When Will Fashion Start to Bend the Curve on Its Carbon Footprint?


Fashion’s carbon footprint inched lower in 2022 thanks to a flattering data refresh, but the industry’s planet-warming emissions are still on track to grow by more than 40 percent by 2030, according to new analysis by trade coalition Apparel Impact Institute.

Any potential progress driven by large brands’ efforts to meet high-profile climate commitments have yet to show up in the numbers.

Instead, the sector saw its carbon emissions dip by just over 1 percent in 2022 compared to a year earlier on the back of updates to the impact associated with polyester and nylon, according to AII’s estimates. The analysis pegged fashion’s carbon footprint at 879 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, or nearly 2 percent of the world’s total carbon footprint.

The fact that the data is getting better is important in itself, said Leonie Schmid, AII’s director of sustainability reporting. But the time lag also means the latest analysis doesn’t fully reflect initiatives the industry has undertaken in recent years, she added.

Nonetheless, assuming business continues as usual, fashion’s carbon footprint is expected to reach 1.2 gigatonnes by the end of the decade. That’s slightly lower than previous estimates, but to keep in line with efforts to stave off the worst effects of climate change they need to nearly halve from current levels.

“The data is clear,” AII’s report said. “While the apparel industry is making progress, the pace of change is far short of what is needed.”

Though hundreds of companies from across fashion’s value chain have now made commitments to drastically lower their emissions and some have begun to make real progress, new technologies that could help deliver on these goals are struggling to scale and investment remains limited.

AII has been trying to raise a $250 million fund to help cut fashion’s emissions since 2022. So far, it’s raised just $89 million. Last year, initiatives it backed helped save nearly 200,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. It’s aim is to increase that number 500-fold by the end of the decade.

Meanwhile, the risks of inaction are becoming more apparent. Over the last two months Southeast Asia has sweltered under a brutal heatwave, with many of the world’s largest garment manufacturing hubs experiencing days on end of temperatures in the vicinity of 40C. Combined with humidity, that’s well above dangerous levels for even moderately taxing manufacturing work.

A report published last year found that such weather extremes could threaten export earnings worth $65 billion in just a handful of key manufacturing hubs by the end of the decade.

Time is running out to reverse these trends and the industry needs to amp up efforts across the value chain to achieve more than incremental gains. On the positive side, much groundwork has been laid over the last few years that could now enable accelerated action, trade groups say. Large parts of the industry are aligned on broad goals, like shifting to lower-impact materials, with ambitions increasingly underpinned by government regulation.

“We are collectively behind the curve, but every industry is collectively behind the curve,” said Michael Sadowski, a sustainability consultant and the author of AII’s new report. “The apparel industry has a really good understanding [of its hotspots] and money is being driven towards the right places.”

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