Are Your Favorite Jeans Part of the Climate Problem?


As the fashion industry prepares for the holiday season, many high-profile brands will pump out new trends and products faster than ever before. All too often, however, that business helps drive severe damage to our global climate due to the fashion industry’s extraordinarily high levels of pollution. As 2017 draws to close, the fashion industry must step up to the challenge and redeem their terrible track record by reducing carbon emissions. The first step is simple: companies must open their record books and allow for more accurate calculations on the environmental impact of their production methods and subsequent climate impact.

Sadly, instead of increased transparency and commitments, fashion CEOs are hiding behind greenwashed PR campaigns, like the disappointing announcement made by Levi’s, Gap, Guess, Wrangler, and Lee at a New York climate week event this past autumn. CEOs of the world’s famous denim brands said they would announce climate targets in two years, a deadline far longer than necessary to complete a basic step. While these CEOs continue to delay the climate commitment process, denim supply chains are continuing to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere without recourse.

Denim and clothing companies will do all that they can to fudge the link between their brands and the realities of greenhouse gas emissions. According to reports from the Carbon Disclosure Project, companies within the fashion sector might be ignoring as much as 90 percent of the climate pollution they generate. Like too many industries before them, the fashion industry is attempting to solve the problem of its own emissions by outsourcing production to contractors in countries with less strict emissions regulations, namely China or Bangladesh. But despite the ostensible attractiveness of these short-term solutions, the long-term consequences could be catastrophic. These businesses can no longer afford to look away from the climate legacy they will leave behind.

Right now, the clothing and accessories industry is a huge contributor to global climate change. According to one study, the industry generates about 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, roughly equal to the pollution created by putting 163 million new passenger cars on the road. A study by a leading clothing company concluded that one pair of denim jeans produces 44 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to driving a car almost 48 miles or burning over 21 pounds of coal. Manufacturing a single pair of denim jeans produces 44 pounds of CO2, roughly equal to the greenhouse gas emissions from driving a passenger car nearly 50 miles.

It is time for fashion companies to stop hiding behind shallow commitments and take a courageous step towards trimming their carbon footprint, not two years from now. These brands must come forward about their greenhouse gas emissions, rather than hiding behind contractors working to shrink profit margins in countries with limited scope for monitoring emissions; then they can begin the real work of cleaning up their severe pollution habit, rather than focusing on PR-friendly promises that do little to create real change.

In practice, that will mean big reductions on their total climate pollution, rather than simply reducing carbon per article of clothing sold. This will mean stepping away from climate commitments that are, at best, a partial solution to its role in the climate crisis. Some corporations have promised to improve energy efficiency, rather than committing to reducing climate impacts overall. That being said, pollution reduction only matters when it actually happens.

There must also be significant reductions across the fashion industry’s entire supply chain, including calling on overseas producers to hold themselves to higher standards than may often be the case. The bulk of fashion’s climate pollution (an estimated 60-90 percent on average) comes from material sourcing, garment production and transport. Yet, some companies’ climate commitments leave out this basic part of their pollution footprint. There are numerous tools and technologies available for companies to make major reductions in these stages—even from independently owned factories overseas.

There are two last things that will help push the fashion industry from the bottom to the top of the heap when it comes to tackling climate change. First, they must demonstrate farsightedness, engaging with climate issues in a long-term, sustained way. Second, they must pledge full transparency in their efforts to bring down emissions. You can’t solve a problem and hide it at the same time. Only H&M and Kering currently provide full transparency on greenhouse gases in their supply chain. Real climate action requires fashion companies to assess, track and disclose their full climate pollution footprint and reductions over time. Anything less, like this most recent delay in taking environmental responsibility, is simply window dressing.

SumOfUs members have already teamed up with to create the #filthyfashion campaign and to call on denim brands to take responsibility for their environmental impact and commit to the Paris Climate Agreement. Our members are demanding higher standards from Levi, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Guess, Express, American Eagle Outfitters, Wrangler, and Lee. Over 118,000 people have signed onto a petition asking these companies to clean up their ‘dirty denim’ and commit to sustainable, substantive environmental commitments and immediately begin addressing their greenhouse gas emissions created by denim manufacturing.

Rightly or wrongly, the fashion industry is obsessed with youth. Ironically, it is young customers who will experience the worst consequences of climate change in the years to come. Fashion brands would do better by the environment and, therefore, their targeted consumers if they applied themselves to developing more sustainable climate solutions.

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