White Stuff, Sainsburys, Gap, Bershka, Massimo Dutti, Oysho, Pull & Bear, Zara, Stradivarius

Poor climate scores

New Look, Uniqlo, Tesco, Primark, Amazon, ASDA, TK Maxx, I Saw It First, Jack Wills, Missguided, Romwe, Shein, Boohoo, Burton, Coast, Debenhams, Dorothy Perkins, Oasis, Wallis, MissPap, Karen Millen, Nasty Gal, Warehouse, Pretty Little Thing

WRAP’S Textile Pledge for 2030

WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) has recently created a ‘textile pledge’ that clothing companies are signing up to, pledging to reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of new products by 50% by 2030, and their water footprint by 30%.

To achieve this, they have to measure their emissions, including those in their supply chain, work towards greater reuse and recycling, engage consumers, and report their progress annually to WRAP.

Signatories include Next, Primark, Tesco, John Lewis, Sainsbury's, Argos, Habitat, Ted Baker, M&S, Arco, JD Group, Gymshark, Pep&co, Frasers group, Asda, Asos, Boohoo, Dunelm, New Look, and Missguided.

However, as our carbon ratings above show, many of these companies are not yet reporting on their supply chain emissions, at least not publicly.

The textile pledge is an update on WRAP’s previous initiative, the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan. The SCAP carbon target was for signatories to cut emissions per tonne of clothing by 15% between 2012 and 2020. WRAP claims that this was achieved, although it is unclear whether it was overall just cancelled out by the increase in purchased clothing.