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Climate Action Roadmap

Climate Action Roadmap

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Textiles in clothing, home goods and other products represent a significant end use of fossil fuel-based plastic and a large source of non-food agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

Emissions profile

Globally, textile production contributes more than 1 billion tonnes of CO2e per year. The UK’s textile footprint was 26.2 MtCO2e in 2016.[105] Producing natural fibres, like cotton, requires large quantities of agricultural land and inputs. The demand for cultivated fibres makes textiles a further driver of deforestation and a major consumer of water – sometimes in unsuitably arid regions where water security is already an issue. Synthetic textiles, often fabricated from plastic polymers, result in even greater emissions. A single polyester shirt has a carbon footprint more than twice as large as a cotton shirt.[106]

‘Fast fashion’ has led to an increase in per capita purchases of clothing. Quick style changes, more collections per year, and low prices drive greater sales volumes, with consequent increases in the quantities of raw materials needed to keep up with demand.[107]

Routes to decarbonisation for

Only 2% of feedstocks used in clothing manufacturing come from recycled sources. The remainder come from virgin materials – plastic accounting for 64% and cotton accounting for 26%.[108] Recycling and reutilisation of textiles, as well as using recycled inputs from other industries, will be a cornerstone of decarbonising textile production. Reducing production waste like offcuts also conserves precious material. 

While recycling and better utilisation of used textiles will reduce the demand for virgin material, raw inputs will likely always be a feature of textile production. Low carbon growing methods for natural fibres (in line with the pathway to decarbonise agriculture in general) will complement sustainable end-of-life treatment for textiles. A major challenge for textiles will be moving from virgin plastic feedstocks to renewable alternatives. Bio-based plastic alternatives and other novel human-made fibres may substitute polymers originating from fossil fuels. 

The specific interventions and innovations will vary from material to material and will require businesses to work with suppliers and experts to identify new opportunities for low carbon innovation – for example, WRAP's Textiles 2030 initiative has identified a number of options for selecting longer-lasting, more durable and less resource intensive fibres and fabrics. The selection of low impact materials has helped deliver a 13% reduction in clothing greenhouse gas emissions by the signatories. 

Finally, given the length and complexity of the supply chains involved in the apparel sector, it is likely that the use of sustainability standards and certification will be a key route for retailers to specify lower carbon materials.

Case study: Better Cotton Initiative

The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is a global not-for-profit organisation and the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world. The initiative, which has had retailer and brand support since it was launched in 2005, now covers c. 22% of global cotton production.[109]

Using the standard and chain-of-custody system, retailers can specify cotton that has been demonstrated to have a lower environmental footprint than standard cotton. The standard has been used within the UK Sustainable Clothing Action Plan to demonstrate sector reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.[110]

The initiative continues to invest in research to demonstrate the relative performance of BCI cotton on a range of key environmental metrics linked to climate smart farming – such as more efficient and responsible pesticide use, inorganic fertiliser use and water use.

[105] WRAP (2017) Valuing Our Clothes: the cost of UK fashion
[106] Fashion’s environmental price tag (2019). House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee.
[107] A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future (2019). Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
[108] A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future (2019). Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
[109] Better Cotton Initiative website
[110] WRAP (2018) SCAP 2020 progress 2012-2017