Fashion’s environmental problems have taken a back seat in recent months as the Covid-19 pandemic hit and brought into clear focus the social impacts of global fashion production systems. Some of the world’s most vulnerable garment workers were left destitute as major fashion retailers cancelled millions of pounds worth of orders from suppliers in developing countries, while UK factory and warehouse workers have faced exploitation and health risks as their employers continued to operate during lockdown in response to increased demand from online fast fashion retailers.
Meanwhile, with shops shuttered and global supply chain operations halted, we have witnessed a significant and much-needed reduction in emissions, which would not have been achievable under normal business conditions. However, the trade-off between meeting environmental goals and supporting some of the world’s most vulnerable workers has never been more apparent. Although the fashion industry is responsible for a significant carbon footprint, it also supports the livelihoods of millions of people around the world.
Fashion touches the lives of many people, being one of the most visible creative industries, helping us construct our identity and providing thousands of jobs both in the UK and across the developing world. However, no matter what you believe about humanity’s impact on climate change, it is well known that fashion is one of the most environmentally damaging industries, using large amounts of water, energy and toxic chemicals, and increasing carbon emissions and textile waste. The constant search for cheaper and faster production leads to long and complex outsourcing supply chains that extend over developed and developing countries and incorporate a multitude of third-party firms as retailers outsource manufacturing. The industry’s revenue is based on selling more and more units, so fashion’s impact is only forecast to increase. In terms of carbon emissions, at current rates it could account for over a quarter of the global carbon budget by 2050.
Achieving net zero emissions by 2050 is needed to mitigate climate-related risks for global warming of 1.5°C beyond pre-industrial levels. Fashion businesses are pledging carbon neutrality but this is not nearly enough. Many pledges are based on offsetting, not actually reducing emissions. It is optimistic in the extreme to assume that policy and technological advances will provide the answers to the challenge of reducing emissions. Very few, if any, fashion or textile companies’ business strategies are based on reducing growth, as this is perhaps the most inherent challenge of all, requiring a complete redefinition of consumer behaviour, business model and strategy.
There are other challenges too. There is often a disconnect between business strategy, sustainability goals and purchasing practices that focus on cost and speed. Given the complexity and lack of full transparency in fashion supply chains, companies will find it challenging to map out their carbon emissions before they can set targets for offsetting or reduction. Most textile and garment production takes place in countries that run on coal-fired power, a major contributor to carbon emissions. Airfreighting (rather than shipping) is increasing due to growth in international e-commerce and the need for shorter delivery windows to meet demand in increasingly shorter selling seasons. Polyester is the world’s most popular fibre for fashion, but its production generates more than double the carbon emissions of conventional cotton. These issues are all exacerbated by overproduction, with many clothes returned or unsold.
We desperately need an industry-wide shift to a slower and smaller fashion system to support efforts to meet net-zero targets. It is imperative that we do not return to the destructive and wasteful nature of pre-Covid-19 business as usual. Carbon neutrality requires long-term investment, with policy needed to incentivise and accelerate industry-wide transition to net zero. As individuals, we should think of ourselves as citizens, not just consumers – vote with our wallets, voice our concerns to brands and policymakers, and engage in radical acts of repair and reuse.
Patsy Perry is senior lecturer in fashion marketing and retail at Manchester University