How to get the coal out of your closet this holiday shopping season

November 25, 2020

The fashion industry remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels to power factories & make clothes, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s how you can cut through the greenwash & use your purchasing power to push major fashion brands to be more sustainable.

By Todd Paglia, Executive Director,

There are few products as personal as our clothes. What we put on our bodies, what lies against our skin all day long, the version of ourselves that we project to the world — this all means something. And at this moment in time, with a global pandemic and holiday shopping season upon us, what this all means is evolving.

Many of us were already occasionally confused about the millions of choices around the clothes we wear. Now that the holidays are coming (at least on Zoom), we have to contend with whether to match (or not?!?) our COVID masks with our pants? Shoes? What, if anything, actually matches a bright green mask, and how did I get this?

The interesting thing about the masks many of us are wearing is that while they are a fashion conundrum, they are also very different from clothes we may be considering buying for the holidays. What makes many masks different is that many of them were made locally, from discarded or used materials. In other words, masks may be one of the few items that do not represent a lump of coal in our closets.

The coal in your closet

Stay with me here. What’s this about coal in our closets? Well, nearly every piece of clothing we are shopping for online was made in the factories of China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Turkey, Bangladesh, and other countries that remain heavily reliant on coal. That’s why the apparel sector is responsible for an estimated 5–8% of all climate pollution.

You probably didn’t think the “black” part of Black Friday stood for coal, but it does.

And how about oil and gas? Let me introduce Fracked Fashion: clothes made from fracked oil and “natural” gas. Yes, this is a thing. The number one fabric used to make apparel is polyester, which is made from oil and gas. So now we have clothes made of oil and gas, that are then produced in factories powered by coal? Sounds like a nightmare — because it is.

The good news is that this is changing. Major brands, spurred by customers and climate activists, are talking the talk and making major sustainability commitments. Levi’s led the pack and is now joined by American Eagle Outfitters in pledging to reduce 40% of all of their climate emissions by 2030. That’s getting coal out of our closets!

And other companies, having been pushed to adopt commitments to reduce their climate pollution, are starting to use their combined purchasing power to influence renewable energy growth in places like Cambodia. Kudos to H&M, Adidas, Puma and Gap, and Nike, and Specialized. We need much more of this.

Fashion industry leaders & laggards

While some brands are making progress, there are still plenty of laggards. REI definitely gets the win for culture jamming Black Friday with its #OptOutside initiative — but in actual climate action, the company is #OptingOut. Rather than dramatically reduce its emissions, REI is using offsets, which means they’re basically paying other people to reduce their pollution. This is like going on a diet and paying someone else to eat less. No, it doesn’t work.

Another loophole some companies are using is “intensity targets.” This means they will produce each article of clothing at a specific percent decrease in climate pollution. But what it really means is they reduce emissions per item, but sell more products, for an overall emissions increase. Is a climate goal that can increase climate pollution fake? Of course.

And beware the buzzwords. Some companies are making real change happen and some are spinning webs of greenwash to assuage our guilt about buying things that we really know are not sustainable. They use terms like Climate Neutral! Climate Positive! Circular Economy! What’s next, Climate Amazing? Some of these efforts no doubt have good intentions behind them, but they are leading to confusion.

Here’s what you can do

If this all sounds daunting don’t just throw up your hands this holiday season. There is too much at stake.

Before you start your holiday shopping list, use this handy scorecard to see which brands get As and which brands get Fs on sustainability.

And remember, keeping it simple is best:

1. Buy from companies with real climate pollution commitments;

2. Buy fewer things; and

3. Make sure your clothes are durable and fashionable, so you want to wear them for a while.

You have the power. Few sectors of our global economy care more about what their customers think than the fashion world. And these companies can make rapid shifts to become more sustainable. Wind and solar are now cheaper than fossil fuels.

If we use our purchasing power wisely, our holiday shopping list doesn’t have to include clothes made from coal, oil, and gas.