When we arrive in a shop the environmental impact of what we are about to purchase may not be front of mind. More often than not, this environmental cost is not shared with us at the point of purchase. Unpacking the environmental impact of an individual garment is not a simple task and does not fit onto one small label.
Before we start it is important to acknowledge the environmental impacts I will explore are systemic to this sector. Today the production direction of a garment is linear. Meaning brands take and make and we the consumer dispose. The carbon footprint of each garment is determined by the strategic priorities of a brand and it is these priorities that need to change in order to decarbonise this sector.
In this article I will explore the source of carbon emissions within the global apparel supply chain by analysing the different stages of a garment’s lifecycle: material production & processing, manufacturing, logistics, retail, consumer use and its end of life and examine how these stages contribute to the apparel sector’s overall emissions and consequently, its alarming impact on today's climate emergency.
All clothing begins with a design and a choice of which materials will bring that design to life. The production and processing of raw materials used in the garment manufacturing industry is one of the most carbon intensive stages of a garment’s lifecycle. Materials are either synthetic (e.g. petroleum-based fibres such as polyester) or natural (e.g. cotton). The sheer volume of emissions released from the extraction of petroleum and the frequent use of fertilizers for natural materials are only two examples of the energy intensive processes which turn these materials into fibres which are then dyed and formulated into fabrics ready for sewing and assembly.
In addition, the vast majority of materials used in clothing today are not recycled. These materials and how they are blended into a fabric will ultimately determine whether a garment is recyclable or if it will eventually end up in a landfill. For example, it is common practice for garment manufacturers to resort to the use of blended materials to reduce cost while seemingly improving the quality and finish of the garment Such blended materials, once produced, owing to their nature and constitution, can prove extremely costly to deconstruct into their original materials for recycling and reuse. The more expensive the road to recycling is for a garment, the more assured is its journey to a landfill.
At the manufacturing stage a choice can be made to use recycled materials or sustainably sourced natural fibres. This will come from the strategic direction of the brand: focus on the lowest price or the most sustainable fibre? Unfortunately, making the sustainable choice today is often the costlier option. This is because what is known as the "true cost" (i.e. the social and environmental cost of a material) is not factored into the retail price presented to the consumer. To make matters worse, much of the technology to produce sustainable fibres is not yet available at scale. So, an environmentally detrimental material and process is cheaper than one that is better for the planet. Similarly, the search for low-cost manufacturing means that the manufacturers of the final garment are often unable to invest in energy-efficient machinery and renewable electricity, resulting in carbon-intensive manufacturing.
Once the garments have been manufactured, often in developing countries, they have to be transported to where they will be sold, which adds to their environmental impact. Garments are mostly shipped by sea freight; however, last-minute orders are shipped by air freight, which is relatively much more carbon-intensive.
Once the consumer arrives at a shop or an online platform, the emissions of that garment are locked-in (i.e. all the supply chain emissions have taken place and these decisions will largely determine the consumer use emissions). What may surprise you is that at this point our choice of how we use and dispose of garments can be as carbon-intensive, if not more so, than all of the emissions associated with the production of the garment. The consumer’s choices around the washing, drying and ironing of clothing is almost as important as the brand’s original choice of materials and manufacturing in determining the lifetime emissions of a garment. How to make the right choices at this stage will be explored in my fourth article of this series.
The less we wear something, the higher the emissions per garment. On average, consumers today wear a garment only 10 times before it is disposed of and almost half of fast fashion is produced and disposed of in under a year. Extending a garment’s life by just three months can reduce its lifetime emissions by 3% [that is a potential 12% reduction in just one extra year].
Once we have decided to part with the garment, we may donate it to charity, return it to the brand for recycling, or simply put it into our normal bins. Despite current efforts, less than 1% of materials used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing. The reasons for the small rate are that: not enough materials are recycled, not enough clothing is designed for recyclability in the first place, and the infrastructure and technology required to collect and recycle clothing either does not exist or is not available at the scale we need it to truly move away from the current linear model that defines the sector.
From linear to circular
So yes, the current production, consumption and disposal practices of the global garment retail manufacturing industry are unsustainable. Annually, we throw away almost as much clothing as we produce. This linear process, where decision-makers within brands lack the right incentive structures to drive sustainable production choices, and consumers paradoxically buy more and wear less. Luckily there is a solution – it is called "circularity", and I will discuss this systemic solution to overconsumption and overproduction in my next article.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own as an individual.
References  Please note that while there are many more factors affecting sustainability in the sector (such as worker rights, chemicals and water usage), this article will be focusing on the impact of carbon emissions.  Business for Social Responsibility, Apparel Industry Life Cycle Mapping (2009)  Ibid  Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group, Pulse of the fashion industry (2018)  Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future (2017)  WRAP Sustainable Clothing Action Plan https://wrap.org.uk/sustainable-textiles/scap  Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future (2017)