Opinion/Solutions: How unsexy methods can make fashion greener

Industry is exploring ways to cut carbon footprint and other environmental harm from producing clothes we love.
A portion of the J. Mendel factory is seen in New York's shrinking Garment District.

Credit: Seth Wenig/AP

Credit: Seth Wenig/AP

A portion of the J. Mendel factory is seen in New York's shrinking Garment District.


  • Some in the fashion industry are seeking ways to make their work greener and reduce harm to the environment.
  • An industry report suggests that “aggressive acceleration” of current solutions could let the fashion business reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
  • The topic’s an important one because the fashion sector produces 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Much, if not most, of the green improvements will come from improving manufacturing processes.

For all the attention it might draw, when a brand releases a line of clothes made of ever-more unusual, allegedly eco-friendly materials like algae sequins, grape leather or rotten milk, chances are the real environmental benefits are low.

“A cool new next-gen material might get a lot of buzz, it could look good, but the production capability may not be enough,” says Lewis Perkins, president of the Apparel Impact Institute. “Where’s the long-term, systematic improvement?”

Perkins argues that rather than using novel materials or promoting one-off campaigns, the best way to decarbonize the fashion industry and make it more sustainable is a systemwide approach — largely using unsexy, tried-and-tested techniques.

When the San Francisco-based Apparel Impact Institute launched at the end of 2017, it set out to deliver exactly that.

The institute estimates that existing solutions — such as phasing out coal use, maximizing energy efficiency, increasing use of low-carbon fibers such as recycled polyester and shifting manufacturing to renewable electricity — can cut the industry’s emissions by 1.2 gigatons, the equivalent of taking 200 million cars off the road.

According to a joint report by the institute and nonprofit Fashion for Good, an “aggressive acceleration” of implementing currently existing solutions could allow the fashion industry to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, a target in line with the Paris Agreement. “We can scale these proven solutions,” says Perkins.

Transformative change is needed for the $2.5 trillion fashion industry: It produces 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, and textile production is responsible for 1.2 billion tons of emissions a year. Clothing production creates a fifth of global waste water and 92 million tons of textile waste a year.

Yet while much focus has been on the role of consumers in producing this waste, the Apparel Impact Institute is instead targeting the supply side. According to the World Resources Institute, 96 percent of a brand’s carbon footprint are from the manufacturing supply chain.

The Apparel Impact Institute knits together the efforts of brands, manufacturers and industry stakeholders to help identify and scale up solutions that work, in a way that reverses the previous trend of individual, siloed-off endeavors. “Where there’s an overlap in production, rather than one brand individually asking a company for thermal heat tech, we can have a strategic process working together,” says Perkins.

That collaborative approach appears to be having some success. In 2021, the institute worked with 27 brands and 295 facilities, spanning from India to Italy, South Korea and the U.S., in the process cutting 316,451 tons of emissions and saving 2,903,575 cubic meters of water. Although the figures for 2022 have not yet been published, Perkins says that there has been a “significant” increase in the savings.

However, some tricky obstacles lay ahead. Just over half of the industry’s manufacturing emissions come from thermal energy, which is often required for dyeing and finishing material but relies almost entirely on coal and gas.

“We haven’t got a straightforward solution for that yet,” says Perkins.

Yet the Apparel Impact Institute does see room for innovation, too. It estimates that emissions could be cut by one gigaton through the use of more experimental tools such as bio-based materials, plant-based leather and increasing textile recycling.

In January, it launched a call for proposals for a $250 million Fashion Climate Fund — raised through industry and philanthropic donors — for solutions that could be part of the Climate Solutions Portfolio, a registry of cutting-edge, scientifically proven technologies.

But while the fashion industry is making improvements by itself through forms of self-regulation, some argue that national and trans-national policy is required in order to fundamentally change how these businesses operate.

A report published in January by Zero Waste Europe, an advocacy group, concluded that the current model of fast fashion, seasonal collections and trends is “one of the main drivers of overconsumption, resource depletion and social exploitation.”

“We can’t just make the products more green, we need to address these business models that rely on aggressive marketing and vast overconsumption,” says Theresa Mörsen, policy officer at Zero Waste Europe.

The scale of overproduction is enormous. By 2030, the quantity of clothes we throw away is projected to reach 134 million tons and then 160 million tons in 2050.

At the same time, the creation of waste, which often ends up in developing nations, is heavily skewed towards wealthier countries. The average American throws away around 37 kilograms of clothes every year. And around 85 percent of all textiles thrown away in the US are either dumped into landfill or burned. Much ends up abroad, illegally.

Mörsen says there have been interesting policy developments, such as the European Union’s Strategy for Sustainable Textiles, focusing on eco-design rules. From 2025, textile recycling will also be mandatory in the EU. But these policies are limited in what they can achieve. “We need to change the entire business thinking,” she says. “We need to think about sufficiency. It’s better to increase the quality of the clothes.”

It’s a point acknowledged by the Apparel Impact Institute, which calls for “extending the useful life of garments, re-commerce, increasing rentals, improvements in materials efficienc, and reduction in overproduction” in its goals.

However, threads of hope already exist in that regard for the fashion industry, which can no longer dress up the naked truth of its carbon footprint. The French company LOOM, whose motto is “less but better,” does not advertise or have seasonal collections, and rejects pricing (like $9.99) that encourages over-consumption.

“We need to make the industry follow in these footsteps,” says Mörsen. “Because if we don’t, then the world is in real trouble.”

About the Solutions Journalism Network

This story comes from our partners at the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about social issues.