Report: Global fashion sector will emit double its Paris Agreement limit by 2030

The companies will fund the construction of new pulp mills

That is according to new analysis from McKinsey and Global Fashion Agenda, entitled ‘Fashion on Climate’.

The report calculated emissions from the global apparel and footwear industry in 2019, accounting for sources from raw material production to product disposal, to be 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2e, or 4% of the global total. This, in itself, makes fashion a higher emitter than aviation.

Researchers then forecast the likely growth of emissions from the industry through to 2030, taking into account megatrends such as population growth and e-commerce, concluding that an annual compound growth rate of 2.7% is likely on a business-as-usual trajectory. As such, the sector would be producing 2.7 billion tonnes of CO2e each year from 2030. In order to comply with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C trajectory, the research states, annual net emissions from the sector would need to fall below 1.1 billion tonnes by 2030.

While praising the efforts of the major fashion firms with 1.5C-aligned climate targets – including Chanel and VF Corporation – and the small fashion brands which have built themselves around low-emission models, the researchers concluded that accelerated action is needed at all parts of the value chain.

They identified three key priority areas for action, based on their high emissions and the cost-effectiveness of abating emissions, namely upstream supply chain operations; direct operations and consumer behaviours. Acting on upstream emissions alone could deliver 61% of the reduction needed, the report states, with recommended actions including transitioning to renewable energy, improving energy efficiency and minimising waste.

As for direct operations, brands are making progress on sourcing renewable electricity but must now tackle emissions associated with logistics and returns; staff transport; materials used in garments and materials used in packaging. A major drive to tackle overproduction is also needed, the report states, noting that 40% of fashion products are marked down and that more than 100 billion products are manufactured annually.

Regarding consumer behaviour, the report encourages customer-facing fashion companies to create and scale up repair, resale and rental services, which minimise the material footprint of fashion while still generating a profit. Smaller emissions reductions can also be generated by encouraging the general public to wash their clothing less often and at lower temperatures, and to prioritise air-drying over tumble drying.

At the same time, companies across the value chain must join up and accelerate efforts to bring textiles recycling infrastructure and systems to scale. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that less than 1% of clothing produced annually is recycled into new garments. 73%, in contrast, is landfilled or burned.

Approximately 55% of the actions detailed in the report could be delivered with net cost savings, the report concluded, and a further 35% could be delivered with a cost of $50 per tonne of CO2e or lower.

Global Fashion Agenda’s chief executive Eva Kruse said she is “confident” that the report will help decision-makers across the sector to “better understand where to focus their efforts and still reap the most impact of their investments”.

“The pandemic has shown us how interconnected we are and how we also possess the capacity to change,” Kruse said. “However, real long-lasting change hinges on the fashion industry’s ability to come together, so we can rise to the occasion and play a leading role in combatting climate change.”

A mixed picture

The G7 summit in summer 2019 was cause for celebration for many campaigning for a low-carbon fashion industry. It played host to the unveiling of the Fashion Pact, which binds signatories to set science-based emissions reduction targets in line with a 1.5C trajectory. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), meeting this target will require most organisations to reach net-zero carbon status by 2050.

Initial signatories of the Pact included orchestrator Kering, the owner of brands like Gucci and Saint Laurent; Inditex, the owner of Zara; Nike; H&M Group; Burberry and Adidas. These signatories were then joined by the likes of Mango, Farfetch and El Corte Ingles in October 2019.

Nonetheless, McKinsey and Global Fashion Agenda claim that only 50 fashion majors have comprehensive, 1.5C-aligned targets and are taking action to achieve them.

While many firms have time-bound targets for reaching 100% renewable energy in their operations, with several extending this commitment to the supply chain in the wake of the IPCC’s 2018 report, less action has been taken to combat overproduction and move to more resource-efficient business models. One piece of research found that the global fashion sector will need to use 75% less virgin resources in 2030 than it did in 2018 if it wishes to align with the Paris Agreement and to stop over-extracting natural resources.

Sarah George

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