We are reaching the end of our focus series on climate change and carbon! We started the year off writing about the relevance of Fashion at COP26 and dived into how fashion affects climate change. We then went into the more numerical data driven side of things with the LCAs and some of the issues behind it, some of the greenwashing issues and misunderstandings in the industry, and some of the current solutions available. But, what's weighing us down right now is the concept of decarbonization.
Can the denim and the textile industry really decarbonize, or even become carbon negative? Are there solutions out there to shift fashion from being a major issue to a solution?
Let’s start by defining these concepts.
The contribution to climate change is measured in kg of greenhouse gases that are generated throughout the entire life cycle of an item (kg CO2e / item). This number, like any other number, can be:
It contributes to climate change, because the total sum from raw material extraction to end of life is a value larger than 0
An example is a car that emits carbon both in the production and use phase, or even sending an email, has a positive carbon impact
The whole process absorbs or removes more carbon than it emits
An example is a forest that has been turning CO2 into oxygen for decades
There is a balance of exactly 0 between the carbon emitted and absorbed
Theoretically this can be achieved in the example of a fruit, where a tree absorbs enough carbon that it balances out the impact of fertilizers, distribution, sale, and composting. Usually, however, carbon neutrality is achieved through carbon offsets.
If you are not sure what carbon offsets are, what sequestration means, and you would like to go deeper into the subject, we highly recommend this panel by Transformers Foundation.
Attention! Carbon Positive is different from the term “Climate Positive” that is sometimes used in marketing!
Having a positive effect on the climate would mean having a negative carbon value, so if you ever get confused in calculating impact, remember to always use + or – and see what the result is.
In the context of the fashion industry, let’s picture a pair of jeans, its carbon footprint can be:
All clothes on the planet currently have a positive value for carbon. This means that they contribute to climate change.
The value of making an item is balanced out exactly by carbon offsets
More carbon offsets have been purchased than the footprint of the item
BRANDS ARE JUST NOT READY TO COMMIT
Fashion brands have been investing heavily in carbon offsetting, mostly for marketing purposes, however they often do not include the total impact of garments in their calculation of how much they should offset, so their claims aren’t correct. Even though large brands have made commitments to reducing their emissions, they are actually increasing.
Carbon offsets are better than nothing, however, according to Greenpeace, not all of them actually bring a change to the climate crisis, and it would be way more effective to avoid emitting that carbon in the first place. Offsetting projects simply don’t deliver a reduction in the carbon emissions entering the atmosphere. Instead, they’re a distraction from the real solutions to climate change, not only in the fashion industry, but they are also used by companies like BP and Shell as well as airlines to continue with their unsustainable behaviour.
In denim, most of the carbon impact can be linked to two main sources. The first one is the growing of cotton, and the second one is the use of energy throughout the supply chain (this is not to be confused with the sources of the chemical, water, or human impact).
Cotton is a plant that requires a large amount of water, fuel for tractors, and depending on its growth techniques, also fertilizers, pesticides, and processing in mills. However, it is entirely possible to grow cotton in a way that it protects the soil, uses minimum amounts of resources, and absorbs carbon while it's growing. Brands could partner with growers to support them throughout this transition, while ensuring them that they will buy cotton in the long term. But, it is much easier to buy carbon offsets online with one transaction and no long term commitments than doing the work.
Similarly to changing sources of energy and restructuring the supply chain, there are many solutions out there, but would require a lot of effort and supplier partnership in the long term.
Basically, fast fashion brands are just emotionally unavailable, lazy, and only attractive in the short term. They rely on impulsive decisions made by customers that cross their aggressive marketing, and, really, who likes that? Are there real carbon negative options?
REAL CARBON NEGATIVE SOLUTIONS
Although we could go on for pages talking about the issues, we know that there is already a lot of great content by scientists and experts covering this, so we want to highlight some of the most surprising and advanced solutions that are giving us hope.
Starting from cotton, Good Earth Cotton have proved that carbon negative cotton is possible. They sequester on average 353kg of carbon per bale. This is achieved through the use regenerative farming practices combined with ultra-modern data collection and on-farm research. The outcomes are land restoration, enhanced soil and pasture biodiversity, water use efficiency, as well as chemistry and synthetic amendment reduction. They rotate the crops that they grow on each plot of land, to allow the soil to restore and enhance nitrogen levels, use zero to minimum tillage, and every seed is planted at a uniform depth with uniform space between each seed and row, all of which gives the burgeoning plant plenty of room to grow. All these techniques also allow them to present farmers with additional value for their fibre.
Another fiber that we wished was used more is hemp. The production of Hemp is carbon negative, which means it absorbs more carbon during its growth than is emitted by the equipment used to harvest, process and transport it. One hectare of hemp sequesters 9 to 15 tonnes of CO2, similar to the amount sequestered by a young forest, but it only takes five months to grow. Hemp can even capture carbon twice as effectively as forests while providing carbon-negative biomaterials for architects and designers, according to Cambridge University researcher Darshil Shah. Hemp Fortex is an example of a hemp supplier, however, please note that hemp alone doesn’t make the entire garment carbon neutral, all following steps of the supply chain must be designed in a way that minimises carbon emissions too!
The most mind-blowing carbon negative solution, however, is that fibres can be made with carbon! Yes. From CO2 to clothes. On Textile Exchange’s 2021 report, page 94, you can read a list of research that is ongoing. Newlight Technologies, for example, describes Aircarbon as a carbon-negative substitute to plastic and leather.
Rubi is another example of a carbon negative fibre made from carbon emissions. Not only that, but it is also biodegradable! Rubi was developed by two genius twin sisters, that have been working for decades in material science, (you can read their story here). Their technology is inspired by the biological machinery that plants use to turn CO2 into natural fibres, but streamlined at an industrial scale. Every garment made with Rubi technology can remove on average 2 bathtubs of pure CO2 from the atmosphere, however, no garment made with Rubi exists yet. They have just secured funding, and we can’t wait to see this fibre being used.
The Post Carbon Lab is a biotech start-up that has transplanted photosynthesis into cloth, creating layers of living algae inside their experimental clothes. But, these garments are not the most practical: the clothes look and feel like any other clothes, but because there are living microorganisms on them, they need to be taken care of. Similarly to plants, they need to be misted daily and be exposed to the sun and fresh air. They also can’t go in the washing machine yet, and require special detergents. However, they have photosynthetic or pollution-filtering properties, therefore wearing them can help clean the atmosphere! Isn’t all this very exciting? The future of fashion could be algae!
If all these solutions become viable and commercialized, the fashion industry could have a carbon negative (climate positive) output through its supply chain, rather than generating huge emissions and then offsetting.
We're here for it, and we are hopeful!
Are there any other solutions you have seen to decarbonizing our industry? Let us know in the comments and until next time friends, always be curious and STAY DILIGENT!