From record-breaking heat and extreme storms to unprecedented floods, wildfires, and droughts, it’s undeniable that we are living in the time of a climate crisis.
Carbon dioxide is one of the main greenhouse gasses contributing to global warming and the worsening effects of the climate crisis. And the fashion industry has an outsized carbon footprint. So there is a good reason why carbon emissions have become the center of many sustainable fashion conversations.
What the fashion industry desperately needs is to develop effective, and scientifically verifiable, pathways to decarbonization. In other words, fashion needs to drastically reduce its carbon-intensive activities and find sustainable alternatives.
These lower-carbon sustainable alternatives aren’t figments of fashion’s imagination. They already exist in the form of practices such as regenerative farming, localized textile systems, fossil fuel-free fibers, and circular business models.
But instead of hearing about more mainstream fashion brands working towards these holistic alternatives that decrease carbon emissions, we are hearing about more brands claiming to retrospectively pay to offset their carbon emissions.
In theory, carbon offsetting sounds like a quick win when it comes to decarbonizing the industry. But it’s not a long-term solution to healing fashion’s carbon and climate harms. Let’s dive deeper into fashion’s carbon neutrality claims..
Where Are the Majority of Fashion’s Carbon Emissions Released?
Around 70 percent of the fashion industry’s carbon emissions come from upstream activities such as materials production, preparation, and processing, according to a report by McKinsey & Company and Global Fashion Agenda. The remaining 30 percent are associated with downstream retail operations, use phase, and end-of-use activities.
This is echoed in a report by the Apparel Impact Institute report “Taking Stock of Progress Against the Roadmap to Net Zero” which shares that the production of a garment can be split into emissions tiers:
- Raw material extraction (tier four),
- Raw material processing (tier three),
- Material production (tier two),
- And finished product assembly (tier one).
Tier two, where the fabric and trims used in the finished product are produced, is by far the most carbon-intensive tier, accounting for 53 percent of total apparel sector greenhouse gas emissions in 2021.
And as research by Carbonfact shows, the average carbon footprint of a t-shirt is 7 kg CO2 equivalent (kgCO2e)3. The lowest is recycled cotton made in Vietnam (5 kgCO2e), and the highest is cotton made in India (10 kgCO2e).
Image credit: Carbonfact
Fifty percent of the carbon footprint comes from the energy required for the wet treatment phase — including activities such as dyeing, printing, finishing, and laundering.
What all of this research points to is the decisions made about how to produce a garment — and what to produce it from — all have direct links to its carbon footprint.
Why Does Fashion’s Carbon Footprint Matter?
The fashion industry is heavily reliant on non-renewable fossil fuels — namely coal, oil, and gas. Fossil fuels are used for energy to power factories and retail stores, transportation, and to create fossil fuel-derived synthetic fibers — such as polyester and nylon.
When fossil fuels are burned, they release carbon dioxide into the air — known as carbon emissions. Carbon dioxide is the most common greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-intensive fashion processes strengthen the greenhouse effect, contributing to global warming and worsening the effects of the climate crisis.
While carbon dioxide occurs naturally — circulating between the atmosphere, soil, plants, animals, and oceans — humans are drastically changing the carbon cycle by adding more carbon dioxide and influencing how nature can remove and store it.
A carbon footprint is a measure of the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of certain activities.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the fashion industry’s exact carbon footprint due to a lack of reputable data. According to The Apparel Impact Institute’s new report “Taking stock of progress against the roadmap to net-zero”, the sector emitted an estimated 897 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2021 — which is roughly 1.8 percent of global GHG emissions. Previous estimates guessed between 2–8 percent.
The fact of the matter is: we need to decarbonize fashion to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions being released into the atmosphere if we want to lessen the effects of the climate crisis. Carbon offsetting has been positioned as one possible pathway to achieving this goal.
What Is Carbon-Neutral, Net-Zero, and Carbon Offsetting?
A carbon-neutral or net-zero future is one where there is a balance of carbon emissions in the atmosphere, aligned with the 1.5°C limit set by the Paris Agreement, by eliminating emissions from human and industrial activity and by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
One proposed way of working towards this future is by carbon offsetting. Carbon offsetting is a financial transaction that involves businesses voluntarily investing in green projects as a way to balance out their excessive supply chain emissions. These projects can include agroforestry and reforestation, forest conservation, regenerative agriculture, and marine and coastal conservation.
Importantly, these projects are external to the business’s supply chain and are usually located in regions far removed from business operations.
There are certifications that brands and businesses can obtain to account for accurate and responsible carbon offsetting, such as the Climate Neutral Certified Label which is a globally recognized standard for carbon accountability.
In theory, carbon offsetting sounds like the ideal silver-bullet solution to addressing fashion’s carbon footprint. But the reality is more complicated.
Is Carbon Offsetting Enough To Counterbalance Fashion’s Carbon Footprint?
Carbon offsetting requires brands to calculate the number of tonnes of carbon dioxide they emit in their supply chain, using a carbon calculator or going through life cycle analysis companies such as Carbonfact.
Then they purchase the amount of “carbon credits” equivalent to the amount they want to offset. These carbon credits (typically sold in units of one metric tonne) are bought through investing in projects that commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon offsetting is voluntary and occurs after carbon dioxide has already been emitted. Being able to contribute to global warming through carbon emissions, while committing to reversing this after the fact, comes across as contradictory.
It also assumes that carbon emissions — and the harms caused by extreme emissions — can be reversed in the first place.
In some cases, it’s been critiqued as a “guilt-free” way for companies to continue carbon-intensive activities. “Carbon offsetting does not lead to direct emission reductions. It allows for a ‘business-as-usual’ approach without prioritizing internal decarbonization techniques,” says Charlotte Borst, Raw Material Innovation Associate at Fashion for Good.
According to Borst, carbon offsetting doesn’t contribute to a company’s progress on science-based targets.
The Science Based Targets initiative aims to define and promote best practices in emissions reductions and net-zero targets in line with climate science. “The use of offsets is not counted as an emission reduction toward the progress of companies’ Science Based Targets, because emission reduction must come through direct action within their own operations or value chain,” she says.
Carbon offsetting also has additionality issues. “Many carbon offsetting activities are not additional. This means that they don’t contribute to achieving additional climate benefits, compared to if the project had not existed. For example, when carbon credits are issued for protecting forests which were never in danger,” explains Borst.
Carbon offsetting may be seen as a solution to one problem, but without careful research, implementation, and continuous monitoring, it can cause a host of other problems. Businesses run the risk of investing in projects that don’t deliver on promised climate benefits. For example, there have been many examples of tree planting initiatives that interfere with the natural biodiversity of the area, convert productive farming land into tree planting land, and infringe on the rights of indigenous people who manage and care for natural ecosystems.
“Projects are often, and primarily, based in developing countries, potentially affecting local communities. There are multiple examples of projects infringing human rights and disrupting the environment and livelihoods of vulnerable communities,” says Borst.
She cites the example of the Barro Blanco Hydroelectric Dam, in Panama, that — if completed — will displace Indigenous Ngäbe families and result in significant impacts on the local communities. The communities were not adequately consulted about the project and the dam also threatens to violate the human rights to property, housing, food, water, culture, and education.
These oversights that lead to carbon offsetting projects which don’t deliver positive environmental or social outcomes are also a symptom of carbon tunnel vision. Carbon tunnel vision refers to the practice of focusing solely, or primarily, on tackling carbon emissions while ignoring other important factors of fashion’s impact — including waste, overconsumption, pollution, biodiversity loss, and human rights abuses.
We need fashion solutions that address the interconnectedness and complexity of the current fashion system’s harms while acknowledging that this will require systems change that goes beyond siloed quick fixes.
Carbon offsetting is not targeting the root cause of the problem, because they leave the crux of what is causing the carbon emissions in the first place unscrutinized.
This also means that carbon offsetting does little to slow down global warming. And is perhaps a distraction from the fact that we need to transition away from fossil fuels entirely. But there are a few positive perspectives on carbon offsetting.
The Silver Linings of Carbon Offsetting as a Transition Strategy
While carbon offsetting isn’t the silver bullet solution that the fashion industry is intent on finding, it does have a few silver linings when viewed as a transition step in a move towards carbon reduction.
“Despite all justified criticism and confusion surrounding it, offsetting can have a positive effect when combined with reducing internal emissions. Most carbon offset projects do have positive effects such as planting trees and creating jobs but they can’t be relied on as a first-choice measure to tackle greenhouse gas emissions,” says Borst.
Beginning the carbon offsetting process also requires businesses to measure and account for their carbon emissions across their entire operations and supply chains. This is a valuable process and an important step in understanding a business’s impact and possible reduction pathways.
“What can’t be measured, can’t be managed. When it comes to understanding the carbon footprint and carbon hotspots of a garment, Life Cycle Assessments are valuable because they measure the carbon dioxide emissions across the entire value chain,” says Dr. Bahareh Zamani of Carbonfact on the importance of using Life Cycle Assessments to inform carbon reduction strategies.
The results of Life Cycle Assessments can help brands strategize about lower-carbon ways to develop products, material choices, how to choose suppliers, and how to help suppliers to transition to renewable energy.
While brands have control over many areas of their carbon reduction, not all decisions are within their control — especially when it comes to working with suppliers who supply multiple brands. “Collaboration is key. Sustainability issues can’t be solved in silos. Brands need to reach out to other brands to figure out how they can support suppliers,” says Dr Bahareh on the need for brands — who source from the same supplier — to work together to help suppliers improve their processes.
And while reduction strategies are essential, carbon offsets can be seen as an interim or transition solution while brands figure out how to effectively implement their reduction efforts and form collaborations with other brands. “As there are not enough easily implementable solutions available to 100 percent mitigate these supply chain emissions, and these solutions take time to become viable, offsetting can be a transition solution to make up for the portion of emissions that can’t be covered by internal mitigation strategies,” says Borst.
While carbon offsetting may be useful in the process of implementing overall reduction strategies, we need to be careful of being caught up in the greenwashing of these offset claims.
How Do We Know When a Company Is Greenwashing Carbon Offsetting?
In a report by Stand.Earth, released in November 2022, data showed that 2022 had been a year of increased emissions despite public commitments and promises by fashion companies to reduce carbon output from previous years. This sets off greenwashing alarm bells, because even though companies were making public commitments, this was not reflected in the true impact.
Accounting for the positive impacts of offsetting projects is not straightforward. The disparity between carbon offsetting claims and the lack of impact is because measuring the impact of the carbon sequestration projects is often tricky and reliable data is hard to come by. “Effective offsetting requires the measurement of the carbon saved. This is a complex, unpredictable process which forbids accurate measurement,” says Borst.
This means that the term “carbon-neutral” can be misleading to consumers. For example, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority found that consumers tend to believe that “carbon neutral” claims from companies mean an absolute reduction in carbon emissions. When they found that carbon neutral claims are reliant on offsetting, they felt “misled”.
This is why, recently, the UK’s advertising watchdog has decided to ban all advertisements that claim products are carbon neutral using offsets, unless the businesses can prove that the carbon offsets have worked.
Image Credit: Stand Earth
Spotting greenwashing is not always easy, especially because the solutions we currently have are not perfect. As Borst points out, “Once you spot overly convincing numbers (100 percent plastic free, 100 percent vegan, zero carbon emissions) you should be critical. You can always ask a company for more information. If they don’t respond — elaborately and respectfully — you can take it as a signal of greenwashing. Honest companies tell you about what they are doing well and what they think needs improvement.”
Another key way to tell if a company is greenwashing is by looking at their core business. If their core business is not at all concerned with divesting from fossil fuels, and actively reducing emissions, then it’s most likely greenwashing.
For example, The Guardian reported that major oil companies are some of the biggest buyers of carbon offsets to help meet their climate pledges while continuing to invest in fossil fuels.
And with fashion, according to Stand.Earth’s 2023 Fossil Free Fashion Scorecard — which ranks 43 of the most influential fashion companies on their use of fossil fuels — only one fashion company reported on progress phasing out coal among their suppliers. No progress was made on phasing out fossil fuel-derived fabrics.
Carbon offsetting used in isolation gives off a false sense of progress, because it creates the illusion of cutting emissions, without actually doing the difficult work of cutting them.
As with many of the most important conversations in the fashion industry, some businesses are trying to make genuine efforts to make solution-oriented decisions, and others are looking to keep their reputations clean. But those with good intentions should be looking at reduction strategies that go beyond retrospective offsetting.
Holistic Pathways to Decarbonizing Fashion Through Reduction Strategies
Reduction needs to be the foundation of every brand’s carbon-neutral strategy.
An alternative approach to offsetting is carbon insetting. Carbon insetting brings carbon reduction projects in-house.
“As opposed to offsetting, carbon insetting projects are developed to reduce carbon emissions within an organization’s value chain and sphere of influence. In doing so, brands can address those emission areas that are most important to them — those within the supply chain,” says Borst. She adds that, generally, insetting projects are collaboratively designed with the brand and the developer, with a long-term perspective spanning 5-10 years.
While there isn’t a required insetting certification, some carbon inset organizations, such as PUR Project, work with third parties to verify and audit their projects.
An example of a brand that is investing in carbon insetting is the Danish fashion brand, Ganni. They did this by installing solar panels at their supplier facility in Portugal. Another example of carbon insetting would be sourcing regeneratively farmed fibers and investing in regenerative farming projects within a brand’s supply chain. This is because regenerative farming helps in rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity — resulting in both carbon drawdown and an improved water cycle.
Apparel Impact Institute and Fashion for Good’s report, “Unlocking the Trillion Dollar Fashion Decarbonization Opportunity” suggests pathways to reduction include shifting to renewable energy, opting for low-impact materials, incorporating circular fashion business models (including swapping, renting, resale, and upcycling), maximizing energy efficiency, reducing production volumes, rethinking and reducing packaging, and sustainable transport options.
It will also take a shift in consumer behavior to reduce carbon emissions, because consumers have control of the use and end-of-use phase of a garment. This includes promoting circular business models that allow for rental, repair, swapping, reduced washing and drying, and increased textile recycling.
Carbon emissions are not the only environmental impact that fashion has. So tackling reduction strategies will have to happen in tandem with other approaches including scaling down production, working towards justice-led circular economies, and determining what a just transition would look like for fashion.
Tackling fashion’s carbon footprint is going to require cross-sector collaboration from brands and retailers, supply chain players, policymakers, investors, and consumers. True accountability will require brands to take responsibility for their impacts, instead of spending energy trying to find the easy way out.
About the Author
Stella Hertantyo is a slow fashion and slow living enthusiast based in Cape Town, South Africa. Stella finds solace in words as a medium for sharing ideas and encouraging a cultural shift that welcomes systems change and deepens our collective connection to the world around us. She is passionate about encouraging an approach to sustainability, and social and environmental justice, that is inclusive, intersectional, accessible, and fun.
Stella holds a B.A. Multimedia Journalism from the University of Cape Town, and a PGDip in Sustainable Development from the Sustainability Institute. She currently works as a writer, editor, and social media manager. When she is not in front of her laptop, a dip in the ocean, or a walk in the mountains, are the two things that bring her the most peace.