Circular Textiles x Climate Action

Natalia Papu
Sep 25, 2019 · 11 min read

September 20th has kicked off a week of the largest ever Global Climate Strike yet. The youth is leading the way, hollering loud: “Our house is on fire, let’s act like it.’’ And it’s true. We are on fire. We, in the Brazilian Amazonia, we in Portugal, we in Greece and we in the United States . Some of us are not on fire, but under water: we in India, we in Nepal, we in Pakistan, we in Sierra Leone, and we in Nigeria. And this list goes on. The Earth’s temperature has risen approximately 1°C above pre-industrial levels in 2017, largely due to human-induced warming, according to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in 2018. These changes make us both actors and spectators of unprecedented risks, now materialising over numerous populations and ecosystems.

This is not about scaremongering. It is about understanding that, increasingly, natural disasters are emerging from the substantially human-driven changes in climate patterns over the past decades. Every year, we find ourselves overshooting the use of our planet Earth’s resources, especially in countries driving production and consumption.The Earth has started to show us the consequences of this behaviour and it is about time we start taking serious action to change these trends.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Paris Agreement have recognized the ability of humans to influence geophysical planetary processes. We have been doing so in an incredibly negative curve since 1750, without placing due attention on the consequences of our actions. Our economy is carbon-intensive, meaning that the amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere is higher than the amount our planet can uptake in its “natural sinks”, resulting in increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. The main contributor to rising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions — including CO2, but also methane and nitrous amongst others — is the widespread of fossil-fuel-based lifestyles, accelerated by deforestation, agriculture, changes in land use, and soil erosion.

Of course, we cannot overlook the fact that this economy is also the one that allowed for increased life expectancy and income in certain regions of the world, and hence, has taken millions of people out of poverty and into the middle classes, with access to health and education. Nevertheless, it has also grown poverty and inequality, and degraded the environment and its resources.

The Paris Agreement instils us to limit the temperature rise well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The overall question behind all initiatives and frameworks is: can we ensure climate justice for every human being on planet Earth? This entails that we need to think of our economy as embedded within the boundaries of our planet. Equity then becomes an essential parameter of climate action, as action pathways always bare different trade-offs. Even the IPCC report, which lays certain pathways ahead, states uncertainty as to which of them are more consistent with the principle of equity. It is understood that the lack of equity not only has to do with differential bearing of the impact but also with differential contributions to the problem, under-representation in shaping the solutions and response strategies as well as an asymmetrical preparation for future response capacity. The differences present themselves not only between countries, but also within generations and individuals.

It is time to work towards new practices that rethink systemically the interconnectivity required across the globe and between individuals. And if we talk about a life and a global economy within planetary boundaries, what stake does the apparel and textiles industry, and the current and future professionals of which it comprises, have in the climate fight?

The Apparel & Textiles Industry x Climate Impact

Annually, around 103 million tonnes of fibres are produced. It is estimated that the global consumption has reached an average of 11.4 kg of textile fibres per capita. This means that, if we all consumed similarly, each person around the world would be responsible for 442 kg of CO2 equivalent yearly due to apparel and textile consumption. This amount is equivalent to every single person on Earth driving a car for 2400 km.

Oxfam's Second Hand September awareness campaign.

It is estimated in a report by Quantis that the carbon footprint of the textile industry for apparel use is roughly 6.7% of the total global climate impacts a year. When combined with footwear, this accounts for approximately 8.1% of global climate impacts. On other organisations’ reporting, Systain Consulting Gmbh and the Otto Group have jointly researched the carbon footprint of certain textiles and state that the purchase of a 100% cotton t-shirt (220grs) accounts for 10.75 kg of CO2 equivalent, which is equivalent to driving a car for 56 km.

Quantis also points out that the main drivers of the industry’s global CO2 footprint are the dyeing and finishing, the yarn preparation and the fibre production stages across the value chain. The impacts within dyeing and finishing are mostly due to energy-intensive processes reliant on coal and natural gas. While the industry has doubled its garment production between 2000 and 2014, the impacts of production on climate change have increased 35% between 2005 and 2016 and are expected to increase a further 49% from a 2016 baseline.

The significant role that we play in creating, and therefore also curbing, climate emergency is clear. Then why isn’t the wheel moving fast enough when it comes to mitigation and adaptation strategies? Several studies refer to the lack of consumer awareness as a key issue preventing action. Oxfam interviewed 1000 adults in the UK, of which 53% have responded to be unaware of the environmental impacts of fast fashion. Several campaigning groups are tackling this issue through activism, such as Extinction Rebellion in the UK, who have taken the fashion industry on specifically, recently staging a funeral march during the end of London Fashion Week. “What we’re here to do is to increase the level of awareness around climate change and highlight the urgent nature of things” highlights Ecotextile news from Sara Arnold’s words at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion.

Let us look at a recent journey within the apparel and textiles industry; what has the industry been doing so far for climate action?

The Apparel & Textiles Industry x Climate Action

Three main initiatives live in the space of textiles and apparel in the fight against climate change: the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi); the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Fashion Industry Charter; and very recently the Fashion Pact. All of these initiatives strive to connect climate science to target setting and implementation of activities to decrease climate impact within the apparel and textiles industry. Commitment is growing, concrete action remains to be seen.


June 2015 — The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) officially launches, with the aim to mobilise businesses to set targets based on climate science and support them in their transition towards the low-carbon economy. SBTI is a collaboration between the formerly Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), World Resources Institute (WRI), World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and We Mean Business Coalition. No fashion brands were committed at the moment of launch.

December 2016 — Kering becomes the first apparel brand to have approved Science-Based Targets, committing to reduce their emissions by 50% per unit of value added by 2025 from upstream transportation and distribution, business air travel and fuel and energy related emissions (2015 base-year) and to reduce their value chain emissions from purchased goods and services by 40% per unit of value added.

June 2017: Marks & spencer set their Science-Based Targets and the SBTi Guidance for the Apparel Sector Project starts with a scoping phase.

September 2017 — Gap Inc., NIKE, Inc., Levi Strauss & Co., GUESS, EILEEN FISHER and VF Corporation join SBTi.

Source: UNFCCC Fashion Industry Charter

December 2018 — UNFCCC launches of the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, where 43 organisations within the fashion industry commit to take bigger steps to address climate impact of the industry. This Charter includes a target of 30% GHG emission reduction by 2030, drawing upon methodology from the SBTi.

Paul Polman delivering his speech at 2019 Copenhagen Fashion Summit.

13 June 2019 — Open letter from the United Nations Global Compact, the SBTi and We Mean Business Coalition, addresses business leaders around the world to join the Climate Action commitments. With the UN Climate Action Summit 2019 next 23 September and after a breathtaking speech at the latest Copenhagen Fashion Summit, Paul Polman returns as a signatory of the letter together with 20 other global leaders.

24 June 2019 — SBTi partner, WRI, presents the new guidance for the apparel sector at ITMA. Currently, 647 companies have committed to SBTi, although only 232 have approved targets. Although 21 apparel and textile companies have joined SBTi, only 9 signatories with approved targets are directly linked to the fashion industry. These are: ASICS, H&M, Kering, Levi Strauss & Co., Skunkfunk, Marks & Spencer, Target Corporation, Tesco and Walmart.

26 June 2019 — PUMA & Burberry set their Science-Based Targets, both committing to a reduction in the emissions of their value chain. PUMA will aim to reduce its value chain emissions by 60% per million-Euro in sales between 2017 and 2030, while Burberry have set themselves to reduce their value chain emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

23 August 2019–32 fashion & textile businesses sign the Fashion Pact in France, committing to establish targets and take action on reducing global emissions to zero by 2050, restoring biodiversity and protecting the oceans. This Pact, ‘fostered’ by Kering, draws as well on SBTi, so direct action on emissions in the value chain will remain key to the success of this initiative. As the Fashion Pact is not legally binding, only the close collaboration and joint investment with suppliers along the chain will bring results.

August 2019 — G-Star joins other 56 signatories to the UNFCCC Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, committing to reduce total emissions of its value chain and own operations by 30 per cent.

So, what can the industry do about it?

Set your targets

Apparel and textiles have a critical stake in global emissions. The foundation behind all climate action commitments seems to rely on Science-Based Target Setting. So, leverage existing tools to commit and evaluate your progress. This commitment should include target setting within the 3 scopes outlined within the Greenhouse Gas Protocol definitions:

- Scope 1 refers to “direct emissions from owned or controlled sources”

- Scope 2 refers to “indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling consumed by the reporting company”

- Scope 3 are “all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain”.

Measuring GHG emissions within your company’s value chain may be a complex and seemingly inaccessible task, however, so:

Involve everyone in the conversation

A levelled conversation between all value chain partners is essential. To date, according to KPMG, Fashion Summit, CITA & HSBC’s latest study, less than 15% of signatories to UNFCCC Fashion Charter have included their value chain related emissions within their Scope 3 emissions, limiting this scope to the reporting of transportation and distribution and business flights. Massive collaboration and access to accurate data is needed to assess climate action required at all stages of the value chain, as well as assessing the climate impact for each of these value chain actors.

Reduce your current (non-renewable) resource use

Switching to renewable energy and promoting energy efficiency have been rolled out by several business as a first step towards sustainability, with clear benefits in terms of climate impact. Quantis reports that, for the apparel and footwear industries, reaching 60% renewable energy by 2030 could bring a 39% climate impact reduction associated. Further, hitting a 60% energy productivity target by the same date could provide a 42.6% reduction. Examples of successful energy efficiency and stewardship implementation can be found in Levi Strauss Co. work on climate impact over the past years. By 2025, the company has committed to achieve a 90% reduction in GHG emissions and 100% renewable energy in owned-and-operated facilities, and a 40% reduction in GHG across their value chain. After piloting this approach with 6 of their suppliers in 2017, they have signed a $2.3 million cooperation with the International Finance Corporation to help meet the value chain target by working together with 42 suppliers across 10 countries in renewable energy implementation and water saving interventions.

Switch to more circular and sustainable materials

Human-driven environmental impacts such as fires, droughts, or floods do not only affect the population living in the region, but also affect the perception of the market regarding how business as usual is fuelling both the proverbial and literal fire. In the last weeks we have seen VF Corporation, H&M and Burberry temporarily ban their sourcing of leather from Brazil due to human-driven Amazonian fires. A key strategy in climate mitigation is the switch from non-renewable and virgin inputs to renewable, recycled and recyclable inputs. Automated sorting technologies that can enable post-consumer textiles to be used as accurate feedstock for textile-to-textile recyclers, such as the Fibersort, are a key step in the textiles value chain. Spinners, can then incorporate recycled materials into their processes. Spanish spinner, Hilaturas Ferré, who has long-running experience with recycled materials through their Recover brand, has recycled 2.9 million kg of textile waste in 2018. They recognise the capacity of recycled inputs to save 61 million kg of CO2 emissions in 2018, compared to using its virgin alternative. More recent results on this topic are expected to come from the Cotton Recycling Pilot to be launched shortly by Circle Economy.

Rethink the Business Model

Commitment number 10 of the UNFCCC Fashion Charter “support(s) the movement towards circular business models and acknowledge(s) the positive impact this can have towards reducing GHG emissions within the fashion sector”. Circularity within planetary boundaries supports this shift in practice by tackling over-production, shifting business model paradigms, and understanding the market for new models such as rental and recommerce. A recent report by Fashion for Good (FFG) and Accenture assesses the viability of these business models for different market segments of the fashion industry. The Switching Gear Project, supported by the C&A Foundation and led by Circle Economy, will guide selected brands towards the design and launch of renting and recommerce business pilots by 2021. 30 industry frontrunners and solution providers for these business models have already joined the Enabling Network, developed together with Fashion for Good, to share experiences and guide the brands involved through the process. It is expected that extending the life cycle of a garment for three months longer can reduce its water, carbon and waste footprint by 5–10%. Further research remains to be done on impact reduction scenarios and methodologies to assess the impacts of alternative business models. WRAP and WRI are currently developing research on this matter.

Let us clarify that no unilateral action is enough: business, governments, and civil society all play a key role in achieving climate targets. From your own place in society, start acting: set targets, implement actions, discuss, join the strike, join the agenda. Circle Economy will be shutting its doors this Friday to join the Climate Strike in The Hague as a team. If you are based in the Netherlands, join us!


Are you keen on joining our circular journey? Stay updated here.

Circle Economy

Circle Economy’s official blog.

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