If you’re reading this, chances are you care about the environment enough to take some simple steps to reduce your impact on the planet. But have you considered the carbon footprint of fashion? Let’s break it down.
What exactly is a carbon footprint?
Every one of us has an impact on the world in various ways. You may not realise, but each day, from the moment you wake up, you’re contributing to your carbon footprint.
Put simply a carbon footprint is “the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions.”
You may vigilantly turn off the lights when you leave a room. Perhaps you recycle or take public transport when you can. These simple, everyday actions help to reduce your carbon footprint. However, what may not be so obvious is how to minimise your fashion choices’ significant climate impact.
The carbon footprint of clothing
According to the 2020 McKinsey Fashion On Climate report, “research shows that the global fashion industry produced around 2.1 billion tonnes of GHG emissions in 2018, equalling 4% of the global total. This is equivalent to the combined annual GHG emissions of France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Around 70% of the fashion industry’s emissions came from upstream activities such as materials production, preparation and processing. The remaining 30% were associated with downstream retail operations, the use-phase and end-of-use activities.”
We’re not going to pretend that climate change can be solved if we buy a pair of carbon-neutral sneakers. But considering the clothing industry’s significant carbon footprint, the choices we make when we shop, coupled with how we look after our clothes, can make a real difference to the environment.
Make a difference with the way you shop
1. Buy from climate-conscious brands
One way to reduce your fashion carbon footprint when buying new is to support brands with a circular- or zero-waste ethos. This means they have a production line with low embedded emissions and drastically reduce waste throughout the supply chain. They provide garments with the lowest carbon footprint of any brand.
Ideally, look for brands that use renewable energy in their supply chain. In a world rife with greenwashing, it can be easy to see the phrase ‘carbon offsetting’ or ‘we use renewable energy in our head office and storefronts’ and think the brand is making good progress. Don’t be fooled by these low-touch efforts that often mask the continued use of damaging energy sources in production.
Hopaal makes simple, timeless clothing for women and men . We give the brand a ‘Great’ rating for the environment because of its use of 100% recycled materials as wells as its efforts to use renewable energy. It even stocks Guppy wash bags so you can be sure you’re not sending microfibres into the ocean when you do your laundry. Hopaal also takes care of workers, paying a living wage at the final stage of production. A great example of a brand that puts ethics at the heart of the business, without compromising on style.
nu-in is a European brand that features activewear, loungewear, and underwear collections, as well as trend-led men's and women's ranges. It prioritises the planet by using a high proportion of eco-friendly materials, and reuses offcuts to minimise textile waste. The brand is inclusively sized, and features an extended sizing range up to 6XL!
Affordable, ethical, and on-trend. Germany’s Armedangels gets a ‘Great’ rating overall from us. The brand covers all the basics for women, men, and kids. Armedangels' quality and long-lasting pieces are made from eco-friendly and certified materials, like Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified cotton. The brand also adopted the Fair Wear Foundation Code of Conduct to protect its workers abroad. Its products are available in sizes XS-XL.
This award-winning eco-fashion brand from the UK makes surf-inspired clothing in a wind-powered factory (WHAT?). Surf towels, socks, and hoodies—you can find everything you need to get warm after your sesh. Sick! Find the range in UK sizes 8-18.
Edeline Lee is a London based brand that features ready-to-wear collections that are structured, feminine, and for the future lady. Her pieces are designed with a soul, made with quality and meaning, made to fit well to lift the best out of you.
AERA is a US vegan luxury shoe brand, making footwear without the footprint. Its shoes are certified Vegan. The brand went to great lengths to ensure that all components are made from non-animal ingredients, yet still maintain the quality and style expected from a luxury shoe.
Mother of Pearl is a sustainable and ethical luxury womenswear and accessories designer brand from the UK that celebrates individuality and authenticity. The brand uses a high proportion of eco-friendly materials including organic cotton and ensures the payment of a living wage across some of its supply chain. Find most products in UK sizes 6 to 16.
Buying from local producers is itself a way to cut down on the distance your clothing has to travel and avoid unnecessary carbon emissions. Plus, it can be fun to support local designers and makers! Just keep in mind that international shipping can be done responsibly, and if that means supporting ‘Good’ or ‘Great’ brands from overseas, then chances are the footprint is still less than a fast fashion shop from the local mall.
3. Look for certified organic fabrics
Apart from specific brands, the types of fabrics you decide to buy are also significant. Take cotton, for example. While it is a plant-based fibre, conventional cotton production is very carbon intensive and requires the heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers. If you’re concerned about these impacts on the world’s climate and ecosystems, then you can minimise harm by purchasing items made from organic cotton—especially GOTS cotton. Certified organic cotton is grown without harmful pesticides, requires less energy and water, and uses sustainable fertilising practices. You can also find GOTS certification for other sustainable fabrics like linen.
4. Buy less, buy better
We repeat. Buy less, buy better! When you consume, be conscious and intentional about what you are adding to your wardrobe. Start by asking yourself these three questions: How much will I wear it? How much do I already own? How long will it last? Resisting the impulse to buy huge numbers of cheap items in favour of investing in quality pieces makes your look more streamlined and reduces the amount you consume and spend overall.
Imagine opening your wardrobe every morning to find that every item is your favourite; everything fits you properly and is comfortable, and won’t fall apart after a few wears. Wouldn’t that be amazing? It may take some thought, but the result will be so worth it.
Globally, about half of the CO2 emissions that make up the carbon footprint of fashion come from the electricity usage associated with washing, tumble-drying, and ironing. Often that electricity is generated by coal-fired power stations and other fossil fuel sources. When it comes to the clothes you already own, there are still ways to go green without putting in too much effort at all.
A crucial step is to ease your reliance on your dryer. Hang your clothes out to dry and let the sun and the wind do their natural thing. Dry delicates flat, and turn colourful items inside-out to save them from fading.
3. Choose the cold cycle
Pay attention to the washing instructions! Read the label, and you’ll be surprised how many items can and should be washed in cold water. This step not only saves on heating but will, for the most part, increase the longevity of your clothes. If your machine has an ‘eco’ setting, use it to save water and power!
4. Judge when it needs washing
Don’t wash your clothes too often if you can help it. You probably know that denim jeans don’t need regular washing, but neither do most pants. The brand director for Levi’s washes his jeans every six months! And it’s so much more energy efficient to attempt to spot clean an area before you throw the whole garment in the wash. This handy guide recommends washing your undies, socks, and stockings after one wear, but that shirt you wore out to dinner for four hours? Back in the cupboard—it won’t need washing yet unless you spilled food on it. I usually wash my bras after one wear, but I also get away with wearing my leggings a few times before they go in the laundry basket. Adjust for your preferences and lifestyle!
5. Say goodbye responsibly
Once your clothes have well and truly reached the end of their life, it’s time to think about where they’ll go next—and landfill is your last resort destination. If your garment is in good condition—say you’ve grown out of it—then your options are to sell, swap, or correctly donate it.
If you find that your clothes are too worn to sell or donate, don’t fret—it may still have potential in another form. Can that t-shirt be turned into a cleaning cloth? Can that jumper be re-knitted into a tea cosy? Can those socks become a quirky art project? (Yes, yes, and yes!). There are also recycling options. You can easily contact your nearest charity store to find out if they accept damaged clothes—many stores can donate your worn garments to be made into industrial rags. PlanetArk has some details on the types of clothing best for rags. They also suggest that natural fibres might be helpful for your local community garden.
Following these suggestions is as simple as turning off the TV at the switch and composting your banana peels. Recognising and reducing the carbon footprint of the fashion you wear isn’t life-changing, but collectively, our individual habits change lives and change the planet for the better.
Feature image via Unsplash, all other images via brands mentioned. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet and animals. Use our Directory to search more than 3,000 brands. We may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.