As policy makers, business leaders, civil society and others gathered in Glasgow in November for the 26th UN Climate Conference (COP26), the world was — and still is — off track to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C. By the end of COP26, 151 countries had submitted new climate plans. These plans put the world on track for 2.5 degrees C of warming by the end of the century. Given that the world is already at roughly 1.1 degrees C of warming, such an increase would have disastrous effects. This is particularly true for developing countries, several of which are key apparel production countries.

Recognizing the implications of climate change for their value chains and business models, a growing number of apparel companies are making commitments and taking action to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Since 2019, the number of apparel companies that have joined the Science Based Targets initiative has increased from roughly a dozen to over 140.

Given this momentum, WRI teamed up with the Apparel Impact Institute to publish the Roadmap to Net Zero: Delivering Science-Based Targets in the Apparel Sector. The roadmap lays out the steps that apparel companies and the sector must take to deliver their ambitious targets and significantly reduce emissions. If the apparel sector follows these steps, it can deliver over 60% of the emissions reductions needed for the industry to stay on a 1.5 degrees C pathway in line with the Paris Agreement.

A Fresh Estimate of Apparel Sector Emissions

Using data from Higg, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and Textile Exchange, the apparel sector emitted an estimated 1.025 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in 2019, or roughly 2% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. Material production — such as knitting, weaving, dyeing and finishing — contributes to over 50% of these emissions. Raw material extraction — such as cotton farming and oil and gas extraction for synthetics — creates roughly another quarter of emissions.

A graphic on estimated greenhouse gas emissions from the apparel sector in 2019
1 million tonnes = 1 Mt

Under business-as-usual growth projections, emissions will grow to 1.588 Gt by 2030, well off pace to deliver the 45% absolute reduction needed across all sectors to limit warming to the Paris Agreement’s goal.

Graphic that shows projected emissions from the apparel sector.

How to Reduce Emissions in the Apparel Sector

While apparel sector emissions are trending in the wrong direction, there is great potential for mitigation in the sector. The roadmap identifies six interventions across the apparel value chain that can deliver over 60% of the necessary reductions to stay on pace for a 1.5 degrees C scenario:

A graphic showing the six key interventions for reducing emissions in the apparel sector.

Industry Call to Action

To close the gap and stay on pace with the 1.5 degrees C pathway, the apparel sector must significantly step up its efforts to reduce emissions. To make this possible, the sector must take the following actions:

1. Collaborate to improve sector GHG impact data.

Apparel companies should collaborate with organizations such as Textile Exchange, the Higg and SAC to improve the state of impact data. Textile Exchange annually publishes a comprehensive report on fibers and materials used in textiles, and also helps develop, maintain and promote standards on preferred materials such recycled polyester and organic cotton. The Higg and SAC have developed and are continuously expanding and improving on the Higg Index, which is generally viewed by sector experts as the best available platform for measuring apparel sector impact data. Brands should work with manufacturers to compile more robust primary manufacturing data via the Higg Facility Environmental Module (FEM), while material suppliers can measure the greenhouse gas emissions from their materials and contribute this data to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI).  

2. Ramp up efforts on manufacturing energy efficiency.

There is a significant opportunity to make textile and apparel production more energy efficient and reduce costs through steps such as improved insulation of heating systems, heat capture and more efficient motors for mechanical equipment. The roadmap models an efficiency improvement of 15% per unit of production. Based on discussions with industry experts and the Apparel Impact Institute’s experience, this should be achievable in many facilities.

3. Invest in and incentivize renewable energy in the supply chain.

The costs of generating electricity from solar and wind continues to decline and is on par with other forms of electricity in many countries. The barriers to solar and wind energy are often less about the cost or the technology itself, and more about factors like the regulatory environment or needed capital investment. For example, electricity market regulations in some Indian states limit companies’ ability to purchase electricity from sources other than the utility, while off-site power purchase agreements (PPAs) — essential for sourcing renewable electricity at scale — are not available in key apparel manufacturing countries such as Vietnam.

The transition to renewable electricity would accelerate if brands supported and incentivized their manufacturers, such as through co-investment in on-site renewables projects and preferential treatment for manufacturers shifting to 100% renewable energy.

4. Scale up the use of sustainable materials and processes.

Brands should commit to using a higher percentage of sustainable materials, such as recycled polyester and recycled or organic cotton. Textile Exchange’s annual report provides a variety information on sustainable materials, including volumes, trends and key suppliers. Textile Exchange also provides tools to help designers choose more sustainable alternatives, as does Higg with the MSI (which provides quantitative material impact data).

In addition to material substitution, the sector will also need to reduce GHG emissions in the supply chain of conventional materials such as cotton. As we describe in the roadmap, cotton emissions can be reduced through steps such as input efficiency (using less fertilizer and water) and deploying renewable electricity for cotton ginning and irrigation.

5. Invest in research and development for next generation materials and solutions for thermal energy.

Unlike interventions like energy efficiency that are ready to be deployed, the industry will need to invest in developing next generation materials (e.g. textile to textile recycling) and find alternatives to coal for thermal energy (e.g. heating water for dyeing and other process energy). While individual companies and small groups of companies are working on solutions including biomass and electrification for thermal energy, significantly more investment is needed to bring these solutions to scale.

6. Address the elephant in the room: consumption.

Even if the sector is able to take on the above actions, it will still face a gap in reducing emissions and continue to have other impacts including water pollution from textile production and pre- and post-consumer waste. It is encouraging to see the emergence of business models that decouple revenue from selling more new products, such as apparel resale and rental. Such models can help address what WRI has called the elephant in the boardroom: unchecked consumption. However, developing more of these models at a larger scale are essential to reduce emissions.

Time for Action

Transforming the apparel sector is possible, but it will require heeding this call and taking the steps outlined in the roadmap. Achieving these steps will require unprecedented collaboration and investment, but it will result in a more sustainable, resilient and equitable sector in the future.