The recently published RetailX Global Fashion 2023 report has highlighted that the fashion industry’s environmental impact has several facets, which contributed to it releasing 1.2bn tonnes of greenhouse gases into the environment in 2022.
The manufacture of first materials and then garments accounts for a sizeable part of this, although shipping of goods from manufacture to sale – often literally on the other side of the world – and the subsequent disposal of discarded items, often involving long-haul shipping from developed countries to the developing world, produces enormous amounts of pollution. The addition of collection of old clothes for recycling, repair and remaking also adds to this environmental impact.
• Raw materials and fabric manufacture – The global fashion industry contributes around 4% of global carbon emissions annually, with a proportion of this coming from the cultivation, harvesting and transport of the raw materials used in making the materials used in making the clothes.
The market is dominated by two main fibres: man-made polyester and naturally occurring cotton – which is bridgeable. Cotton, while having some impact in terms of fertilisers and water, is less impactful than fossil-fuel derived polyester. As a result, there has been a swing towards using cotton, alone and as a blend with polyester.
• Shipping to market – It is extremely rare to find raw material cultivation and processing along with manufacturing all taking place in the same location. Sales certainly usually occur elsewhere. This produces a significant amount of environmental impact, with shipping by sea accounting for 3% of global CO2 emissions. However, shipping is the most environmentally friendly means of long-haul bulk transport.
• Delivery to stores and customers – Shipping raw materials to manufacture, moving goods to markets and then, in the case of ecommerce, on to the customer, produces even more CO2, since much of this movement is handled by road – with road haulage accounting for 30% of global CO2 emissions.
• Returns – Ecommerce fashion purchases has the added environmental impact of many items being returned – and shipping items back and forth can only exacerbate the transportation carbon emissions. There is the added impact here of packaging, which is often consigned to waste when opened. When returned and resold, these goods are subsequently repacked, vastly increasing packaging waste.
• Disposal – Both fast and slow fashion items eventually come to the end of their useful life and need to be disposed of. Currently, much of this is sent to landfill – both in the market where it was used and overseas – or is incinerated. Both produce vast quantities of CO2 and other toxic chemicals.
Dumping in places such as the Atacama Desert or in the sea is also starting to become a headline-grabbing alternative, with clothing washing up on beaches worldwide in vast quantities. Biodegradable materials can help reduce this widespread marine damage.
This feature was authored by Paul Skeldon, and originally appeared in the RetailX Global Fashion 2023 report. Download it in full to discover how global online fashion consumers find what they want and where social media and advertising plays its part.
As the UK and the US are two of the biggest markets for online fashion, the report looks at what does each one look like up close? The Transatlantic Focus section details consumer spends, trends and attitudes.