July 6, 2021
Sustainability For Fashion Startups: Practical Advice
By: Peter Gregory
How much do you really know about the carbon footprint of your clothing business? What can you do to improve your sustainability as a startup? Will it really make that much of a difference to the environment, and how much does ‘going green’ cost?
Sustainability is the number one concern for most of us in the apparel and fashion industries. There are plenty of ways to run a more environmentally conscious business … and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.
In this guide, we’ll show you why it’s so important for us to all do our bit and make the clothing industry greener. We’ll explain how to figure out your startup’s carbon emissions, and we’ll share some of the steps other businesses have taken.
The stats on our industry’s contribution to global emissions are shocking. 4% of the world’s total CO2 emissions came from the apparel and footwear industries in 2018 (source), and the stats are still getting worse.
There’s a huge amount of waste involved in making new clothes. To treat and dye a fabric like denim, for example, manufacturers need to use thousands of litres of water. This is a real problem in countries where clean water is in short supply (source). Even after a garment has been made and sold, the waste problems continue. In the UK alone, more than 300,000 tonnes of clothes get sent to landfill every year. To put that into perspective, that’s about 5 kg of pre-worn clothes for every man, woman and child in the country that’s just going to the tip.
Waste is an issue, but the biggest problem is probably carbon emissions. Our industry is pumping a massive amount of pollution into the atmosphere … and it’s up to us to find ways to put this right. Nowadays, fashion creates a lot of emissions for two main reasons: the manufacturing process and the sheer number of miles that goods have to travel.
It takes a huge amount of physical energy to turn raw materials into finished garments. Cotton plants need to be harvested, then that cotton then needs to be processed. This all requires diesel-hungry farm machinery and specialist factory equipment. The raw cotton then needs to be spun into textiles, which is a new manufacturing stage that requires a whole new set of factory machinery. The fabric then needs to become a finished garment, and this involves another round of manufacturing. Carbon emissions from this kind of multi-staged manufacturing process are always going to be high.
It’s not uncommon for a simple item like a T-shirt to have clocked up enough miles to circumvent the earth before it arrives at the shop rack. For instance, raw cotton harvested in America might get shipped to Asia for processing, then it might travel to Africa to be turned into textiles before going back to Asia to be turned into clothes. The finished goods then have to travel through a series of global distribution depots before landing on the hanger of a clothes shop …even if that clothes shop is just a few miles from where the cotton was grown and harvested. All of these journeys require big ships, trucks and vans. At every stage, fossil fuels are burned, and even more emissions get pumped into the skies.
So what can we do to manage the environmental impact of fashion? How can we run our businesses without leaving a lasting legacy of damage?
Before you swap out your light bulbs and make every product out of locally-sourced wool, you should take a look at the Government’s advice. According to the climate scientists at DEFRA, the best way for any small business to improve their eco-credentials is to figure out where all of this CO2 is coming from in the first place. According to DEFRA’s 7 point plan (which you can download from gov.uk here), businesses need to…
STEP 1. Identify which parts of your business might be releasing greenhouse gases
STEP 2. Identify which activities in your business release greenhouse gas emissions
STEP 3. Collect data on each part and activity
STEP 4. Convert the data into a CO2 score (there are online calculators for this)
STEP 5. Identify ways to reduce those emissions
STEP 6. Continue to monitor your emissions
STEP 7. Report your emissions
This structured, strategic approach ensures that the changes you make in your business have a lasting, meaningful impact on your carbon footprint. You can prioritise the biggest polluting factors in an organised way that really does make a lasting, measurable difference.
If you don’t have the time to go through DEFRA’s seven point plan, then you might just want to look at the 5 areas of your business where you’re likely to be producing the most CO2. These are listed in the infographic below. Simple steps like sorting your waste properly and renegotiating your power bill can have a big impact — you’d be surprised:
You can also make sure that your packaging is sustainable — just take a look at our very own guide to sustainable packaging.
You might also want to get accredited as a green business. Accreditations can really help you win over more customers and bolster your brand image. You’re putting a lot of work into going green, so don’t be afraid to shout about it! Certification schemes like Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ are all worth learning about, as are the Soil Association’s Organic standard and B Corporation accreditation.
Whatever you choose to do, we hope this guide helps you to see that eco-friendliness doesn’t have to eat into your profits. It’s important, valuable work … and it’s something that you can take a lot of pride in when you do it properly.
… and remember: If you want to show off just how eco-friendly your products are, a custom woven label is a great way to do it!
Thanks for reading!