Report Outlines How to Fix the Fashion Industry's Enormous Emissions Problem

The Hot or Cool Institute says there's greater value in lifestyle changes than technological innovation.

used clothing market in Amsterdam

vuk8691 / Getty Images

It's hard not to love clothes. Beyond their practical purpose, they reflect one's personality and priorities. Clothes spark conversations and harbor memories. They feel good and boost confidence—and they're an easy way to inject some novelty into one's life. A quick purchase here and there adds variety to a closet and gives a person something to look forward to wearing.

The problem, however, is that many of us are doing too much of this. The fashion industry is one of the biggest global emitters of greenhouse gases, even according to the most conservative estimates. In Europe, it is the fourth largest contributor to those emissions after housing, transport, and food. The fashion industry is well on its way to doubling its emissions by 2030, and if no decarbonization actions are taken, will be emitting 2.7 billion tonnes of CO2e by that same year. Continuing at that rate, it could use over a quarter of the world's carbon budget by 2050.

A new report from the Hot or Cool Institute, titled "Unfit, Unfair, Unfashionable: Resizing Fashion for a Fair Consumption Space," analyzes the fashion situation in G20 countries. Recognizing that "global emissions must be reduced by 45-55% by 2030 if we are to have a 50% chance to stay below 1.5 degrees warming," its authors present an "equity-based footprint target" for per-capita fashion consumption for 2030.

The report strives to fill a knowledge gap that exists in the current climate scenarios relating to fashion. Most research focuses on technology-based solutions to mitigating the problem while disregarding or downplaying the role of lifestyle changes. But this report shows that personal changes do make a difference and that many common "eco-friendly" practices, such as donating secondhand clothes to the developing world, may have a net-negative effect.

The Necessity of Less

Fashion consumption is profoundly unequal among and within countries. The richest 20% of Britons emit 83% above the 1.5-degree target, while 74% of Indonesians live below sufficiency consumption levels for fashion. People in the richest G20 countries (Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, U.K., U.S.) must reduce their fashion-related footprints by an average of 60% by 2030 in order to stay on track for the 1.5-degree target. Upper-middle-income countries (Argentina, Brazil, China, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Turkey) must reduce theirs by over 40%.

These necessary reductions would bring consumption down to what the report calls a fair consumption space, defined as "a space where consumption levels stay below environmentally unsustainable levels yet above sufficiency levels that allow individuals to fulfill their basic needs." Individuals with higher footprints are required to make greater reductions than those already living with less.

fair consumption space

Hot or Cool Institute

Where Emissions Occur

The graphs denoting where emissions occur along a garment's lifecycle are fascinating. A significant 84% of greenhouse gas emissions embodied in fashion consumption "occur in upstream production, from fibre cultivation to garment tailoring and finishing." As consumption levels lower and use-times increase (which happens in lower income countries), the carbon footprint of upstream production decreases while the impact of the use and disposal phases increases.

What this means, however, is that donating and exporting secondhand clothes to developing markets is a less effective climate-fighting strategy than many would like to believe—simply because the disposal phase represents so little of an item's overall impact. From the report: "On average, about 10% of emissions occurring in the disposal phase of garments are linked to second-hand donations and exports. Around 30% of used clothes exported are directly incinerated or landfilled at the destination."

carbon footprint in fashion consumption

Hot or Cool Institute

What's the Solution?

This is where the report really shines, with its emphasis on practical solutions. It turns out that reducing purchases of new clothes is the single most effective way to reduce fashion's carbon footprint, leading to reductions more than four times greater than the next best solution, which is increasing use time of garments, and over 3 times higher than what is considered achievable through accelerated decarbonization of the fashion industry.

Other valuable actions include repairing and mending items, washing less and at lower temperatures, and buying secondhand. But if none of these is implemented, "purchases of new garments should be limited to an average 5 items per year for achieving consumption levels in line with the 1.5-degree target."

If you recoil at the thought of fashion quotas, Lewis Akenji, director of the Hot or Cool Institute, pointed out in a presentation for the report's launch that some degree of rationing is inevitable. "This is what governments do," he said. They can ration resource use, pollution, level of volume and frequency in the market and fashion cycle. This is done through taxes or altering practices around returns. "There's a broad spectrum of possibilities [and] it's an inevitable part of the discussion."

a sufficiency wardrobe

Hot or Cool Institute

Perhaps it's comforting to think of fashion quotas in terms of a "sufficiency wardrobe," another concept presented in the report. This refers to figuring out what one needs to dress well (spoiler alert: it's less than you think!) and not exceeding those limits. 

Wardrobe sizes have ballooned over the past century. "In the 1950s, a guide for good dressing for an adult woman living in a city referred to 42 pieces of garments (excluding accessories and underwear) as being enough to cover a whole year’s needs for different types of garments." A 2019 study found that "the wardrobe size in the Netherlands varies from 70 pieces up to 429 pieces (excluding undergarments) and proposed a total of 80 pieces as the sufficient amount to fulfill wearing needs."

During the report's launch, guest panelist Dilys Williams, director of the London-based Centre for Sustainable Fashion and Professor of Fashion Design for Sustainability, reframed the question of the sufficiency wardrobe in the following way: "How do we become more selective about the things we choose to represent ourselves?" 

She said a sufficiency wardrobe is not limiting, but rather selective. "It's about joy and delight and rarity, which is the premise of luxury." Indeed, if we're only buying five items a year, we can likely afford to spend more time planning, choosing, and caring for those pieces—almost like a piece of wearable artwork.

capsule wardrobe on a rack

Elizaveta Shishlyannikova / Getty Images

Nevertheless, the report does call for fashion consumption to be reframed as a functional service, rather than an emotional experience, in order to avoid overconsumption. "The emotional aspects intrinsic to experiencing fashion, changing garments and experimenting with self-expression could be filled by other practices such as providing skills for modifying or mending one own's clothes, using upcycled materials, and changing the attitude towards fashion aesthetics (i.e., new is not always the best choice)."

Meanwhile, the promotion of unsustainable fashion behaviors should be discouraged in media and popular culture, according to guidelines attached to government funding and film licensing. Moves such as banning free returns and next-day deliveries could cut down on impulse purchases, while implementing repair centers and circular business models would make sustainable consumption more attainable.

The general message of the report is one of hopefulness. One is struck, of course, by the direness of the situation, but also feels empowered by the numerous practical solutions that accompany the mind-boggling statistics and fascinating graphs. The Hot or Cool Institute has done a thorough job and managed to present information in a highly readable and engaging format.

You can read the full report here.