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Lifting the Veil from Fashion Brand’s Environmental Supply Chain Impacts

Open geospatial data is revealing the detrimental impact that the fashion industry is having on the environment, from water scarcity to deforestation. LandGriffon is a new service with which companies can harness this information to build more sustainable businesses for the future.

While many fashion companies are trying hard to improve the environmental performance of their own operations, an estimated 90 percent of carbon emissions stem from sources that the companies do not directly control but arise from the sourcing, transportation, and production of their raw materials. These elements are also known as Scope 3 sources. Yet almost no company currently has the tools in place to properly collect and examine data on an entire supply chain effectively.

Dry lands in an overwhelming sea of information: cotton

The Aral Sea serves as a cautionary tale for the scale of unseen impact Scope 3 production can have. After 50 years, what was once the world’s fourth-largest lake has been depleted to just 10 percent of its original volume. The cause: use of its water to irrigate cotton fields for the fashion industry. Concentrating pollutants in the water have made it toxic and the surrounding soil has become saline which has a detrimental effect on cotton production as well.

Cotton-heavy production for the fashion industry takes up massive amounts of water. Making a pair of jeans for example consumes between 3,700 and 10,000 liters of water. That’s the amount a person would drink over 4.5–12 years. What’s more, global cotton cultivation emits about 220 million metric tons of carbon annually — the equivalent of almost 48 million average passenger cars — along with nitrous oxide from fertilizer usage.

Satellite images show the decline of the Aral Sea’s water volume over time The image on the left shows the lake in August 2000 while the image on the right shows the lake in August 2014. The thin black outline drawn around the lake and some land around it show its approximate original size in 1960. (NASA)

Unfortunately, unsustainably grown cotton from the Aral sea region regularly finds its way into the supply chains of global fashion brands via indirect links and often without their knowledge. This environmental disaster had largely been ignored until it was too late. This is unlikely to happen again, however, thanks to technological innovation.

Modern open data tools such as Aqueduct and satellite imagery are revealing where water use is posing environmental risks all over the world. Their capabilities go even further as they also shine a light on other environmentally damaging aspects of cotton production. One of its most overlooked consequences is deforestation.

Under the radar: deforestation

As recently as 2020, 48 percent of fashion’s supply chains were linked with deforestation and its associated detrimental impacts including greenhouse emissions and biodiversity loss. Still, the demand to cut trees for fabric production is estimated to double by 2050.

A large number of big brands have made active efforts to disconnect their supply chains from actors that contribute to deforestation. Yet, a recent case study of fashion brands’ indirect supply chain links by environmental group Stand.earth demonstrates companies’ real struggle to follow through.

A batch of forest is left following deforestation for cotton cultivation in the northwest of the Brazilian state Matto Grosso near Xingu Indigenous Park. (Pedro Biondi/ABr/ Licença Creative Commons Atribuição 3.0 Brasil)

Based on their findings, 23 of the 84 companies they investigated had actually implemented policies to mitigate deforestation, but all of them were “likely falling short” of their own commitments due to overlooked ties to Amazon cattle ranching for leather, viscose, or other sourcing. This is not because of the retailers’ unwillingness to address the issue, but because of the difficulty to do so effectively.

What can fashion companies do?

When it comes to tracking the plethora of factors that contribute to emissions, water use, deforestation, and other environmental damage from Scope 3 sources, the task is a daunting albeit crucial one. As Boston Consulting Group CEO Christoph Schweizer put it, due to a lack of standards and technological expertise, “it’s not just the small- and medium-size companies who are struggling to measure Scope 3. Many of the largest ones have huge issues collecting the data. Many of us, as CEOs, have given targets… but then how do you really measure it, and what’s the starting point?”

We believe that smartly applied open data science technology is uniquely positioned to help sustainability managers and experts overcome supply chain challenges. The same data that environmental groups are using to monitor companies’ performance can be a powerful tool for companies themselves. An ever-growing body of maps, satellite images, and open data portals such as Trase, Global Forest Watch, and Aqueduct are able to reveal environmental impacts at their source.

Geospatial Open Data Tools illustrate companies’ potential environmental risk for specific sourcing locations within their supply chain. In this case, the total risk will be assessed by multiplication of the risk factor (measured in ha/yr) with the volume of a company’s cotton order. (LandGriffon)

We built LandGriffon to help companies do just this. Developed by Satelligence and Vizzuality, and advised by the Stockholm Environment Institute’s Trase Initiative, LandGriffon empowers companies to map where raw materials come from, estimate their impacts, and plan strategies of action to make real change. It’s designed to work wherever you are on your journey to sustainability: a starting point for those just beginning to evaluate their supply chains and a powerful modeling tool for experienced companies to integrate the best data, analyze risks, and plan strategies of action.

Learn more about LandGriffon: https://www.landgriffon.com/

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Posts on data design, user research, open data, and software development. We create tools and applications with a lasting benefit to society and the environment.

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