Fashion markdown: Six ways brands can tailor zero net carbon plans

Photo by Jonathan Borba

Fashion influencers come under fire online when they advocate for climate action one day and suit up in fast fashion the next. With social media groupthinks like this, fashion brands are paying attention. Consumers are clearly willing to rethink their buying patterns and are getting more engaged with sustainability topics, according to a recent McKinsey study. 

McKinsey research shows the fashion industry emits roughly the same quantity of greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions per year as the entire economies of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined.

In 2018, the industry was responsible for 2.1 billion metric tons of GHG emissions, representing 4% of the global emissions, and even up to 10% based on other estimates. But, dozens of fashion companies around the world are now looking into ways to reach zero net carbon.

Zero net carbon is a convenient term to refer to challenges that a new global economic framework must meet, said Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus in his book A World of Three Zeros.

“Our biggest goal should be to reduce emissions of climate-altering carbon to the lowest possible levels — and to mitigate the impact of emissions we cannot eliminate through carbon-capturing practices such as tree planting” 

Muhammad Yunus, A World of Three Zeros (2017)

Retailers are increasingly turning to sustainability measures as calls for corporate responsibility rise worldwide. Going sustainable is not cheap. It requires some operational overhauls and supply chain streamlining. 

To those willing to take the first, difficult, but value-adding steps, here are some ways the fashion industry might consider based on a McKinsey study:


Improve material mix

A green mix could deliver 41 million tonnes of GHG emissions savings, if fashion brands adopt 20% recycled polyester usage and 11% alternatives such as organic, recycled or bio based textiles by 2030. 

Limitations in the economics and scaling of material mix can discourage retailers, but in the long term, this can add value to the products.

Luxury fashion power house, Burberry, is one of the companies vocal about reducing emissions. In 2017 they set goals for 2022 covering operations and supply chain, with focus on sourcing raw materials and manufacturing finished products.


Travel sustainably 

Increasing the use of sustainable transport could deliver 39 million tons of GHG emissions savings if companies can recalibrate to 90% sea transport and 10% air transport across the fashion industry, compared with the current 83% sea and 17% air, respectively.

Fashion brands can also ride the wave of increasing adoption of electric vehicles. China, for example, is targeting a scaled adoption of 1 million Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEV) on its roads by 2030. FCEVs employ a zero-emission technology for mobility. In 2019, the Asian Development Bank reported that after 2025, light- and medium- electric trucks could start penetrating the global market. 

Government policy initiatives across the world also boost electric vehicle sales, with Europe as the world’s largest market by early 2020, surpassing China. 

Improve packaging 

Material mix in packaging could deliver 5 million tonnes of GHG emissions savings if brands can increase recycled content in corrugated boxes by 20 percentage points and 80% recycled low-density polyethylene content in polybags.

By 2050, oceans could also contain more plastics than fish, by weight, according to Ellen MacArthur Foundation. And so businesses are now rethinking the global plastics system.

“We urgently need to transform global plastic packaging material flows if we are to continue to reap the benefits of this versatile material,” said Unilever CEO Paul Polman in a report on the “New Plastics Economy.” 


Decarbonise retail 

Energy-efficiency improvements and a transition to renewable energy in retail operations could deliver 52 million tonnes of GHG emissions savings. Retail stores could achieve this if they reduce energy consumption by 40% across heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC).

H&M Group, the Swedish fashion retailer, is already sourcing more than 90% of its electricity from renewable power, said Climate Group. After installing LED lights, retrofitting, and upgrading  HVAC systems in mature markets, H&M also plans to invest in energy-saving technologies to build stores with 40% less energy that those today.


Minimise returns 

Reducing item returns could deliver 12 million tonnes of GHG emissions savings  if  e-commerce returns rates drop to 15% from 35%.

Fashion brands can look to combining tech on predicting size and fit, with consumer behavioural change to reduce buyers’ intent to return.


Reduce overproduction 

Slashing overproduction could reduce emissions by around 158 million tonnes in 2030 if the fashion industry can reduce industry wide surplus by 10 percentage points.

The fashion industry produces more than 92 million tonnes of waste per year and consumes 79 trillion litres of water, said a 2020 study. Hence, The Nature Reviews Earth and Environment called for a move back to “slow” fashion as fashion clothings are now nearly double in volume compared with pre-2000 levels. 

Environmentally Responsible Fashion

Talks on sustainability did not fade amid the COVID-19 crisis. In fact, sustainability issues are attracting growing attention at executive level, with half of fashion executives indicating sustainability has moved up in their agenda in recent months, according to a recent poll. 

Rapid digitisation, “nearshoring,” demand-focused supply chains are other strategies fashion brands can add to the list. 

As with other zero net carbon strategies, this is just an initial step.

“Humans are absolutely reliant on a healthy planet for our very existence,” wrote the Nobel Prize winner Yunus. 

“It would be a mistake to think that social business alone can solve the environmental crises we face. We need to address the issues from all sides… And since profit-maximising businesses will represent the great bulk of business activity for the foreseeable future, we must insist that they operate in an environmentally responsible fashion.”

A World of Three Zeros: The New Economics of Zero Poverty, Zero Unemployment, and Zero Net Carbon Emissions