CO2 Comes out of the closet

This year, humans will generate around 26 billion metric tons of excess carbon dioxide (CO2) – that’s 4.3 tons per person globally. All that extra CO2 precipitates global warming and leads to countless unintended consequences. As the global population explodes, so does the consumer spending base for apparel companies.

How will U.S. apparel companies educate and bring awareness to the millions of consumers about the effects of their individual actions and purchases? We are likely to see, like these snack crisps in the U.K., this trend in carbon footprint labeling spill over to the U.S. clothing sector.

Why? For the simple reason that our need for clothing is responsible for about one ton of CO2 emissions per person.

Over a third of that in the washing and drying of the garment, the rest in growing, the production, manufacturing and transportation of new clothes. That’s right: our addiction to consuming – purchasing more clothing than we probably need – is also one of the sources of all that excess CO2.

This includes emissions from the processes used to manufacture, transport the apparel throughout the supply chain, to emissions from water heating and appliances used in cleaning, drying and pressing clothes to the end of the products life cycle.

The most significant of these impacts are conventional cotton farming practices; the reliance on petro-chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, as well as the reliance on chemical processes to manufacture and finish the garments. And don’t forget to include the distance that most textiles travel to the U.S.: the majority of textile manufacturing is in South East Asia, China and India. Of course, the environmental impact of farming practices vary regionally around the world. The U.S. has, in some cases, has made improvements in utilizing ecologically safe Integrated Pest Management practices.

Our carbon footprints, both individually and as a business, an industry or a country, take all these factors into account. One side of the equation is our primary footprint, or the direct emissions of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels including domestic energy consumption and transportation, but it also includes our secondary footprint, which is a measure of the indirect CO2 emissions from the whole lifecycle of products we use – those products’ manufacture and eventual breakdown.

Smart apparel eco-innovators have realized that addressing this issue is a way to add major value to their products, and a way to gain competitive advantage. Several major retailers are already taking action.

Over the coming months, Marks and Spencer will re-label almost three quarters of its clothing ranges to include the words ‘Think Climate – Wash at 30°C’ on the garment care labels. Advice will also be provided through in-store leaflets and décor, advertising and on The company has also worked with the World Wildlife Fund to develop a carbon footprint calculator to raise awareness of how individual habits can affect the environment.

Timberland analyzed the CO2 footprint of the of their apparel and footwear, on the journey from Asia to the U.S. In 2006, ocean freight CO2 measured at almost 17,000 tons. Last fall, Timberland included a “nutrition label” with its footwear, detailing the energy used in making the shoes, the portion that is renewable, and the factory’s labor record, they also are introducing their new green index-metrics measuring program for products.

The lessons learned, and the forthcoming lessons to be learned, can be summed up in a series of Eco-Smart tips for apparel companies in considering your products carbon footprint.

1.) Know your product’s life cycle. The most comprehensive carbon footprint denotes the total amount of CO2 emitted throughout a process or in a product’s lifetime – from sourcing raw materials to production, delivery, consumption and disposal. For example, the carbon footprint of a T-shirt might be defined as emissions used for U.S. distribution. But if the whole process – from growing cotton in India, to mass production in China and delivery to U.S. retailers to the end of the products life cycle – is included, the footprint rises significantly.

2.) Choose organic and sustainable fibers. Choosing organic cotton and cotton that has been sustainably grown is one big way of reducing the CO2 impact of your wardrobe. With approximately half of all textiles being made from cotton, this action alone will make a difference. Don’t forget to consider organic hemp and organic linen.

3.) Educate your consumers. Label your products, about 90 percent of the energy used for washing clothes is for heating the water, wash your clothes in cold water. Switching your temperature setting from hot to warm can cut a load’s energy use in half. Take a look at Marks and Spencer: they got it right.

4.) Utilize more recycled fibers. The environmental impact of recycling worn-out polyester into new polyester fiber, for instance, is significantly lower than making that same fiber anew. CO2 savings can be as high as 71 percent in the case of Patagonia’s recycled Capilene base layers. Keep an eye on Patagonia„ they always ‘do the right thing’ and consequently get it right most the time.

5.) Encourage your customers to recycle. The average U.S. consumer throws out 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per year. Encourage your customers to donate used, unwanted clothing and shoes instead of throwing them away. This averts the CO2 emissions that come from incinerating them or sending them to a landfill.

6.) Keep your eye on the future. Should consumers opt to buy fewer new clothes, and start buying vintage or used clothes, how will this effect your business model?

What does the future look like? Will consumers demand apparel companies label items with clothes miles, as they’ve begun doing for food miles? What would be the business proposition and the value add of apparel produced here in the U.S.A? I say that apparel produced in the U.S. would have added premium value and that would surely be good for business as well as good for the environment.

Coral Rose is the founder of Eco-Innovations Sustainable Textile Services, and is a widely recognized agent of change with over twenty years experience, including senior management positions in merchandising and product development and sustainable textile product development for major retail corporations.

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