Fashion’s Carbon Footprint

By Richard Schrader and Isabel Friedman | March 15, 2023

Glamor, glitz, and beauty are likely some of the first things that come to mind when thinking about the fashion industry. But this dazzling facade is far from the truth. Sadly, the fashion industry is often linked to human rights abuses and environmental degradation, primarily in the Global South where lax regulations exist. For a global industry that brings in $2.5 trillion a year, fashion has largely managed to escape adequate regulation in the countries in which it operates. When it comes to the environment, the fashion industry touches on nearly every pressing issue, including climate change, water use, animal husbandry, deforestation, and fossil fuels.

The fashion industry emits somewhere between 4 and 8.6 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions; which is more than France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined. This level of emission is concerning, especially as scientists warn that the planet’s climate is at the “code red” level and humanity is facing a climate emergency. As climate change is exacerbated, the number of climate-related disasters, and therefore the level of human suffering, will only increase. new study even shows that flooding and wind damage from hurricanes is getting more common, a trend that will accelerate and threaten millions of people as the Earth warms.

Clothing and other textiles are being bought globally at such a scale that the sector’s environmental footprint is the fourth largest, after food, housing, and transportation. The fashion industry produces 1.2 million metric tons of carbon each year and it will only increase as demand increases if there is no oversight. Transporting materials and finished products accounts for much of the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions, as does material sourcing and garment production. For example, polyester and synthetic production require 1.3 billion barrels of oil annually. Though fashion brands have increasingly disclosed the annual carbon footprint within brands’ own facilities and operations, transparency decreases further down the supply chain where up to 80% of the sector’s emissions occur. On top of this, the life cycle of products has been significantly reduced by fast fashion, such that items are worn just seven times on average before disposal. The rapid disposal of these products burdens landfills and produces further greenhouse gases.

But there is a solution and it’s coming from within New York State, one of the world’s fashion capitals. A first-of-its-kind bill, called “the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act,” would provide the much-needed protections and transparency that the fashion industry currently lacks. First, the Act will mandate that companies know and disclose their supply chains down to the acquisition of raw materials. This is important because fashion companies often do not know where their production is taking place, which makes it impossible for them to begin to take responsibility or improve labor and environmental conditions.

Next, the Fashion Act would require companies be responsible for their impact in those supply chains, through a mandatory due diligence framework, which requires companies to sufficiently identify, prevent, and remediate adverse impacts to human rights and the environment in their operations and supply chain. Within the framework, the bill will require companies to set and achieve science-based targets for emission reductions in line with the Paris Agreement. If passed, the Fashion Act would be a global leader in reducing the carbon footprint of the fashion industry by requiring these targets. Companies would also be required to improve water management, increase the use of recyclable materials, and work with suppliers to manage their chemical use.

Fines for noncompliance with the Fashion Act would accrue in a community fund that would be used for environmental justice projects in New York State to benefit the communities most impacted by pollution. This Act would not encumber small businesses, only companies with $100 million in annual sales globally that operate within the state.

The fashion industry’s emissions fly in the face of New York’s landmark climate legislation, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in New York by 40 percent by 2030. If New York is serious about climate change, it must also look at the industries doing business within the state and hold them accountable. It’s laughable to expect the fashion industry to regulate itself. The Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act is the oversight that the global fashion industry is sorely lacking.

Richard Schrader is the New York Legislative and Policy Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council and Isabel Friedman is the Senior Program Coordinator for the Natural Resources Defense Council based in New York, NY.