28 Jun

What is a Carbon Footprint? And Why Does It Matter for Fashion?

If you’re reading this, chances are you care about the environment enough to take some simple steps to reduce your personal impact on the planet. But have you considered the carbon footprint of clothing?

What exactly is a carbon footprint?

Every single one of us has an impact on the world in a variety of ways. You may not know it but each day, from the moment you wake up, you’re contributing to your carbon footprint.

“The term carbon footprint…is a shorthand to describe the best estimate that we can get of the full climate change impact of something. That something could be anything – an activity, an item, a lifestyle, a company, a country or even the whole world” (Berners-Lee & Clark, The Guardian).

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 conserve valuable (and often finite) resources and reduce your carbon footprint. What may not be so obvious, is how to reduce the impact your fashion choices may have on the climate.

The carbon footprint of clothing

According to The Carbon Trust, clothing accounts for around 3% of the global production (or 850 million metric tonnes) of CO2 emissions per year. This figure includes both the production process and emissions produced after we have bought the clothing, such as when we’re washing, drying and ironing. To put that figure in perspective, consider the fact that Australia emits approximately 542.1 million tonnes of CO2 each year, and the U.S. emits 6,870 million metric tons.

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 go shopping and 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

Some fashion brands are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint. Here are just a few examples:

Mighty Good Undies

Rated: Great

Mighty Good Undies aims to provide quality, affordable, organic and Fairtrade underwear, for both men and women. The brand uses GOTs certified cotton and also uses renewable energy throughout its supply chain.

See the rating.

Shop Mighty Good Undies @Ecoture.

Raven + Lily

Rated: Good

Raven + Lily supports local female artisans to create handmade jewellery, clothing and accessories. Their products are eco-friendly and they are committed to empowering communities through fair wages, healthcare and education.

NAE

Rated: Good

Nae is a Portuguese footwear brand using innovative materials to create shoes with “No Animal Exploitation”. Their sustainable shoe materials include recycled PET from bottles, OEKO-TEX® certified microfibres, recycled car tyres, natural cork, recycled thermoplastic and even pineapple leaf fibre! Nae also line their stylish sneakers with material made via a carbon-neutral manufacturing system.

See the rating.

Shop NAE.

2. Purchase fashion that’s locally-made

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!

3. Look for certified organic fabrics

Apart from specific brands, the types of fabrics you decide to buy can also make an impact for the better. Cotton is a natural fibre, however, the current methods of cotton production are very carbon intensive, and require the heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers. In India, for example, 72% of carbon-equivalent emissions are from fertiliser and pesticide production. 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. Certified organic cotton is grown without harmful pesticides, requires less energy and water and uses sustainable fertilising practices.

4. Buy less, buy better

We repeat. Buy less, buy better. This is by far the best way you can reduce your footprint. And when you do 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 not only makes your look more streamlined, it also 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 would be so worth it.

5. Buy secondhand

Of course, you don’t have to buy something brand-new at all. Visit a local charity op shop, buy second-hand online or raid your friend’s wardrobe. Thrift shops are a treasure trove for bargain-hunting fashionistas who love beautifully crafted vintage pieces and unique pre-loved items. Research by the Bureau of International Recycling shows that rescuing a single kilogramme of used clothing from landfill can help save up to 3.6kgs of CO2 emissions.

How to reduce your footprint after you shop

Globally, about half of the CO2 emissions that make up the carbon footprint of clothing come from the electricity usage associated with washing, tumble-drying and ironing. This is because most of that electricity is generated by coal-fired power stations and other non-renewable energy 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.

1. Wear what you have!

Simply putting your clothes to use more often, rather than throwing them away, means that you’re reducing your emissions-per-wear (not to mention cost-per-wear!). It’s time to fall back in love with your wardrobe. Style your existing pieces with different accessories, reinvent them with a DIY project, or try combining that top with a different skirt. Find the hero items that always make you look and feel great and wear those babies as much as you can!

2. Embrace the air-dry

The first 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 be washed in cold water. This 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 that baby 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 spilt 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 it or to donate it. Charity shops are great because you’ll be supporting the community as well as giving your clothes new life. Local vintage shops might even buy your best pieces off you. Check out our post about second-hand love here.

If you find that your clothes are simply 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 weird art project? (Yes, yes, and yes!). You can also contact your nearest charity store to find out if they accept damaged clothes – many stores can donate your worn clothes to be made into industrial rags. PlanetArk has some details on the types of clothing that are best for rags. They also suggest that natural fibres might be helpful for your local community garden.

Following these suggestions really is as simple as turning off the TV at the switch and composting your banana peels. Recognising and reducing the environmental impact of the clothes you wear isn’t life changing, but collectively, our individual habits are definitely changing lives and changing the planet for the better.

What other ways do you try to reduce the carbon footprint of your clothing habits? Maybe you change out of your work clothes into PJs as soon as you get home to keep them clean longer, or have a favourite brand for quality classic pieces? Let us know in the comments!

Editor's note: Image via Unsplash. This article was originally published in May 2015. It was updated and republished in June 2017.

Ethical brand ratings. There’s an app for that.

Wear the change you want to see. Download our app to discover ethical brands and see how your favourites measure up.