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There’s no such thing as sustainable fashion

A report shows how 47 major fashion companies score when it comes to carbon emissions. The vast majority get Fs.

There’s no such thing as sustainable fashion
[Images: Alexey Kabanov/iStock, photoschmidt/iStock, helt2/iStock]
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Prada, Everlane, Uniqlo, American Eagle Outfitters—these and other beloved fashion labels keep much of the world clothed in trendy outfits. But they’re doing very little to protect us from the horrors of climate change.

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A new report from the environmental advocacy organization Stand.earth reveals how 47 of the largest fashion companies are actively accelerating climate change by emitting greenhouse gases throughout their supply chains. Not a single company is on track to halve its emissions by 2030, the target necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (34.7 degrees Fahrenheit) and avert the most devastating effects of a hotter planet. Even eco-friendly brands, such as Patagonia, Allbirds, and Eileen Fisher, miss the mark, reinforcing the reality that there is no such thing as sustainable fashion.

“Over the past few years, we’ve been hearing a lot of PR announcements about fashion companies taking action to improve their sustainability,” says Muhannad Malas, Stand.earth’s senior climate campaigner who wrote this report. “But really, we’re hearing very little about what the fashion sector is doing to eliminate fossil fuels from its supply chain. Fossil fuels are the major contributor to climate emissions, and this sector is one of the biggest contributors to climate emissions globally.”

Code red for humanity

In August, the United Nations released a report that synthesized 14,000 studies and provided the most comprehensive summary to date of the science of climate change. The conclusions were bleak: Humans have caused so much harm to the planet that temperatures will almost certainly rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next two decades. Unless we drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, the planet will get even hotter, resulting in frequent life-threatening heat waves and droughts, and spurring the mass extinction of animal and plant species.

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The fashion industry plays a significant role in this crisis: Experts believe the sector is responsible for between 5% and 8% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Their manufacturing facilities are powered by coal; they rely heavily on fibers like polyester and nylon, which are derived from fossil fuels; and they ship products around the world on vessels that emit greenhouse gases.

Malas points out that over the last couple of years, many brands have touted their climate-friendly practices. Some, like Allbirds, have vowed to offset the carbon footprint in their stores and offices. Other, like Lululemon, have announced that they’re transitioning from using synthetic fibers, derived from fossil fuels, to plant-based synthetics. The problem is that around 80% of a fashion company’s emissions come from their manufacturing plants; another 10% comes from shipping. “What we really wanted to bring attention to is that companies have really focused on the tip of the iceberg when it comes to their climate policies,” Malas says. “Fashion brands are only focused on the actions they want us to see. They rarely talk about their manufacturing and shipping, which makes up the bulk of emissions.”

See the full list of grades here. [Screenshot: Stand.Earth]

Fashion brands are failing us

In this report, Stand.earth created a scorecard in which they gave each of the 47 fashion companies a grade. The brand with the highest mark is a small Swiss outdoor brand called Mammut, but it still scored a B-, followed by Nike, which received a C+. Things get more dire from there. Gap, Inditex (which owns Zara), Ralph Lauren, REI, and Lululemon all get Ds. And the vast majority of companies, from Everlane to Uniqlo to Prada to Kering (which owns brands like Gucci and Alexander McQueen) scored Fs.

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Malas points out that Stand.earth deliberately chose not to grade these companies on a curve. In other words, the report didn’t compare companies to one another; it compared them to where they need to be to avert a climate emergency. “The purpose of the scorecard was to assess the progress of the fashion sector in meeting the climate targets to be in line with the goal of limited global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” he says. “Ultimately, the scorecard shows that brands are really way behind where they need to be to reduce their emissions by 55% by 2030.”

The brands at the top of Stand.earth’s report—such as, Nike, Levis, Puma, and VF Corp (which owns Timberland and North Face)—are actively working to shift their supply chains away from fossil fuels, even if they’re not doing it fast enough. Most fashion companies don’t own their own factories, but rather partner with manufacturing facilities, usually in countries where labor is cheaper. Stand.earth gives brands higher scores when they demonstrate that they’re advocating for their manufacturers to switch to renewable energy. Nike, for instance, has been working with suppliers to remove coal boilers from factories. Meanwhile, Levi’s is advocating for more renewable energy in countries where it manufactures products.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that only large companies have the power to nudge manufacturing partners away from fossil fuels. In some ways, smaller companies can make changes in their supply chain more easily because they’re more nimble. The top-scoring brand, Mammut, is working to switch to renewable energy across its supply chain by 2030. This means deliberately choosing suppliers that use renewable energy, using zero-emissions shipping vessels, and reducing its reliance on fossil fuel-based materials. “They’re choosing to invest dollars and capacity in helping their supply chain partners to move off fossil fuels,” says Malas. “This is something that any brand can do; it’s just about making it a priority.”

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Transforming the supply chain is an uphill battle. The majority of manufacturing plants, and every single shipping vessel in the world, burns fossil fuels. But this report makes it clear that fashion companies, which drive a big part of the manufacturing and shipping sectors, have an important role to play in pushing these industries toward renewable industry. This is especially true if these large companies were to band together and act collectively.

The overconsumption problem

Part of the reason the fashion industry emits so much is that brands manufacture enormous volumes of clothes, which they sell at cheap prices. The sector churns out around 80 billion garments a year, for only 8 billion people on the planet. Malas says that the growth of fast fashion was made possible because synthetic fabrics are so inexpensive. Brands switched from costlier materials like cotton and silk to polyester and nylon, which are largely derived from fossil fuels. This made clothes more affordable for consumers, who bought more and more products.

But Malas also says that if the industry begins taking climate change seriously, brands would have to shift away from these oil-based synthetics to fibers with a lower carbon footprint. And since these materials are more expensive than synthetics, brands would have to raise their prices, which would potentially reduce consumption and waste.

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Over the last few years, many brands—from H&M and Everlane to Patagonia—have advertised that they’re using recycled polyester, made from old water bottles, because it’s more eco-friendly. Malas cautions that this material is also problematic. While it’s true that recycling water bottles into fibers emits fewer greenhouse gases than fracking fossil fuels to make fabrics, Malas says recycled polyester is effectively propping up the water bottle industry. “They are promoting the use of wasteful single-use plastic bottles, which are the feedstock for these fabrics,” he says.

Instead, Malas says brands need to invest in recycling technologies that can turn old fibers into new fibers, so they’re not relying on water bottles. They should also switch to more climate-friendly materials, like hemp and bamboo. But ultimately, Malas says the most crucial thing is for brands to eliminate fossil fuels from their supply chains. As consumers, it’s easy to focus on how a brand is using more sustainable fabrics, which can distract from the much bigger problem of manufacturing. “The first step companies must make is to commit to phasing out fossil fuels by 2030,” says Malas. “This will send the right signal to the market, to spur the kind of innovation necessary across the supply chain, including developing new materials. But it also offers a way for consumers and investors to hold companies accountable for the goal they’ve set.”

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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