The Outside View: Fashion’s Paved Path to Carbon Neutrality

Circularity is no longer fashion’s “hot” sustainability topic. While thinking circularly is a great first step, the entire industry is embarking on the next big frontier: tracking carbon impact. Reducing corporate carbon footprints is becoming less performative as the impacts of climate change continue to hit closer and closer to home. All hands are finally on deck for behind-the-scenes action, not just sustainability heavyweights like Patagonia, Kering and Eileen Fisher. This is an undertaking for our entire global community.

Collective Commitment

Several carbon commitments have been made recently, underscoring the common understanding of how dire the climate crisis is. The Textile Exchange, a global industry nonprofit that brings stakeholders together to collaborate (I’ve been on the board since its inception in 2002), launched its 2030 strategy, “Climate Plus,” at the last in-person Textile Sustainability Conference in 2019. Climate Plus promises that Textile Exchange will “be the driving force for urgent climate action with a goal of 45 percent reduced CO2 emissions from textile fiber and material production by 2030.”

This shared vision is paramount, as textile processing is the most energy-intensive step in fashion manufacturing. Another sweeping 2030 pooled commitment was organized by B Corp Climate Collective shortly thereafter, at the U.N. Climate Change Conference, COP25. Over 900 companies joined their NetZero 2030 pledge. This 2030 date is in line with the sobering 2018 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Report that stated we have as little as 12 years to hit the 1.5-degree Celsius targets to avoid a global climate disaster point of no return.

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Amazon, too, is stepping up to be carbon neutral by 2040. By expanding its marketplace offerings to include more eco-minded brands, Amazon is now striving to serve the rising demand for sustainability, while also pushing existing partners to embed sustainability’s added value into their current products.

Sustainability is no longer about staying ahead — it’s about not getting left behind. This must be a communal effort or we all lose. The good news? By co-creating responsible solutions with a large group of organizations and partnerships, we can redefine competition as “coopertition” and learn from one another — driving exponential positive impacts while sharing in the successes across sectors and stakeholders. My d-to-c sustainable apparel brand, Yes And, and parent company Ecofashion Corp, has committed to be carbon net zero by Nov. 11, 2022. Our goal is to be role models for the future of fashion, while supporting other brands and retailers that want to scale their efforts through our turnkey manufacturing company, MetaWear.

Tools to Mitigate Carbon at Every Step of the Supply Chain

Thus far, most fashion brands have tackled their carbon impacts with dubious offsetting or energy saving strategies in physical stores. These are great first steps, but there are so many other ways to reduce carbon impacts to zero, or even reach climate positivity. These plans require new levels of understanding and an unwavering willingness to adapt. 

First, we have to reduce carbon at the fiber level. We must phase out petrochemical-based synthetic fibers. Not only do plastics release greenhouse gases at every step of their lifecycle, they are polluting our waterways and hindering the work of our atmosphere’s greatest natural carbon offsetter — our ocean’s phytoplankton. Natural fibers are not all perfect either, though. Fiber farming practices should be regenerative and organic to trap carbon in the soil and build water retention that reduces runoff. Soil is the skin of the earth — we need to protect and nurture it.

Genetically modified crops and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides should be avoided, as they are produced using significant amounts of energy and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Tree-based cellulosic fiber is best sourced from mills committed to reforestation, such as Lenzing. Another great material starting point is recycled fibers and/or deadstock. By choosing recycled raw materials, the carbon footprint necessary to grow, spin, weave and dye fiber is avoided. 

Next, at the mill and factory level, renewable energy is a must. Wet processing is the most energy-intensive stage in fashion manufacturing. Massive dye vats are kept hot constantly; enormous spinning machines and power looms fill warehouse-sized factories, and industrial washers and dryers are used in dyeing, to preshrink fabric, and for garment washes. Especially in developing countries, coal is still used for energy; China and India are the two largest consumers of coal in the world. We must collectively invest in solar, geothermal, and wind energy to power the stages of manufacturing which are most energy-intensive.

Another overlooked carbon touchpoint is supply chain efficiency. By streamlining, we not only increase transparency, we save money, energy, and emissions. At Ecofashion Corp, our farmers, mills and factories are generally within driving distance of one another. Another added bonus of keeping our supply chain vertically integrated is the ability to measure the positive impacts on the communities we serve and to offset directly in the environments that are affected.

Technology is an important tool to benchmark, trace, and hold accountable all players in the system. Whether using blockchain, RFID, or genetic tracing, there is no longer any excuse for not knowing exactly where and when materials move through the supply chain. As a tool for carbon neutrality, tech tracing also helps data collection for more accurate carbon calculations.

Choosing sea freight versus air for shipping is an obvious choice, as is reshoring and/or nearshoring to reduce emissions. Because there is always an impact with transportation, as we know it now, carbon sequestration in the earlier stages of production is key.

Most companies have a huge opportunity to use the above strategies to inset carbon emissions, which means to reduce the impacts when and where they happen in our supply chains. Offsetting the remainder of one’s carbon impact could, in theory, not even be necessary if the previously mentioned tools are in place. Since many organizations are not there yet, some offsetting ideas include planting trees, investing in wind or solar farms, and partnering with like-minded environmental initiatives that capture carbon. 

As for engaging consumers in the journey to carbon net zero, Yes And recently launched a program with Ecodrive to empower our customers to take responsibility for the carbon emissions that occur between the warehouse and their front door. We co-create threefold with our customers and Ecodrive to plant enough trees to offset e-commerce delivery emissions. Sustainable lingerie brand We Are Hah is committed to #startsomewear and uses a variety of low-impact materials and strategies to reduce carbon impact throughout their business. Their “green menu” engages customers in learning about and choosing how they wish make a difference with their purchase.

Partners and Certifications

Understandably, the full breadth of opportunities to achieve carbon neutralities cannot be realized without the help of outside experts. Textile Exchange leads the way in “material change,” with expert fiber guidance for the deepest tiers of your supply chains, not to mention their sustainability certifications, such as OCS (Organic Cotton Content Standard) and GRS (Global Recycled Standard), to just name a few. Gold Standard and Natural Capital Partners are other longstanding expert organizations that offer offset, inset and carbon neutrality plans. Green Story helps to quantify carbon impact data for benchmarking, reporting and communication. Pure Strategy offers a wide variety of tailored sustainability guidance for their clients. Taking inventory of carbon up through the supply chain is not something companies are prepared to do on their own — we must seek strategic partnerships to co-create carbon neutrality (or better yet — climate positivity) together. 

Smaller start-up brands with sustainability in their DNA are fortunate because solutions are the starting point. In my business, offset projects directly impact the communities that serve us, since they are in the same villages where we have farms or factories. While this is simpler for a small to mid-size conscious company, it requires serious long-term dedication and an honest desire to change by corporate-sized brands and retailers. 

We collectively brought climate change about and it wasn’t easy. Drilling, mining, refining, processing — none of these everyday processes started out simple. It’s time to join forces to design and scale a new kind of industrial revolution — one that heals, restores and regenerates, so that we all can thrive. 

 

Marci Zaroff coined the term “eco-fashion” and is an internationally recognized eco-lifestyle expert, educator, innovator and serial eco-preneur.

 

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