Fashion’s fight against climate change is a drop in the water if we don’t tackle shipping.

Governments are struggling to make real progress in combatting one of the biggest challenges of our time: fighting climate change. Despite much discussion, world leaders failed to make meaningful headway during the recent COP25 talks in Madrid, convened to take action against greenhouse gas emissions.

In this urgent vacuum, businesses are stepping up. Not only do companies hold a major responsibility in climate change, but consumers will demand that your product be as environmentally conscious as they are.

The fashion industry bears more responsibility than most. It is claimed to be one of the largest pollutants in the world, responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping put together. A large part of that pollution is due to transport by land, sea and air.

Some big brands like NIKE have taken recent stands against harmful shipping practices. But they’re focusing on the wrong things. To truly have an impact, the industry must find ways to cut its need for moving supplies across the world. If we don’t reform our global production and distribution strategy, we won’t be going anywhere. This means stepping away from the conventional factory methods and turning to innovation for our future, and thinking locally again.

The problem with shipping 

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Companies have taken advantage of globalisation to spread their supply chains to the most convenient corners of the world. The lifecycle of a garment may start in a cotton field, travel to clothing factories in Asia, and end up in high street stores in the United States. Connecting these stages requires a huge amount of transport. Shipping is made necessary by these long distances; however, it has serious environmental impacts. Container and cruise ships generate the same amount of gas emissions as a quarter of all of Europe’s cars, according to a report from Transport and Environment, a Brussels-based NGO.

Despite its importance, shipping often takes a back seat when it comes to climate initiatives, and for some it is seen as a less-contaminating option compared to other forms of transport. Even the Paris climate agreement left out shipping as part of the major countries’ goals.

What’s being done

Although shipping itself is not often tackled head-on, fashion companies have taken steps towards improving their practices.

Nike and other big brands are campaigning against shipping routes that go through the Arctic – a possibility that is opening up because climate change has caused mass amounts of Arctic ice to vanish, but which has serious consequences for the environment.

Ironically, another brand – Hugo Boss – is trying to make a difference by prioritising shipping and train freight over air, which is a heavier pollutant.

Reducing wastefulness might reduce the need for transport of material. Although recycling is often promoted among consumers, it’s actually not a straightforward solution, and your recycled T-shirt might actually end up making its way around the world again. Brands like Patagonia or Nudie Jeans take different approaches, encouraging people to repair used clothes to increase the longevity of their wardrobe.

Late last year, the shipping industry announced a tax that would contribute significant funds towards developing clean engines and achieving zero-carbon emissions for ships. But environmentalists criticised the move for doing too little to fix the damage done. 

Ships, unlike other motor vehicles, have avoided paying taxes on their fuel use. Also, finding a real solution to clean shipping is far easier said than done. Even with the injection from this new tax, so far the world does not know what type of “green” fuel could be used without producing emissions. And actually implementing it would be extremely costly, from setting up fuel stations to getting governments’ consensus’ worldwide.

So why not invest that money in moving away from shipping altogether, rather than attaching complex fixes to what is an inherent problem?

What we should actually be doing

Today’s solutions are not enough to right the fashion industry’s wrongs. We need to find a way of eliminating our need for shipping, not just making it marginally better. The clearest solution here is to localise production: by bringing production closer to consumers, transporting material and clothes across the world is no longer necessary. 

But how can brands remain competitive if they have to raise their costs by moving factories into consumer markets, where manpower and overhead are typically miles greater than in, say, Southeast Asia?

Technology can help us there. Some major companies have already experimented with automation. adidas launched a number of robot-run “Speedfactories” in the United States and Germany to cut down on distribution. This initiative has since been dismantled, but it had the right idea.

3D printing has the potential to locate production in any part of the world, at almost the same cost. The European Commission has acknowledged the potential for 3D printing’s efficiency to transform the supply chain over traditional production methods. And the emerging technology of 3D bonding makes the leap to manufacturing the entire finished product in a single binding process. 

In the right hands, 3D tech can replace many or all of the stages of manufacture with a fraction of the labour and overhead required for standard factory production. This would enable companies to relocate closer to home and to their markets, reduce waste and transport to a minimum, while also saving money and time in the process.

Regardless of the path we take, a unified approach is essential to driving change worldwide. Gucci has taken the initiative in this sense with the CEO Carbon Neutral Challenge, an open request that the heads of companies implement long-term but also short-term plans to cut emissions.

Although the fashion industry has become more self-aware regarding its contribution to climate change, it still very much has its head in the sand when it comes to acknowledging where the real solutions lie. Switching from air freight to maritime, or taking a stand against ill-advised Arctic shipping routes, are temporary band-aids that allow companies to avoid the actual issue: its fundamental design flaw. 

Deep down we know that we must bring production closer to consumers, leave ships behind, and bring our antiquated industry practices into a modern new era.

About the author: Adrian Hernández is the founder and CEO of Simplicity Works, a company that has pioneered and patented 3D bonding methods for manufacturing shoes, reducing manufacturing costs by 75-80%.