“If fashion wants to promote sustainability as a true cultural currency, it needs to address the massive amount of waste accumulated at every step of production of the final garment, including the pre-production phase. Every season in the fashion calendar –which, thanks to fast fashion, has shifted from 4 to 52 “seasons” of new production annually—involves fabric resources and human labour to produce.”
One of the most common questions we get asked at Arbor from the sustainability-minded brands we work with is whether will we provide their products' waste and water metrics. The short answer is not yet. But the long answer is more complicated.
The manufacturing of garments often begins in the global south, areas that have been the first to experience climate-related disasters (read our expose, We Need To Talk About Cotton, for the full scoop). These areas, which have opaque and complex supply chains, are then subjected to be the disposal grounds for unwanted goods and byproducts of production. As a result, the global south became the industry's proverbial dumpster (and you bet it’s on fire). Of the 5.8 million tonnes of textiles that EU consumers discard yearly, only a quarter is recycled, and the remaining 4.3 million tonnes are dumped, burned, or buried. According to this report from 2018, the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of water waste worldwide. Since the fashion industry has ramped up production in recent years, that number is likely higher.
The environmental impact of global supply chains, especially in the fashion industry, from the waste produced to the water used is extensive, and to cover all aspects, we have broken this article up into two parts.
In Part 1, we are going to explain what carbon emissions metrics actually are, why we currently focus on carbon, the complexities of waste and water calculations that most impact measurement tools ignore, and the real reasons we don’t supply waste and water metrics –yet.
Carbon is the Standard for a Reason
Business of Fashion said it best in "Fashion Isn’t Ready for the Regulation Coming for It":
“Until recently, fashion’s sustainability efforts have been almost entirely voluntary and unregulated..regulatory momentum is only picking up. EU legislative proposals for substantiating green claims and reducing microplastic pollution, initially slated for late last year, are expected to come out in the first quarter of 2023 — part of a wider European push to reduce the industry’s environmental impact and improve labour conditions in its supply chains by the end of the decade.”
According to the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), the parent treaty of the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto Accord, “The most appropriate metric [used to measure climate impacts] will depend on which aspects of climate change are most important to a particular application, and different climate policy goals may lead to different conclusions about the most suitable metric to implement that policy.”
Global warming is directly linked to CO2 and its equivalent emissions. Its impact is universally felt with each passing year, which is precisely why carbon calculations are more prioritized and standardized than other impact categories. These metrics can be used to quantify industrial contributions to climate change as a bit of an “exchange rate” in various policies. It can be compared from country to country or sector to sector and acts as the founding principle for upcoming legislation like the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM).
The formula for calculating carbon is relatively standardized, but that doesn't mean it's simple. Carbon emissions are released in various forms, and many factors, such as transportation, electricity, and all the byproducts, come into play. To ensure that our CO2 measurements are accurate, our comprehensive methodology considers multiple byproduct variables, including wastewater and waste disposal. And if there is one thing we pride ourselves in at Arbor, it's the robustness and regional standardization of our carbon calculations and methodology.
What Are Emissions Metrics in the First Place?
Carbon emissions are a global issue that isn’t limited to the fashion industry. Whether it is from fashion, lithium mining, or livestock, carbon emissions and their equivalents all impact our world in the same way. This can create a regulatory nightmare for governments. However, as we can see, it is still the most significant touchpoint for regulations like the EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), the Paris Agreement, and everything in between. This is because the calculation method is relatively standardized no matter the industry's complexity. There is one universally accepted mode for assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's formula, IPCC GWP 2013 100a. Before we get into the IPCC GWP 2013 100a, let's recap what CO2 is and why it matters.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a gas that absorbs and radiates heat, and its atmospheric concentration has dramatically increased. When combined with other greenhouse gasses like methane and nitrous oxide, it traps heat close to Earth, leading to a rise in global temperatures. As we know, this has had a detrimental effect on human well-being and the planet's health.
Global warming potential (GWP) and the IPCC GWP 2013 100a measure the heat absorbed from emissions over 100 years. GTP (global temperature change potential) measures the temperature change at the end of that period. Put these two emissions metrics together, and a clear picture is painted of the impact of CO2 (other greenhouse gasses, besides CO2, are also taken into account and are added to the equation as greenhouse gas equivalents). This dynamic duo effectively measures past or current emissions from various industrial activities.
But calculating water is where it gets icy.
On the surface, a water footprint is similar to a carbon footprint, but the approach to the calculation is different and more complicated. The real problem is that not all water is equal. Water systems can be very complex because water affects and is affected by many different components of the environment, including air, soil, plants, and wildlife. Understanding the interactions between these components is challenging, and making accurate measurements of the overall impact of water can be difficult. Some example challenges include wastewater, with chemicals like microplastics and fertilizers, and acceleration in groundwater resource depletion, amongst many others. In addition, there is limited data on water resources, usage, and quality in many parts of the world. This makes it difficult to assess water's impact in said regions accurately. These parts of the world are usually in developing countries where water resource misuse has historically created many local/regional problems.
There are a few models out there that are used to track a water footprint, such as the water scarcity model. Consultants and other service providers most commonly use this model. The model intends to understand how much water is displaced from the local ecosystem but falls short in estimating regional water “impacts”. Such models follow a simplistic view of water scarcity: It only considers the total amount of water available per capita but does not consider other factors that can contribute to water scarcity, such as water quality, access to water infrastructure, or the impact of water use on ecosystems. Moreover, the water scarcity index may not accurately reflect the level of water stress in a given area as it only considers the total amount of water available and not the amount needed to meet the population's needs and the environment. Additionally, in many developing countries, water data is limited and of poor quality, making it difficult to accurately calculate the water scarcity index to begin with.
Although these models provide a useful starting point for understanding water scarcity and water footprinting, if they are going to be used for decision-making, their clear shortcomings need to be considered. A more comprehensive approach to assessing water impact would include a range of regionally specific factors, including water availability, water quality, access to water infrastructure, and the impact of water use on ecosystems. A measurement without these factors is like oil and water –a murky mixture with divided results.
What about Waste?
Waste is a complex issue. There are many different types, each with its own unique impact. Take nuclear waste, for example. It is completely different from organic or chemical waste because of its composition, danger to human/ecological health, and whether or not it is treated. Additionally, from region to region, there is low-quality data on how waste is disposed of. Was it incinerated, repurposed, resold, or did it end up in a landfill? Unsurprisingly, this creates a bit of a mess because how waste is treated and transported can vary drastically from location to location. For example, in region A, the waste from a certain activity is utilized as a raw material for a byproduct, while in region B, waste is treated and transported to another part of the world to be incinerated or left to decompose in open landfills.
Our friends at Nudnik are a fantastic example of the positive ways textile waste can be transformed. “At Nudnik, we believe in turning fashion waste into treasures,” said Lindsay Lorusso, CEO of Nudnik, a circular fashion label that uses technology to upcycle complex pre-consumer textile wastes to make genderless kidswear. “We choose to upcycle because it's the most sustainable way of reducing our impact on the environment and setting an inspiring example for others to follow in this wasteful world.” Working with Nudnik showcases one of the many ways we look at waste metrics, their emissions, and how the impact from circular and upcycled textiles enhances the breadth of our database.
Overall, data is key when measuring waste and water impact; unfortunately, the data can be limited, of poor quality, and non-standardized. This makes it challenging to accurately quantify the impact of waste and make informed decisions about how to address it. This is why we continually expand our methodology and data to include these steps in separate calculations to better understand how waste is handled. In part two, we will cover the roadblocks to estimating waste and water impact and the solutions we have in place.