Stop Buying So Many New Clothes Or Face a Climate Disaster, Report Finds

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Could you curb your clothing purchases to just five new items per year? A new report says that’s the magic number if we want to avoid a climate disaster.

A new report from the Hot or Cool Institute looks at fashion’s impact in G20 countries. It says the biggest solution to reducing the industry’s impact on the planet and staying below the Paris Agreement 1.5°C target is to stop buying so many new clothes.

According to the report, entitled “Unfit, Unfair, Unfashionable: Resizing Fashion for a Fair Consumption Space,” the sweet spot for meeting these targets is limiting new garment purchases to no more than five items per year. Americans purchase more than ten times that in a given year, with most consumers buying an average of 68 new garments every year. But 80 percent of those are seldom worn, the report says.

Personal responsibility

The report says personal changes do play a role in the fight against climate change, and reducing new garment purchases is more than four times more effective at reducing the industry’s carbon footprint than the next best solution, which is reusing garments.

a woman walks with an H&M bag
Courtesy of Fernand De Canne via Unsplash

“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),” reads the report.

Those personal actions bear the most weight in G20 countries including the U.S., U.K., and E.U. members. The report says emissions in these wealthier nations need to drop by 60 percent before the end of the decade in order to stay on track with Paris Agreement targets. Upper-middle-income countries need to make shifts, too. Countries including Brazil, China, South Africa, and Turkey have nearly as big a shift to stay on target: they must reduce emissions by 40 percent by 2030.

Fashion’s carbon footprint

Upstream emissions are driving more than 80 percent of the fashion industry’s footprint; these occur in the production phase, including cultivating materials, tailoring, and finishing — making the case for supporting brands using sustainable materials such as Stella McCartney and Danish luxury label Ganni, both of which have aggressive sustainability sourcing policies in place.

Emissions are lower on the other side of a garment’s life; the report says ten percent of emissions occur during disposal, including donations and exports — typically shipping garments to Africa. And while the secondhand market is seeing a boom in consumer demand, 30 percent of used clothing is still incinerated or sent to landfills, according to the report.

Photo by William Mattey from Pexels.

The fashion industry has been notoriously slow on addressing its climate impact; fast-fashion companies like China’s Shein, which produces as many as 10,000 new styles per day, are pushing the industry toward doubling its emissions. According to 2019 UNEP data, fashion could take up more than 25 percent of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.

Adding to the problem is the lack of transparency from the fashion industry about its emissions, particularly Scope 3 emissions. Estimates from leading organizations put the fashion industry at anywhere from two percent to ten percent of total global emissions. At either end of that spectrum, fashion is still one of the world’s biggest polluters. Experts warn that if no efforts are made to curb emissions, by 2030, the fashion industry could emit as much as 2.7 billion tons of CO2.

Lead image courtesy Rent The Runway.


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