Thinking of 'carbon emissions' or 'pollution' typically evokes images of smog-filled cities or coal plants – not the clothes you're wearing.

Yet after agriculture and big oil, fast fashion is, with its many impacts on people and the planet, one of the most polluting industries in the world. It is also a complex business involving long and often obscure supply chains of raw materials, textile manufacturing, production, transport, retail, use and, ultimately, disposal. How will the fashion industry survive in an age where consumers, especially millennials – a market worth over EUR 13 trillion by 2025 – are demanding sustainability, accountability and transparency?

Fast fashion is bad news for our climate and communities

The overall impact the fashion industry has on our planet is not pretty; it produces around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 20% of global wastewater, and every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is estimated to be landfilled or burned. The reality of resource scarcity and climate-related risks is also beginning to pose an existential threat to fashion brands, as many of the resources used to create products are limited.

Polyester and cotton, two of the most widely used fabrics that together represent nearly 80% of global textiles production, are exposed to an array of sustainability challenges. The former is being demonized due to its monstrous carbon footprint, ocean-polluting microfibers, and ongoing global commitments to phase out fossil fuels (petroleum is the core ingredient of polyester). Cotton, on the other hand, is a natural product, but remains one of the thirstiest and most pesticide and fertilizer-intensive crops in the world.

In addition to the implications of increasing water scarcity – global demand is set to outstrip supply by the middle of this century – a business model that relies on the use of single raw materials will not be sustainable in the long term. Equally important is the consideration of social sustainability, as most production and manufacturing work still takes place in low-income countries with weak labor law enforcement.

Despite advances in automation, fashion is one of the most labor intensive industries, estimated to employ around 60 million people worldwide. Brands that are not addressing related social challenges will eventually lose market share, a realisation shared by the CEOs of the most influential fashion companies, including Nike, H&M and Kering.

We also live in an age where, very often, the impact of our spending choices on the natural and social environment is invisible. Many of us learned this the hard way six years ago when the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed and took the lives of over 1,000 workers – a sobering wake-up call for brands who had failed to keep track of their outsourced supply chains.

Radical change requires collective action along the supply chain

The obscure nature of supply chains has become a sticking point for consumers and investors alike. Thanks to the Fashion Revolution movement, people have taken to social media to call for more transparent, ethical, and environmentally sustainable practices across the corporate value chain. With #WhoMadeMyClothes reaching over three million people last year, it seems likely that the fashion revolution will continue to grow along with the global cohort of informed consumers.

Pathways to more robust solutions have already started to emerge. One such leadership strategy is called insetting. Insetting involves close collaboration with suppliers, customers, and other stakeholders around transformative, socio-economic, and environmental projects directly within the corporate value chain. Insetting is also a way to reduce corporate greenhouse gas emissions in line with Science Based Targets (SBTs) and to the level required to keep global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius.

An example of an insetting project could include the development of climate neutral cotton through field-level, farm-level, and/or community-level projects. This would not only radically decrease its global warming impact compared to regular cotton, but also help achieve the brand's sustainability targets while creating co-benefits for its suppliers. Furthermore, organic agriculture can improve the health of both the planet and people by reducing overall exposure to pesticides that can end up in the ground, air, water, and food supply. Many companies have come to realize that this type of environmental and social success directly correlates with financial success; healthy cotton farmers who feel safe at work and outside of work will outperform unhealthy ones any day.

Driven by environmental concerns, consumer sentiment and, increasingly, commercial opportunity, a number of leading fashion brands are launching sustainability initiatives. CHANEL, for example, is pioneering the use of the insetting approach to address their carbon emissions. They are doing this by investing in, for instance, agroforestry projects within their supply base that are designed to sequester as much carbon as possible. Levi Strauss & Co has kicked off a North American denim recycling program where consumers are incentivized to bring denim clothing from any brand, in any condition, and have items transformed into insulation for schools or low-income housing built by Habitat for Humanity. Others are making sure that the impact of their products is also addressed; Reformation, a sustainable clothing brand, has directly integrated carbon offsets into the shopping experience. Many more have come together under the UN Charter for Fashion, which includes a target of 30% greenhouse gas emission reductions by 2030 for all signatories.

At last, it seems like the global, multi-billion dollar fashion industry is going through a long overdue sustainability transformation. But despite the acceleration of targets and commitments set by big brands, many have yet to take action.

The next decade will reveal the true trendsetters – and those who will fall out of fashion. Who will be the ones to cotton on to sustainable supply chains?

South Pole, a global sustainability solutions provider, is working with multinational brands to achieve measurable impacts in their supply chain. With specialists covering Science Based Targets (SBTs), water stewardship, and sustainable land-use, the company's solutions have resulted in cost savings, as well as improved risk management and corporate positioning. Want to continue the conversation? Reach out to Muireann at