Fashion’s Path To Net Zero

  • by Vivienne Austin

The fashion industry has a huge impact on our planet on many different levels. According to McKinsey and the Fast Fashion Agenda, the fashion industry was responsible for 4% of the total global carbon emissions back in 2018, which means the industry must reduce its carbon emissions urgently and take action to remove the carbon already polluting our atmosphere.

When tackling the fashion industry’s emissions, we first need to understand where these gases are coming from. 71% of the total emissions come from upstream operations such as material production, wet processes or yarn production. Around 23% stem from usage and proposal, including product usage and end-of-use emissions. Inhouse operations like retail and transport account for the last 6% of emissions. These stats are not even taking into consideration animal rearing for fabrics, and the carbon emissions this practices produces.

With sustainability of the fashion and beauty industry spreading wide in the past few years, brands are becoming more and more accountable for their environmental impact. There is no doubt that the future of fashion needs to be a sustainable one. But how can the industry start moving towards a sustainable future?



Analyse the carbon footprint

The first step for any brand is to measure the carbon footprint of their fashion business. This is important to understand the magnitude of your environmental footprint and where the emissions are actually coming from. These can be generated at the supply chain level and at the production level.


Reduce the carbon footprint

In order to reduce these emissions both at the supply chain level and the production brand, there’s some measures brands can take to minimise their environmental impact:

  • Work with the suppliers to help them reduce energy use and switch to regenerative energy sources
  • Focus on a local production of clothing to significantly lower transport emissions
  • Source sustainable clothing materials like organic cotton, linen or tencel and use them as efficiently as possible in the design
  • Use waterless dyeing processes
  • Make products on demand to avoid over production
  • Craft clothing and accessories from recycled materials instead of virgin materials, to reduce the amount of emissions

Apparel and footwear retailer Allbirds, known for its sustainability efforts, has designed what it claims is the “world’s first net zero carbon shoe”, called M0.0NSHOT.

The shoe’s upper is made of regenerative merino wool, grown in New Zealand at the Lake Hawea Station, its midsole consists of a newly-developed sugarcane-based foam that contains 80% bio content, both carbon-negative materials. The shoe’s eyelets are made from mango leather, which sets up a process that turns methane, a greenhouse gas released by sheep, into a polymer-like substance that behaves like a plastic, minus the carbon emission.

The key to this fully sustainable shoe is the fact that it is made up of raw materials that both emit and capture carbon, which ultimately results in a net zero product and therefore doesn’t rely on offsets.


Build a circular business model

A largely circular fashion economy would minimise the impact of the fashion industry on the environment. Circular economy business models keep products and materials in use, by design, for as long as possible to get the maximum value from them (think of it as nutrients for another business). A circular economy approach ensures that materials are retained within productive use, in a high value state, for as long as possible.

Patagonia is one of the few brands who is really focusing on building a circular business model. For example, when designing the Tee-Cycle™ T-shirt, they kept the whole product life cycle in mind. In fact, they are producing a zero-waste T-shirt made from old t-shirts, while being in control of all the waste generated during the lifecycle of the T-shirt.

The business also puts an emphasis on second-hand and repairing clothing: Their initiative Worn Wear has repaired more than 130,000 pieces of clothing since its launch in 2017, as well as offering rentals for climbing and camping equipment.



With many of the major brands looking to play their part, it is important that we look across the whole sector to accelerate change, including the impact that all the fashion weeks around the world have on this: it is vital we urgently look at decarbonization and reducing waste arising from linear and extractive sourcing, design, and production methods.

The dialogue has been primarily focused on the environmental impact, but this is also a discussion on equality. The focus must look at people and societal impacts. . The fashion industry needs to set new standards in skills, ethics, equality and diversity, so that we can ensure that fashion is still a necessity but is also accessible and affordable for all.


In order for every brand to support the development and disclosure of policies, practices, targets and monitoring in connection with the circular economy, carbon management, nature-positive and regenerative farming, it can’t just be up to companies. The governments across all the countries will need to introduce regulatory reporting, similar to the gender pay gap reporting as well as a set of standardised metrics to drive responsible business behaviour and move away from reliance upon self-regulation.

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