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Reframing Our Journey to Net Zero

Reframing Our Journey to Net Zero

The Hook:
Textile manufacturing could hold the key to reducing fashion’s carbon footprint.

Why It Matters:
Focusing on textile manufacturing could lead to substantial emission reductions, enabling the industry to meet its sustainability goals.

– Cotton fiber production contributes 13% of a cotton t-shirt’s GHG emissions, while textile manufacturing accounts for 87% (Cotton Incorporated)
– The fashion industry is responsible for approximately 2-8% of global CO2 emissions each year (Various Estimates)
– Replacing fossil fuel energy in the apparel manufacturing process with renewable energy technology could reduce a garment’s impact by 30 to 50% or more (Cotton Incorporated)

The Importance of Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Climate change has become one of the most pressing global challenges of the 21st century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reported that human activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, are responsible for releasing significant amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. These emissions are causing global temperatures to rise, leading to severe consequences such as extreme weather events, loss of biodiversity, and rising sea levels. As a result, it is crucial for all industries, including fashion, to take aggressive steps to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

As the Chief Sustainability Officer at Cotton Incorporated, I am excited to see the fashion industry’s growing commitment to sustainability. It’s heartening to see so many brands and major players in the industry take bold steps to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, driven by the urgency to address climate change and consumer demand for environmentally friendly products. These commitments often extend across the entire supply chain, from raw material sourcing to garment manufacturing, transportation, and even end-of-life disposal.

For instance, at the COP26 climate summit, several leading fashion companies pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius. This net-zero commitment is a powerful signal of the industry’s dedication to transitioning towards a more sustainable future and playing a significant role in global efforts to combat climate change.

However, for many years the industry has focused on reducing the GHG emissions of cotton fiber production despite the fact that it accounts for only a small fraction of a garment’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. According to our research at Cotton Incorporated, cotton production contributes about 13% of a cotton t-shirt’s GHG emissions, while textile manufacturing accounts for the remaining 87%. While it’s essential to reduce the environmental impact of cotton farming, we must also acknowledge that the industry’s sustainability goals cannot be achieved by focusing solely on cotton fiber production.

Given the time-bound goals and limited resources, it is an opportunity for the fashion industry to expand its efforts on areas that will create the most significant reductions within the time period available. This shift should include increasing textile spinning and wet processing efficiency and utilizing lower GHG impact renewable energy sources. By channeling attention towards the more impactful stages of the supply chain, such as textile manufacturing, sustainable fashion brands can make meaningful progress towards reducing their carbon footprint and mitigating the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Understanding the Apparel Industry’s Emissions

The Textile Value Chain and Its Impact on Emissions

The fashion industry is a complex and interconnected web of processes, from raw material extraction to end-of-life disposal. The textile value chain includes multiple stages, such as ginning, yarn spinning, fabric weaving or knitting, dyeing and finishing, garment assembly, and transportation. Each of these stages contributes to the industry’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Figure 1: LCA Update of Cotton Fiber and Cotton Lifecycle. Cotton Incorporated (2017).

As many brands and retailers are aware, the fashion industry is responsible for approximately 2-8% of global CO2 emissions each year,  making it a significant contributor to climate change. The majority of these emissions occur during the textile manufacturing stage, which includes the energy-intensive processes of spinning, weaving, dyeing, and finishing. Fossil fuels are often the primary energy source for these processes, which further exacerbates the industry’s carbon footprint.

Comparing the Emissions of Cotton Fiber Production and Textile Manufacturing

Cotton Incorporated strongly believes in the importance of considering the emissions from all stages of the textile value chain to develop effective strategies for reducing our industry’s environmental impact. Our LCA Update of Cotton Fiber and Fabric Life Cycle Inventory clearly shows the importance of expanding our focus towards the overall impact of a cotton garment—from farm-level cotton production to textile manufacturing and end-of-life.

Figure 2: LCA Update of Cotton Fiber and Cotton Lifecycle. Cotton Incorporated (2017).

Cotton is a natural and renewable resource. While cotton farming does produce some emissions due to the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, these emissions can be significantly lower than those generated during textile manufacturing. Additionally, cotton has the potential to capture CO2 both in the fiber and in the soil, especially when regenerative agriculture practices are used.

Textile manufacturing involves several energy-intensive processes that contribute to the majority of a garment’s emissions. For instance, spinning raw cotton fibers into yarn requires large amounts of electricity, while dyeing and finishing fabrics often involve the use of fossil fuels to generate heat and power. Synthetic fibers, such as polyester, are even more energy-intensive and reliant on non-renewable resources like petroleum.

The Potential for Greater Emission Reductions in Textile Manufacturing

Together we have a responsibility to address the significant difference in emissions between cotton fiber production and textile manufacturing. To improve our industry’s overall environmental impact, it’s essential to develop effective strategies for reducing emissions from different stages of the textile value chain. As a company dedicated to promoting sustainable cotton production and textile manufacturing, Cotton Incorporated is committed to exploring innovative solutions with sustainable fashion brands, mills and manufacturers, to address these challenges to achieve significant emission reductions.

So what can we do to reduce the environmental footprint of textile manufacturing? One potential solution is to replace fossil fuel energy in the textile process with existing green energy technology. According to Cotton Incorporated’s LCA, replacing fossil fuel energy in the apparel manufacturing process with renewable energy technology could reduce a garment’s impact by 30 to 50% or more. These efforts are crucial for meeting the industry’s ambitious net-zero commitments and mitigating the severe impacts of climate change.

Continuous Improvement in Cotton Production

Addressing climate change and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are crucial aspects of improving cotton production sustainability. The U.S. cotton industry has set a goal to reduce GHG emissions by 39% by 2025. While various ongoing efforts contribute to this objective, the list below highlights projects related to climate change and GHG emissions.

Climate Change and GHG Emissions Reduction in Cotton Production:

  • Soil health and carbon sequestration: Implementing farming practices that enhance soil health, increase carbon capture in the soil, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Climate Smart Cotton Program has the goal of supporting cotton producers’ adoption of new regenerative and climate smart agriculture practices on their farms that reduce GHG emissions and improve the overall sustainability of cotton production.
  • Energy efficiency: Adopting energy-efficient technologies and practices in cotton farming and processing to reduce energy consumption and associated GHG emissions.
  • Bioenergy from cotton waste: Exploring opportunities to produce bioenergy from cotton waste, which can replace fossil fuels and reduce GHG emissions
  • Carbon storage in cotton products: Researching the benefits of carbon sequestration in cotton textiles and products, which could help mitigate climate change.
  • Climate-resilient cotton varieties: Developing climate-resilient cotton cultivars that can better withstand extreme weather events and maintain productivity in the face of climate change.
  • Water management: Employing water-saving technologies and practices in cotton farming to reduce the water footprint, indirectly contributing to lowering GHG emissions.

Opportunities for Emission Reductions in Textile Manufacturing

Increasing Spinning and Wet Processing Efficiency

The spinning and wet processing stages of textile manufacturing are known to be energy-intensive and contribute significantly to the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions. By increasing efficiency in these stages, the industry can achieve substantial emission reductions (see Figure 1).

In spinning, the focus should be on enhancing the energy efficiency of equipment and machinery, as well as optimizing the spinning process to minimize energy consumption. This can be achieved through regular maintenance, investing in modern, energy-efficient technology, and implementing best practices.

Wet processing, which includes dyeing, printing, and finishing, is another area where efficiency improvements can lead to considerable emission reductions. By adopting newer, low-impact dyeing technologies and water-saving practices, the industry can substantially reduce its water and energy consumption, leading to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

The textile industry has the potential to achieve significant emission reductions by focusing on improving efficiency in spinning and wet processing, shifting to green energy technologies, and fostering collaboration among industry stakeholders. By prioritizing these areas, the industry can play its part and tackle in climate change in contributing to a more sustainable future.

Wet processing, which includes dyeing, printing, and finishing, is another area where efficiency improvements can lead to considerable emission reductions. By adopting newer, low-impact dyeing technologies and water-saving practices, the industry can substantially reduce its water and energy consumption, leading to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Some innovative solutions include using waterless dyeing methods, low-temperature dyeing processes, and closed-loop systems that minimize water usage and waste generation. Implementing these technologies and practices can make a significant difference in reducing the industry’s environmental impact.

Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Green Energy Technologies

One of the most significant opportunities for reducing emissions in the textile industry lies in replacing fossil fuel-based energy sources with renewable alternatives. By utilizing green energy technologies such as solar, wind, and hydropower, the industry can decrease its dependence on fossil fuels, which are responsible for a large portion of its greenhouse gas emissions.

Some textile manufacturers have already started making this transition, installing solar panels, wind turbines, renewable biomass energy, or hydropower systems on-site to generate clean energy for their operations. In addition to reducing emissions, this shift can also help companies achieve long-term cost savings due to the decreasing costs of renewable energy technologies and more reliable power supply.

Collaborating with green energy providers and investing in renewable energy projects can further contribute to the industry’s transition towards a more sustainable energy mix. By pooling resources and sharing expertise, companies can drive the adoption of clean energy technologies and reduce their collective carbon footprint.

Collaborating with Industry Stakeholders to Drive Change

The textile industry can achieve meaningful emission reductions by fostering collaboration among different stakeholders, including manufacturers, sustainable fashion brands and retailers, suppliers, governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). By working together, we can pool our resources, expertise, and influence to drive industry-wide changes that result in more sustainable practices and emission reductions.

Collaboration can take various forms, from setting up industry-wide sustainability standards and certifications to creating public-private partnerships that promote the adoption of clean technologies. For example, initiatives created by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, Textile Exchange, and the Apparel Impact Institute have played a crucial role in driving sustainability improvements throughout the supply chain.

Overcoming Barriers to Sustainable Apparel Manufacturing

Access to Capital and Technical Expertise

One of the significant barriers to adopting sustainable practices in the textile industry is the lack of access to capital and technical expertise. Many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) within the industry struggle to invest in new technologies and practices due to limited financial resources. Moreover, they often lack the technical know-how to implement energy efficiency improvements and integrate renewable energy sources into their operations.

To overcome this barrier, governments, financial institutions, and industry stakeholders can collaborate to develop and promote funding programs that provide financial support to SMEs seeking to adopt sustainable practices. This may include low-interest loans, grants, or other financial incentives that help companies invest in clean technologies and energy-efficient equipment.

Additionally, providing technical assistance and training programs can help build capacity within the industry and equip SMEs with the knowledge and skills required to implement sustainable practices effectively.  Cotton Incorporated hosts a variety of textile workshops focused on efficient and sustainable design and can be found on the CottonWorksTM website.

Overcoming barriers to sustainable apparel manufacturing requires a collaborative effort from all industry stakeholders. By addressing challenges related to access to capital and technical expertise, fostering long-term commitment from brands, and finding innovative solutions to renewable energy sourcing, the textile energy industry can make significant progress towards reducing its environmental impact and contributing to global climate goals.

The Need for Long-term Commitments from the Entire Textile Supply Chain

Collaboration is essential to driving industry-wide change toward sustainable apparel manufacturing. To achieve this, it’s crucial for the entire supply chain to prioritize long-term sustainability goals. We are encouraged to see more brands and retailers incorporating sustainability into their core business strategies and making commitments such as setting ambitious emission reduction targets, investing in sustainable materials and technologies, and reaching out to suppliers who may be slow at adopting climate change goals. By demonstrating a genuine commitment to sustainability, brands and retailers can influence the entire supply chain and contribute to the industry’s transition to a low-carbon future.

Challenges with Renewable Energy Sourcing

Sourcing renewable energy can be challenging for textile manufacturers due to various factors, such as the availability of renewable energy resources, infrastructure limitations, and regulatory barriers. In some regions, the supply of renewable energy may be limited or unreliable, making it difficult for companies to switch from fossil fuels to clean energy sources.

To overcome these challenges, companies can explore various strategies to increase their access to renewable energy. This may involve partnering with clean energy providers, investing in on-site renewable energy generation, or participating in renewable energy credit markets. Collaborating with local and national governments can also help address regulatory barriers and facilitate the development of renewable energy infrastructure.

A Cotton Incorporated research project, led by North Carolina State University, aims to assess the feasibility of converting waste cotton into bioenergy, ultimately promoting cotton circularity and reducing environmental impacts within the textile industry. The study involves characterizing waste cotton materials throughout the value chain and conducting techno-economic and environmental life cycle analyses for various conversion processes, such as combustion, gasification, pyrolysis, and hydrolysis. The goal is to explore the full potential of waste cotton utilization for bioenergy and carbon removal in order to offset energy demands in textile manufacturing, prioritize combinations based on commercial success and environmental benefit, and contribute to the industry’s sustainability efforts.

A More Sustainable Future

The Importance of Refocusing Efforts on Textile Manufacturing

By examining the various stages of the textile value chain, it becomes apparent that there is an urgent need to expand the industry’s attention on reducing emissions within the textile manufacturing processes. To effectively combat climate change, it is crucial for the industry to shift its focus towards more efficient and sustainable manufacturing methods, as well as increased reliance on green energy technologies.

The Potential for Significant Emission Reductions in the Apparel Industry

The potential for substantial emission reductions in the apparel industry is immense, particularly when considering the significant gains that can be achieved by improving textile manufacturing efficiency and incorporating renewable energy sources. By implementing strategies such as increasing spinning and wet processing efficiency, transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and fostering collaboration among stakeholders, the industry has the capacity to reduce a garment’s impact by 30-50% or more. These efforts not only contribute to the industry’s overall sustainability goals but also demonstrate a commitment to combating climate change and preserving our planet for future generations.

The Collective Responsibility to Limit the Impacts of Climate Change

As the apparel industry works to limit the impacts of climate change, it is essential to recognize that this is a collective responsibility. Sustainable fashion brands, manufacturers, governments, industry organizations, NGOs, and consumers all play a critical role in driving change and promoting a more sustainable fashion industry. Collaboration between these various stakeholders is vital for the successful implementation of sustainable practices, the development of innovative technologies, and the establishment of industry-wide standards.

By focusing on the areas with the greatest potential for positive impact, sustainable brands and retailers can create a more resilient and environmentally friendly future for the industry. It is our collective responsibility to act and promote sustainable practices in every aspect of the apparel value chain. In doing so, we can ensure a more sustainable and environmentally conscious fashion industry, ultimately contributing to the global effort to limit the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Factsheet: Reframing Our Journey to Net Zero

View Factsheet

Jesse Daystar – Vice President, Chief Sustainability Officer