Apparel's Impact on Climate Change
Updated: Oct 22, 2020
This September, we spent a week immersed in climate change conversations with delegates from all around the world. We were also very honored to take part as an affiliate in the Global Climate Action Summit with the production of an event that exposed the apparel industry’s carbon impact and solutions for a sustainable future.
Hosted at the California College of the Arts, Field to Fashion: Apparel’s Impact on Climate Change, welcomed pioneers in the sustainable movement who shared their expertise in life cycle analysis, carbon farming and forest conservation. Speakers included Brooke McEver, Co-founder of Sustainable Fashion Alliance and Product Lead at unspun; Lynda Grose, Fashion Director at CCA; Nicole Rycroft, founder of Canopy; Rebecca Burgess, founder of Fibershed; and Derek Sabori former VP of Sustainability at Volcom. The event's carbon impact was offset courtesy of Wildlife Works, a world's leader in REDD+, and attendees were equipped with notebooks provided by Field Notes as well as snacks and beverages generously donated by Bare Snacks and Revive Kombucha.
When we think of leading a more sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyle, it is our clothing that often gets overlooked. From raw materials to consumer use, apparel has a huge carbon footprint that accounts for more emissions than international flights and maritime shipping combined. For one, fast fashion relies on hazardous petrochemicals in order to make cheap clothing to feed our consumer appetite. Even popular semi-synthetics that have come onto the market to replace our polyesters and nylons-- like rayon, viscose and modal-- are made from trees and subsequently endanger forests and wild habitats. In fact, more than 150 million trees are cut down to make our clothing each year.
“We have a voracious appetite for forest fibers. It’s in our pizza boxes, the mail we send and receive, our clothing.” Said Nicole Rycroft of Canopy, a non profit that works with leading clothing brands and fashion designers to create permanent solutions for the world’s threatened forests. “It’s creating a devastating impact on biodiversity, on species like the orangutan, as well as frontline communities whose physical and cultural wellbeing is intricately linked to the forests’ ecosystems, as well as climate.”
In addition to founding Canopy and working with fashion brand partners include H&M, Zara/Inditex, Levi Strauss & Co., and Stella McCartney to protect last frontier forests, Rycroft is also the recipient of an Ashoka Fellowship, a Canadian Environment Award Gold Medal, along with numerous conservation and publishing industry awards.
“Forests have been identified as the fastest and most cost effective way to stabilize our climate, yet every year just over 2 gigatons of Co2 gets released from deforestation and degradation in the tropical landscape forests alone.” Rycroft went on to say that that number is only going to double in the next decade if we cannot make some significant changes. Our fast economy, with e-commerce on the rise, is not helping as 2 billion trees go into packaging each year.
Feeding into a disposable ‘take, make, waste’ model will only increase the 1.26 billion tons of greenhouse gases the apparel industry emits each year. But what if it were possible to have clothing with a net negative impact?
“So much of how I think of the climate change conversation is where is the carbon coming from that I’m wearing,” said Rebecca Burgess, Founder and Executive Director of Fibershed, a non profit that develops regional and regenerative fiber systems by expanding opportunities to implement carbon farming, rebuilding regional manufacturing, and connecting end-users to farms and ranches through public education.
Burgess is the Chair of the Board for Carbon Cycle Institute and has over two decades of experience at the intersection of restoration ecology and fiber systems. She is also the author of the best-selling book Harvesting Color, a bioregional look into the natural dye traditions of North America.
“Is this carbon coming from an old growth forest? Is this carbon coming from fossil sources? How much of the carbon in the supply chain can I account for, and which pool did the carbon come from? And, could I actually have a piece of clothing that moved carbon out of the atmosphere and into the soil?”
Many are not aware that California produces 3.1 million pounds of wool and 200 million pounds of cotton each year. Burgess took a show of hands to see who is the audience was wearing any fibers from California. “We live in a fiber system that is quite abundant, yet we aren’t wearing much of the fiber from our own system,” Burgess explained that these viable materials provide livelihoods to California farmers, yet are not being properly utilized. What would our future look like utilizing regionally grown, biodegradable materials instead of petroleum-based synthetic fabrics that rely on 98 million barrels of oil in 2015 and are estimated to use 300 million tons in 2050 .
In Northern California alone we have the most grass-fed, fiber-producing animals. If integrated to graze on managed landscapes where Carbon Farming practices and composting are being implemented, Climate Beneficial™ fibers can be produced. For example, Climate Beneficial™ wool, a net negative footprint wool produced through a regional and renewable energy powered supply chain, creates the potential for garments with a negative CO2 footprint.
“We’ve developed an understanding on the ten thousand acres that we’ve done soil , if we increase soil organic carbon by 1% we can offset the emissions of 118,000 cars.” Comparing conventional to Climate Beneficial™ production shows a carbon footprint difference of over 150 pounds of CO2 per garment.
“So, when you learn this information and you’re inspired by this information, what do you do with it? How do you turn it into reality?” Posed Derek Sabori, former VP of Sustainability at Volcom who started out at the company by answering phones in 1996. Since then, Sabori spent 14 years at Volcom, co-founded KOZM, a yoga-centered, sustainability-driven lifestyle brand and founded The Underswell, a company that helps to navigate the complexities of sustainability in our modern society through sustainability talks and consulting.
“For the last 12 years, Volcom has been slowly building cultivating a sustainability and CSR program that is becoming more and more a central part of the brand’s identity and marketing conversation.” With the help of Kering, a program that advocates sustainable luxury, Volcom was able to evaluate the impact of their supply chain through an EP&L report and take action to clean up their act.
“It’s one thing to go through that reporting process, but it’s another thing to respect the result that ensues and create a plan around it.” Sabori went on to talk about the “grilled cheese effect” describing how Volcom was grassroots in making sure collaboration was coming from both the executives and the employees. “That sandwich is only good and ready when you have the heat on both sides.”
So the Volcom team set the vision for a new future with messaging focused on keeping our oceans strong, our climate stable, and our society fully engaged. Four goals were also implemented to be accomplish by 2020: better fiber sourcing, as their main fabrics include cotton and polyester; better messaging; internal education and training; and closing the loop -- or at least making the steps and progress towards this milestone.
Images courtesy of Jordan Dozzi