Overbudget and out of time for environmental sustainability

Each year, the Global Footprint Network reports on Earth Overshoot Day, which is the day that humanity uses up what scientists consider to be a sustainable level of resources for the year. That day fell on August 2 this year, and with three months left to go in 2018, we’ve emitted more carbon than nature can absorb in one year, caught more fish, cut down more trees and harvested more food than the Earth can produce in the same period.


We’ve exhausted Mother Nature’s budget for the given timeframe – and she’s not very forgiving. Humanity’s carbon footprint, which currently sits at 60 percent of the total ecological footprint, has more than doubled since 1970, creating an environmental nightmare for sustainability professionals across the globe.


No surprise: Apparel and footwear supply chains are the worst offenders


The fashion and apparel industries are leading contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, releasing 1.2 billion tons of emissions each year – that’s more than international flights and maritime shipping releases combined. Further, nearly five percent of total global emissions come from the fashion industry, which traditionally requires more resources than other sectors.


Consider what it takes to make a t-shirt, for example: Even the production of the materials to create t-shirts are harmful to the environment. The two most commonly used fabrics for clothing production – polyester and cotton – have significant environmental impact. In fact, polyester is produced from fossil fuels such as crude oil, which is one reason why its production emits 262 percent more CO2 than cotton. The cotton industry also relies heavily on 98 million tons of non-renewable resources each year to produce, dye and finish fibers and textiles. As fast fashion continues to drive production trends across the supply chain, issues with cotton and polyester are just the beginning.


After procuring these materials, the cotton or polyester is then taken on an oil-powered ship to be sewn at a factory powered by coal, shipped to another factory where buttons and zippers can be added and packaged for yet another shipment. The carbon footprint burden then transfers from company to consumer as consumers also have a significant negative impact on the environment. Most will toss their unwanted clothes in the trash, contributing to the 92 million tons of solid waste dumped in landfills each year. To put that in perspective, that’s one garbage truck full of textiles thrown away every second.


Current methods of production throughout the fashion supply chain are outdated. Retailers lean too heavily on the take-make-dispose model, which is unsustainable behavior that’s becoming antiquated as sustainability concerns rise across retail. To make matters worse, clothing production has doubled in the past 15 years, and will triple that by 2050, should it continue at the same pace.


Limiting retail’s carbon footprint


Lowering costs and speeding production time are consistently top of mind for retailers, but sustainability has slowly crept into the equation as the global community tries to limit the impacts of global warming, and consumers pay more attention to the implications of their buying habits. Though the environmental impacts of apparel and textile supply chains have been widespread, it’s not too late to change course and mitigate the effects of these operations, including:


Collaborate with partners: The importance of collaboration and co-creation in the retail supply chain is greater than ever. Collaborating with partners, whether they be nonprofits, suppliers or even competing brands, can help organizations make effective use of the resources available to them. Many sustainable initiatives from singular brands are not enough, as they are only effective at a small scale. Instead, organizations should look to form coalitions to combine their sustainability knowledge and resources for a greener future.


Take the Responsible Beauty Initiative, for example: Last year, L’Oreal, Coty, Groupe Rocher and Clarins joined forces with sustainability ratings firm EcoVadis to improve sustainability throughout the entire beauty supply chain by sharing best practices and processes, driving a common understanding across the industry.


Invest in supply chain circularity: Retailers need to leverage more creative solutions that include more effective use of resources and renewable materials. A greater commitment to recycling and supply chain circularity, where organizations recycle used products and materials they’d otherwise trash if left unsold or unused, is necessary to make this a reality.


Similar to the Responsible Beauty Initiative, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation implemented the Make Fashion Circular program, which drives retailers to invest more in a circular supply chain approach. Core participants include major brands such as Gap, H&M, Nike and Stella McCartney, fueling collaboration between industry leaders to create a circular future.


Replace unsustainable materials in production: If polyester and cotton production are that detrimental to our environment, why not phase out substances and materials that make their production inherently bad? Water consumption and pesticides are two major sustainability issues when it comes apparel production: It takes 2,700 liters of water to produce a single t-shirt and pesticides, which are commonly used in the production of cotton, creates $9.6 billion in damages each year in the U.S.


The most touted alternative is hemp, which, in comparison with cotton, uses one quarter of the water, very little pesticides and about half the land. Though cotton and polyester have long been staples of the clothing industry, perhaps it’s time for retailers to revisit the materials they create their garments with to adhere to heightening global sustainability standards.


Where do we go from here?


There’s still much work to be done in the retail supply chain to create more eco-friendly practices. Fortunately, processes currently in place have seemed to make an impact. For example, China’s ecological footprint decreased between 2013 and 2014, after being steadily on the rise since 2000. Germany also saw a decrease in its ecological footprint per person over the same time period. Overall, the ecological footprint per person in high-income countries has decreased nearly 13 percent since 2000.


Retailers should plan on rapidly scaling sustainable practices to keep Mother Nature happy and push back the date of Earth Overshoot Day in the years to come. Our planet depends on it.


Learn more about how retailers can focus on increased collaboration and transparency to pursue more sustainable supply chain practices in our blog.