Carbon Footprint and the Fashion Industry


“Fashion’s carbon imprint is much larger than the industry’s GDP. It’s taking up more than its fair share of impact on the planet.”

(Elizabeth Cline, slow fashion activist)

Carbon footprint is the total greenhouse gas emissions caused by an individual, event, organisation, service or product which is expressed as its CO2 equivalent. These greenhouse gases or carbon emissions are directly responsible for global warming and climate change. These emissions can even cause water shortages and disturb ecosystems. Although the gases occur naturally, human activities like transportation, electricity production, etc. have contributed to the sudden increase which leads to environmental issues. Even in our regular life, every activity performed contributes to the emissions differently. However certain industries have extremely high levels of carbon imprints and have only seen in a rise in recent years.

One of such sectors is our beloved Fast Fashion industry. According to the 2019 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and UN Environment Programme, the industry is responsible for 10% of the annual global carbon emissions which will surge more than 50% by 2030. The current carbon emissions are more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.

However, these carbon emissions are not completely caused by the industry. Fast fashion consumerism plays an effective part in the same. Currently, the average person is buying 60% more products than in 2000. This change is brought by a larger variety of options, instant deliveries and cheaper prices. This leads to more shopping for clothes which may or may not be used at the same rate.

Additionally, fashion has become more global, thus products that may not be available in your local store can still be bought over online networks. Online markets have a much larger reach, and discounts and affordable rates are able to grab more attention. This accessibility has also promoted the trend of excessive buying over online platforms only to return most after home trials. While this might be easy and helpful for customers, the carbon imprint caused by transportation is almost doubled due to the deliveries and returns.

Most of the purchases are impulsive and the clothes are not used for their entire life cycle. The average number of times a garment is worn had decreased by 36% in the last 15 years. 85% of these clothes end up in landfills or for incineration, which adds to the carbon emissions. These garments stay in landfills for years before they biodegrade, like polyester which can stay up to 200 years. According to the aforementioned report by UNEP and Ellen MacArthur Foundation, if these patterns do not change in the coming times, the global apparel consumption will rise from 62 million metric tons in 2019 to 102 million tons within a decade. 

One of the major problems in apparel manufacturing is its complex supply chains, making it harder to trace the emissions. Every step in the production process is carried out in a different location, often even in different countries. All these activities and the transportation required lead to an excessive increase in carbon emissions and greenhouse gases.

According to UNEP, the whole procedure of making a pair of cotton jeans can take upto 3781 litres of water and emits around 33.4 kgs of carbon equivalent. Textile manufacturing emits 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually. According to World Resources Institute, producing polyester, which is found in 60% of the garments, emits 2 to 3 times carbon than cotton. While a single cotton shirt can contribute 2.1 kg of CO2 emissions, polyester emits upto 5.5 kg of the same gas. Fashion Revolution’s index found only 38 out of 200 brands actually disclose their processing facilities regarding printing, dyeing and spinning, and only 10% about the facilities that supply fibres. This makes it harder to trace their individual carbon emissions.

We can’t directly control the industrial units, however here are 5 quick tips on how you can lower your own carbon emission while shopping:

  1. Only buy necessities and use your clothes longer than usual. Wearing one item of clothing for just 9 months extra can reduce its carbon footprint by 30%.
  2. Thrift shopping! Buy secondhand clothes every now and then. Just one of these can save upto half a kg of emissions.
  3. Promote local shopping. Shop for clothes made by local artisans since their articles do not require mass production overseas. These would add a unique flavour to your wardrobe and will also help the growth of local artwork.
  4. Avoid online shopping if possible. Transportation and delivery can collectively add up to high amounts of greenhouse gases. Avoid getting products from other countries and keep the possibilities of a return to minimum.
  5. If the option is provided, choose railways over airways in your delivery preferences. These would lower the emissions even if you shop online.
[You can also go to to check your carbon footprint for free, and learn ways to reduce it while maintaining a favourable lifestyle.]

Cover photo by Marcin Jozwiak on Unsplash

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