The visible effects of climate change are everywhere. From historic floods and rising sea levels, to hot seasons that are becoming increasingly unliveable in countries that are already well-adapted to extreme heat, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the planet is changing around us.

Since you’re reading this article, you’re probably also familiar with some of the top-line statistics that showcase fashion’s likely contributions to our worsening environment.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, overproduction has led to the equivalent of “a rubbish truck full of clothes [being] burnt or buried in landfill” every second. And beyond the mounting problem of textile waste and disposal, the clothing and footwear industry is both a direct (in its retail operations) and indirect (in its partners’ upstream processes and in downstream consumer use) emitter of large volumes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases – exceeding the emissions of some major world economies, and falling short of internationally-agreed targets.

image supplied by cotton incorporated

But it would be a difficult proposition for the fashion industry to simply down-scale in response. As the world’s population continues to grow, so too does the world’s demand for clothing. Not just as a necessity for protection and modesty, but as a crucible of self-expression and creativity, and as a powerful economic force. And as promising a market as digital-only fashion represents, there is little doubt that people will continue to need to wear real garments for the foreseeable future.

So while fashion may have an outsized environmental impact, its contributory footprint as an industry is equally pronounced. From garment workers in textile hubs to designers in Western capitals, fashion directly employs tens of millions worldwide, and research undertaken by the United Nations and World Trade Organization earlier this year suggests that building a buoyant garment industry is one of the key ways that the world’s least-developed nations can shed that label in search of economic growth.

This is the dichotomy that exists at the heart of fashion: the industry creates products that are more diverse, more accommodating, and sought-after in greater quantities than ever before, and it supports livelihoods from raw material extraction to retail – including providing career pathways for women in developing countries. But in the process, the companies that drive industry are being challenged to confront their direct and indirect impact on the environment, and to build on existing commitments and targets with more radical action.

image supplied by cotton incorporated

And while fashion is certainly not the only industry to see the bar of compliance rise, it joins other sectors in facing an urgent need to play an active role in finding solutions to dual, interrelated global issues: a chaotic spiral of climate change that appears to be developing even more rapidly than expected; and 75 million more people being pushed into poverty and food insecurity as a result.

People, planet, pace.

It’s strange how often we hear fashion being accused of inaction on climate change. High-profile benchmarksdo demonstrate a lack of momentum in improving carbon emissions, cutting pollution, elevating worker rights and more. But at the same time, major brands are now funnelling unprecedented amounts into philanthropic initiatives designed to take drastic action to improve the industry’s record in many of those commonly-criticised areas. 

And not-for-profit organizations like Cotton Incorporated (our partner for this story) also continue to work on the ground in key growing regions like the United States to make measurable progress towards ten-year sustainability goals, with innovations in pest management, water use, land and soil stewardship, energy use and much more.

Crucially, though, this work is happening on a multi-year – and sometimes multi-decade – timeframe. This means that, judged on a year-by-year basis, the progress the industry is making appears incremental, when a longer-term view would reveal that more significant change is taking place as the benefits of those years become compounded.

The same problem is also felt in the urgency of the challenges themselves, which are occurring slowly and insidiously – seeming like one-off events in a single twelve-month window, but adding up to a persistent, worsening pattern over multiple years.

But this does not mean that the fashion industry should take its eye off the ball. Rather brands, retailers, and their partners should take the progress they have made to heart, and should start to build on the environmental progress they have made by putting a human face on climate change, and considering how they can start working to address humanitarian issues in their direct sphere of influence. Because these impacts on people are being measured in days, not decades, and the progress made towards improving them will also be felt more keenly, more quickly.

As an example of how closely intertwined planet and people are, consider the impact of micro-scale weather events on consumer buying behaviour. A heatwave in Europe, brought on by a sudden, unseasonable, rise in temperatures, can lead to a drop in sales of not just cold-weather garments but also seasonal products incorporating denim and other heavier-weight materials.

And due to the inherent unpredictability of weather systems that are being affected by global warming, the answer may not be as simple as planning assortments that emphasise more lightweight fabrics and open designs. (Although innovations in moisture-control and cooling provide the toolsets to build these properties into future performance and casual garments.) The same forces that are driving hotter temperatures are also at the root of changing patterns of precipitation, which are just as likely to drive consumers suddenly towards waterproof outerwear and mid-layers – where new advances in water-repellent finishing for cotton garmentscan, again, give brands a headstart in preparing for the unforeseen.

On a relatively short timeline (certainly much shorter than the one on which climate change targets and effects are measured) these micro-scale shifts can compound to create, or perpetuate, macro-level industry challenges. Due to weather-driven changes in consumer spending, stores will be left with more unsold stock to discount or destroy, and the self-reinforcing cycle of overproduction, disposal, excess emissions and further climate change deepens.

But fashion also needs to look beyond forecasting and planning. The same vacillation between extreme heat and historic rainfall is already having a marked impact on the price and availability of core raw materials. Pakistan may be just one of more than 70 countries that grow and ship cotton, but the catastrophic flooding that took place there in early September may serve as a warning sign for the stability of the overall global fabric trade. In less than a month, satellite images showed that standing floodwater, combined with monsoon rains, had affected nearly 90% of a top growing region’s current crops, and many of the other countries that contribute to the global trade for cotton and other raw materials have similar levels of exposure.

Combine this with less extreme shifts in rainfall and temperature, which are affecting yields, and it’s little wonder that the price of cotton and other raw materials is becoming increasingly volatile – hitting low watermarks for supply volume and driving prices higher one month, before dropping 40% from recent, all-time highs the next month as a result of changes in consumer demand and exchange rates.

While these fluctuations are hard to forecast, easier to predict is a near future where drought affects the ability for key raw materials to grow in regions they have thrived in before. This is something that innovators are already working to mitigate in extreme cases through the cultivation of drought-resistant varieties of cotton, and in regions where change will be more gradual through the adoption of Climate Smart Cotton practices.

image supplied by cotton incorporated

Similarly, outside of the COVID pandemic, the global fashion supply chain has so far been spared a mass shutdown due to an extreme weather event, but there is every possibility that could change. The current crisis in Pakistan, for example, has seen textile producers close their doors due both to direct flood damage and to the lack of availability of raw materials, and it is not unreasonable to imagine a future where similar climate-change-linked disaster might befall manufacturing and material mill hotspots like Bangladesh. 

In these unwelcome scenarios, rising sea levels could force facilities to relocate, floods and droughts could affect the availability of resources and labour, and other unpredictable consequences with grave economic, environmental, and ethical consequences.

But on a day-to-day level, these same manufacturing regions are likely to see further increases in seasonal temperatures, exacerbating hard working conditions that are already asking factory owners and brands to redevelop their codes of practice to mandate air conditioning, to reduce throughput during the hottest hours – and potentially more.

Cutting carbon through technology.

The most obvious effects of climate change on the fashion value chain might be concentrated on the people at the two extremes – creating and consuming – but our readers are probably already familiar with changes in brand and retail processes and policies.

Where once fabric and finished product buyers travelled the world to trade shows, giving little heed to the carbon footprint of their flights, carbon quotas combined with the residual impacts of COVID have seen a shift towards digital material sourcing. By making use of resources like the digital fabrics contained in the FABRICAST™ collection, and the various digital material platforms that exist, brand and retail decision-makers are increasingly able to make choices that would previously have required a physical presence, remotely.

image supplied by cotton incorporated

And the output of material digitisation is also driving a much more climate-friendly approach to fashion design and development, with the rise in adoption of digital product creation. Working natively in 3D, with digital fabrics, creative and commercial teams can prototype and sample their ideas without sewing a stitch or sourcing a yard of physical fabric – collaborating with suppliers who are able to share their own expertise and showcase their skills even if climate disruption has affected their ability to produce real samples.

Near the needlepoint, technology is also providing new methods of production and new ways of monitoring and improving the lives of workers on the shopfloor. To complement advances in digital printing and dyeing, the cotton industry has begun to explore the possibilities of 3D printing and injection molding, and connected manufacturing hardware combined with internationally-recognised labour quantification standards can provide the mixture of objective methods analysis and real-time data that will be required to move towards fair and living wages – another step to empowering people in at-risk regions with the ability to take action to protect themselves from the impacts of climate change.

How can we take collective action on the human impact of climate change?

From short-term differences in the way consumers buy clothes, to lasting changes in health, safety and compensation structures for workers, climate change is slowly spotlighting the risks that are present in every fashion value chain at the human level. And over time, those seemingly-small risks have the potential to become risks for brand, retail, and supply chain business continuity everywhere from retail to raw material sourcing.

image supplied by cotton incorporated

This is why Cotton Incorporated has invested so heavily in supporting the futures of everyone involved in the cotton trade – whether they are growing and harvesting it, processing it, or designing, making, or selling products made from it – from providing impartial sourcing information to playing an active role in unlocking the potential of digital product creation, all the way through to ensuring that global cotton markets are given the right support, and the right access to innovations and research.

It is our hope that this collective action – benefitting every country that produces, uses and consumes cotton – can provide a template for tackling fashion’s environmental impact. Because if we, as an industry, are able to address the concerns and safeguard the livelihoods of the human faces at every stage of the value chain, we will simultaneously be taking the right steps to address climate change in the longer term.

About our partner: CottonWorks™ is your go-to textile tool for discovering what’s possible with cotton. From fiber and manufacturing education to sustainability facts to fabric inspiration and trend forecasting, has the information you need to stay in motion. Questions? Contact