Fashion’s Fossil Fuel Addiction
An alarming lack of progress and leadership across the sector
According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): Unless coal is phased out and global greenhouse gas emissions are halved by 2030, there will be no chance of the world staying below a 1.5°C global average temperature rise. Yet, despite years of voluntary commitments and industry-led initiatives, after a dip brought about by the global pandemic, 2021/2 saw fashion brands’ emissions jump right back up.
Stand.earth’s 2021 Scorecard analysed information from 47 major fashion and apparel brands against five key criteria to measure their levels of leadership on supply chain decarbonisation, and found – with a few notable exceptions – an alarming lack of progress and leadership across the sector. Climate and energy ambition in the supply chain were falling short of the action required by the industry to rapidly and justly transition off of fossil fuels.
Intensive coal-burning practices are being phased out arbitrarily and too slowly
There are more than 10,000 thermal boilers in Bangladesh alone, each burning thousands of tonnes of coal, gas, or oil every year to produce direct heat or steam for manufacturing processes. Each boiler releases toxic air pollutants harmful to workers and local communities including nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxide, and suspended air particles. These energy-intensive processes are also major contributors to the sector’s climate impact; the Apparel Impact Institute (Aii) estimated that Tier 2 suppliers (fabric mills and components manufacturing), where the majority of the thermal processing occurs, account for as much as 52% of the sector’s CO2 pollution.
It is essential that fashion brands work with their suppliers to phase out thermal coal from manufacturing by 2030. Some progress was made at COP26 in 2021 when the UNFCCC Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action (UN Fashion Charter) updated its terms to include a 2030 thermal coal phase-out for its signatory members. However, no transparency requirement nor accountability measures are linked to non-performance if companies do not meet that voluntary target moving forward.
The question of what replaces coal is an important one. Burning textile waste, cotton waste, and biomass in boilers, or transitioning coal boilers to burn gas (another fossil fuel), is not equivalent to using renewable energy from a carbon emissions perspective. The goal of reducing the carbon footprint of the fashion industry will not be achieved if coal is simply replaced by another carbon-intensive source of energy.
Garment manufacturing processes remain carbon intensive
Manufacturing remains the biggest part of the fashion sector’s emissions footprint. Recent research by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and Aii estimated that switching production to renewable electricity across fashion supply chains could cut the sector’s total emissions by around 27% – that’s halfway to the sector’s total decarbonisation goal.
In 2022, exports from major manufacturing countries including Vietnam, Cambodia, China, India and Bangladesh grew significantly year on year (see Table 1). While there is limited information available on the sector’s specific energy footprint, export data shows that garment manufacturing is rapidly growing its export volumes, and countries continue to project significant growth in textile exports.
Meanwhile, use of coal for power generation is continuing to grow (see figure 1). Failure by brands to support the transition to renewables while increasing energy demand will contribute to further entrenching fossil fuel infrastructure, and lock in harmful health and climate impacts for decades to come.
Industry still failing to build a just energy transition
Driving the energy transition is about more than emissions targets. For decades, fashion companies have been benefiting from energy overwhelmingly produced from coal. Coal-powered energy generation has been linked to serious negative health impacts for both workers and communities surrounding coal power facilities in countries like Vietnam and China that are major suppliers of the fashion industry.For decades many fashion brands have been offshoring the vast majority of their manufacturing (and any associated harmful impacts) to areas in the Global South where labour and/or the cost of materials are much cheaper. These same Global South-based communities often unjustly and disproportionately experience devastating climate impacts. In 2022, Bangladesh and northeastern India saw a massive and deadly flooding which affected millions of people. Garment manufacturing centres like Vietnam, Cambodia, China, and Bangladesh remain heavily reliant on coal and other fossil fuels to power their grids. Fossil fuel based development in these countries is often driven by demand from the energy-hungry manufacturing sector, as well as development by actors from the Global North.
So far, the fashion industry has failed to take adequate steps to mitigate the harmful climate impacts arising from its operations and global supply chain, particularly at the manufacturing level. The 2021 Scorecard showed that investment and adoption of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, remained very low across all tiers. It is wrong for brands to rely on more coal use (or other fossil fuel use) to achieve year-on-year growth margins. It is irresponsible for fashion brands to continue to profit without adequate mitigation measures being in place, including investment and adoption of renewable energy sources, at key points in the supply chain.
In recent years more brands, including Chanel, Burberry, H&M, and VF Corporation have issued Green Bonds linked to environmental performance. However, specific investment in renewable energy in supply chain areas remains limited. With just a few years left to make the foundational changes needed, the scale of investment in renewables is still falling far short of the need.
It is essential that investment is tied directly to emissions reduction and other worker and community benefits in brands’ supply chains.
Domestic Developments & Renewable Energy
In 2022, Vietnam, supported by advocacy efforts from global apparel brands, set a new goal of reaching 47% renewable electricity generation by 2030, reducing the capacity of new coal and imported Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) projects within the same time period, and introduced its first Direct Power Purchase Agreement (DPPA) pilot program.
Currently, a significant proportion of Cambodia’s electricity is imported, but coal is growing fast and now represents 41% of its domestic power generation. Cambodia’s 2019 Basic Energy Plan laid out its ambition to reach a power generation mix in 2030 of coal (35%), hydro (55%), and renewable energy (10%), consisting of biomass and solar/photovoltaics (PV). The renewable energy component is too low. However, Cambodia’s garment manufacturing industry is advocating for a faster transition to renewable energy. It launched the Switch Garment project in 2020 with the aim of promoting the use of sustainable energy in the garment industry.
In Bangladesh, discussions are underway on the development of a new Integrated Energy and Power Master Plan (IEPMP) to replace the 2016 Energy Master Plan. The 2016 plan set out an agenda heavily focused on coal-powered electricity generation, including funding new coal power stations and LNG capacity. As the industry responsible for over 80% of Bangladesh’s exports, the garment industry is a significant buyer of that energy. The garment industry has a real stake in ensuring that IEPMP promotes a renewable energy transition, cancels planned coal and LNG plant construction, and does not lock Bangladesh into decades more expensive, volatile, and climate-damaging coal and LNG infrastructure.
JETP and the Vietnam Four
In December 2022 a $15.5 billion Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) was announced between G7 nations and Vietnam containing ambitious new targets for accelerating Vietnam’s transition away from fossil fuels. In the meantime, several prominent environmental defenders and climate leaders in Vietnam have been arrested, detained and sentenced to up to five years in prison on trumped-up tax evasion charges. This has raised alarms about how such an ambitious undertaking can succeed while prominent climate leaders are in prison and civil society in Vietnam is increasingly constrained.
JETPs have also been announced in other key fashion manufacturing centres including Indonesia and India. Governments and companies supporting the JETP process must work to ensure that the energy transition benefits people in a just, inclusive, and sustainable way.
Harmful fossil fuel fabrics still dominate, and concerns around false solutions are growing
With the global clean energy transition now seen as an inevitability, the oil industry is seeking new growth markets for its toxic products, including pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into new petrochemical facilities.
Synthetic fibres, primarily polyester, nylon, and spandex, are a significant part of the petrochemical market. Global polyester production stood at around 60 million metric tonnes in 2021, and its growth shows no sign of stopping.
It has become increasingly common for brands to promote an increase in the recycled polyester content of their products as a “sustainable” solution. However, in Stand’s view, this is more akin to greenwashing and the perpetuation of a false solution to making the fashion industry more green. Currently, textile-to-textile recycling is in its very early stages; it is estimated that less than 0.5% of textile feedstocks come from recycled fibres. As such, recycled polyester used by major brands comes almost exclusively from recycled plastic (rPET) from non-textile recycling streams. Taking rPET out of the plastic recycling loop and turning it into polyester fabric which is ultimately destined to be thrown away is not recycling – it’s just a pitstop on the way to the dump or incinerator.
Beyond the emissions footprint of making clothes out of fossil fuels, the fashion industry’s heavy reliance on oil-based fibres brings with it a host of serious environmental justice issues. The world’s largest polyester manufacturers are based primarily in China, India, and the USA. In the USA, where Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” – a stretch of the Mississippi River home to over 150 petrochemical facilities – exposes linkages between petrochemical manufacturing, increased air pollution, and higher cancer levels in the poor, predominantly Black community.
The elephant in the room: making less, and making it last
A complimentary position supporting decarbonisation has been gaining attention in recent years – making less, and making it last. The growth in cheap fossil fuel derived fabrics is inextricably tied to the rise of ‘throwaway’ or quickly discarded fashion; between 1980 and 2014, 73.4% of all growth in apparel manufacturing was driven by the fossil fabric polyester. Brands can’t just replace polyester with cotton and keep making and selling at current or even bigger volumes and faster rates. Besides, cotton comes with its own host of environmental and social harms when grown intensively; it is already a major driver of water overuse and pesticide pollution. Moving away from resource over-extraction is a key part of achieving a just transition, which means investing in quality, slowing production, and building more circular production models.
In the last 18 months, the conversation around circularity in fashion has continued to grow. More brands have begun to offer options for repair, resale platforms have grown in popularity, and designing for recyclability has gained attention. However, there is a long way to go before this can be called circularity, as brands are still failing to connect the idea of keeping clothes and materials in use for longer with the critical target of making fewer new goods. Without the ultimate goal of reducing production, circularity initiatives will have little impact.
It is telling that very few brands provide transparency into the volume of products they make and sell each year. Even fewer make or share targets or baseline figures related to resale, repair, or recycling volumes. Those that do share data on items collected through take-back programs reveal a fractionally tiny volume and share no plans for how these programs will contribute to lower production.
Regulators calling time on voluntary half-measures and lack of transparency
Over the years, a range of mainly industry-led initiatives have emerged as brands continue to make voluntary commitments to reduce their emissions and lessen the impact of their raw materials. However, transparency of key information by companies and accountability for poor corporate practices, continue to be problems. While many brands now have wide-ranging climate commitments, the industry continues to project more growth over the coming years. There are still no reliable statistics on how much is being produced or what the overall climate impact of the industry is.
Industry-level data remains unreliable and outdated. In 2022, potentially misleading sustainability claims made by brands including H&M using the global Higg Material Sustainability Index (MSI) data led to accusations of greenwashing by activists. The Norwegian Consumer Authority, in a case involving a Norwegian company, ruled that Higg MSI data could not be used in product marketing. H&M subsequently withdrew the data from its website. At a brand level, demands are growing to increase supply chain transparency, and while a small number of brands (e.g. Eileen Fisher) now offer transparency as far as Tier 4 in their supply chains, this remains the exception rather than the rule.
Transparency and supply chain accountability, regarding both environmental and social issues, are the primary ideas behind proposed changes to the fashion apparel industry’s regulatory environment.
In the last 18 months, more governments at all levels have started to put the fashion industry on notice that business practices need to change. Bills in Europe seek to improve environmental labeling and increase circularity. Those in the US work to increase supply chain accountability and improve garment workers’ working conditions with the FABRIC Act and New York Fashion Act. While 2022 also saw movement from industry-led voluntary initiatives, including the UN Fashion Charter and Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which raised decarbonisation goals, it is clear that voluntary measures alone are now too little, too late to meet the scale of the industry’s impact. Swift action from regulators, support and leadership from brands and suppliers, and the input of suppliers, workers, and other agents of change in manufacturing countries are all urgently needed to rapidly and justly decarbonise the fashion industry at scale.
Five impact areas:
The purpose of the 2023 Scorecard is to build on the 2021 Scorecard and assess the progress of 43 global fashion brands from across the industry in decarbonising their supply chains and phasing out fossil fuels.
The 2023 Scorecard measures the performance of these brands across the following five impact areas and 2030 benchmarks:
- Climate commitments and transparency: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55% or greater by 2030 in line with a 1.5°C pathway and disclosing emissions and energy use across entire value chains.
- Renewable energy and energy-efficient manufacturing: Progress in driving renewable energy use and energy efficiency and phasing out coal in all tiers of the supply chain by 2030.
- Renewable energy advocacy: Demanding stronger emissions reduction targets and renewable energy policy from government decision-makers to ensure access to renewables in manufacturing countries.
- Low-carbon and longer lasting materials: Phasing out fossil fuel based fabrics, wood-based materials and leather linked to deforestation, and non-organic or non-regenerative cotton. Shifting toward closed-loop recycling and longer-lasting products made to be repaired, reused, and recycled with the goal of reducing production.
- Greener shipping: Reducing emissions from upstream shipping and advocating for zero-emissions vessels (ZEV)and infrastructure.
These five impact areas have been chosen because they address the main entry points of fossil fuels into the fashion supply chain and the greatest sources of brands’ emissions.
- “UN Agencies Support the Just Energy Transition in Asia,” June 21, 2022, https://unfccc.int/news/un-agencies-support-the-just-energy-transition-in-asia#:~:text=Unless%20coal%20is%20phased%20out,unprecedented%20heatwaves%2C%20droughts%20and%20floods.
- “Fashion Brand Emissions Are Rising. Again.,” October 31, 2022, https://stand.earth/insights/fashion-brand-emissions-are-rising-again/.
- “A Study on the Solutions of Environment Pollutions and Worker’s Health Problems Caused by Textile Manufacturing Operations,” Biomedical Journal of Scientific & Technical Research 28, no. 4 (July 7, 2020): 21831–44, https://doi.org/10.26717/BJSTR.2020.28.004692.
- “Roadmap to Net Zero: Delivering Science-Based Targets in the Apparel Sector.”
- COP26 refers to the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference held at the SEC Centre in Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom, from 31 October to 13 November 2021.
- “Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action,” November 5, 2021, https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/Fashion%20Industry%20Carter%20for%20Climate%20Action_2021.pdf.
- Biomass replacements for coal-fired boilers also raise additional human rights and environmental justice concerns. “By-product” sources of biomass, such as rice husks, can impact local communities by reducing their access to this traditional energy source. Developing biomass into a co-product or product through increased demand from brands may also affect a community’s access to food and land.“Avoiding Bioenergy Competition for Food Crops and Land” (World Resources Institute, January 2015), https://agrilinks.org/sites/default/files/resource/files/WRI%20Avoiding%20Bioenergy%20Competition%20for%20Food%20Crops%20and%20Land.pdf.
- “Unlocking the Trillion-Dollar Fashion Decarbonisation Opportunity: Existing and Innovative Solutions” (Apparel Impact Institute and Fashion for Good, November 2021), https://apparelimpact.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Aii_UnlockingTheTrillion-DollarFashionDecarbonisationOpportunity_Report_v11.pdf.
- “Vietnam Targets Net Zero, but Struggles to Break Coal Dependence,” January 31, 2022, https://chinadialogue.net/en/climate/vietnam-targets-net-zero-but-struggles-to-break-coal-dependence/#:~:text=Human%20costs%20and%20backlash,to%20the%20resulting%20air%20pollution.
- “South Asia Floods: Millions in India and Bangladesh Affected after Torrential Rains Batter Region,” June 22, 2022, https://edition.cnn.com/2022/06/22/india/bangladesh-india-floods-death-toll-intl-hnk/index.html.
- “Bangladesh to Double Fossil Fuel Imports in Coming Decade as Renewables Lag Behind,” May 14, 2020, https://www.eco-business.com/news/bangladesh-to-double-fossil-fuel-imports-in-coming-decade-as-renewables-lag-behind/.
- In one example, new coal power plants in Bangladesh were promoted and funded by the government of Japan, threatening to lock Bangladesh into decades more of dirty coal power.“Japan Faces Heat over Bangladesh’s Coal Power,” July 22, 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/0428b4b5-b3c9-4ce9-a207-c88445216a19.
- “Fashion Houses And Green Bonds: A New Love Affair In The Making,” October 1, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/sylviaklimaki/2020/10/01/fashion-houses-and-green-bonds—–a-new-love-affair-in-the-making/?sh=4e84e41553d4.
- Apparel Impact Institute’s “Unlocking the Trillion-Dollar Fashion Decarbonization Opportunity” report identified a need for $380bn in funding for the renewable energy transition within the fashion sector.“Unlocking the Trillion-Dollar Fashion Decarbonisation Opportunity: Existing and Innovative Solutions.”
- Per the Institute for Human Rights and Business, “A just transition cannot simply replace an extractive carbon economy with a system of green extraction where fundamental power relations remain unchanged. A sustainable and just future requires more fundamental reshaping of economies to produce regenerative systems that address unequal power dynamics head on.” Remedy for the harms caused by brands’ high emission footprint and human rights impacts is long overdue.“Just Transitions Dialogue: Exploring the Need for International Rules Based on Local Realities,” February 2, 2023, https://www.ihrb.org/focus-areas/just-transitions/wilton-park-just-transitions-dialogue.
- “Vietnam’s Energy Market – Power Development Plan 8 Update,” September 13, 2022, https://www.mayerbrown.com/en/perspectives-events/publications/2022/09/vietnams-energy-market-power-development-plan-8-update.
- “Renewable Energy in the Cambodia Energy Plan (Mar 2022),” March 2022, https://bnglegal.com/index.php/renewable-energy-in-the-cambodia-energy-plan/#:~:text=THE%20CAMBODIA%20BASIC%20ENERGY%20PLAN&text=Moving%20forward%2C%20the%20BEP%20recommended,other%20renewable%20energy%20(10%25).
- “Bangladesh Must Plan for the Energy Transition to Renewables,” May 24, 2021, https://ieefa.org/resources/bangladesh-must-plan-energy-transition-renewables.
- “The Future’s Not in Plastics: Why Plastics Demand Won’t Rescue the Oil Sector,” September 4, 2020, https://carbontracker.org/reports/the-futures-not-in-plastics/.
- “Why The Oil Industry’s $400 Billion Bet On Plastics Could Backfire,” September 5, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottcarpenter/2020/09/05/why-the-oil-industrys-400-billion-bet-on-plastics-could-backfire/?sh=3e56b05643fe.
- “Global Polyester Fiber Production 2021,” February 9, 2023, https://www.statista.com/statistics/912301/polyester-fiber-production-worldwide/#:~:text=In%202021%2C%20global%20polyester%20fiber,of%20polyester%20fibers%20produced%20worldwide.
- “Welcome to ‘Cancer Alley,’ Where Toxic Air Is About to Get Worse,” October 30, 2019, https://www.propublica.org/article/welcome-to-cancer-alley-where-toxic-air-is-about-to-get-worse.
- “Briefing On Polyester,” October 22, 2021, https://www.commonobjective.co/article/fibre-briefing-polyester.
- “Cotton,”, https://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/cotton.
- “Just Transitions Dialogue: Exploring the Need for International Rules Based on Local Realities.”
- “The State of Fashion 2023” (Business of Fashion and McKinsey, November 29, 2022), https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/state-of-fashion.
- “Fashion Has a Misinformation Problem. That’s Bad for the Environment.,” January 31, 2020, https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/1/27/21080107/fashion-environment-facts-statistics-impact.
- Higg is a sustainability information platform for measuring, managing, and sharing supply chain performance data.
- “Fashion Brands Pause Use of Sustainability Index Tool over Greenwashing Claims,” June 28, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2022/jun/28/fashion-brands-pause-use-of-sustainability-index-tool-over-greenwashing-claims.
- “Tracking Regulations Aimed at the Fashion Industry,” January 2, 2023, https://www.thefashionlaw.com/tracking-regulations-aimed-at-the-fashion-industry/.
22. “Vietnam’s Textile-Garment Exports $37.57 Bn in 2022; 14.7% YoY Growth,” February 8, 2023, https://www.fibre2fashion.com/news/textile-news/vietnam-s-textile-garment-exports-37-57-bn-in-2022-14-7-yoy-growth-285659-newsdetails.htm.
23. “Garment, Footwear Exports Aim to Reach US$80 Billion by 2025,” February 2, 2023, https://ven.vn/garment-footwear-exports-aim-to-reach-us-80-billion-by-2025-46732.html#:~:text=Vi%E1%BB%87t%20Nam’s%20textile%2C%20garment%20and,Nam’s%20textile%20and%20footwear%20industry.
24. “Bangladesh Garment Export Growth Seen Slowing to ‘normal’ 15% This Year,” August 10, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/markets/asia/bangladesh-garment-export-growth-seen-slowing-normal-15-this-year-2022-08-10/.
26. “China’s Textiles & Apparel Exports Grow 2.53% to $323 Bn in 2022,” January 24, 2023, https://www.fibre2fashion.com/news/textile-news/china-s-textiles-apparel-exports-grow-2-53-to-323-bn-in-2022–285383-newsdetails.htm#:~:text=China%27s%20textiles%20%26%20apparel%20exports%20grow%202.53%25%20to%20%24323%20bn%20in%202022,-24%20Jan%20%2723&text=China%20exported%20textiles%2C%20apparel%20and,compared%20to%20the%20previous%20year.
27. This includes “travel goods”.“Cambodia’s Garment, Footwear, Travel Goods Export up 14.9 Pct in 2022,” January 10, 2023, https://english.news.cn/asiapacific/20230110/5a737f9f9738438aa676b5d283954e3b/c.html#:~:text=PHNOM%20PENH%2C%20Jan.,and%20Excise%20released%20on%20Tuesday.