Circularity in Textiles – A path to Net Zero

Key Insights: 
> High Emissions: Textile sector emits about 1.025 gigatonnes of CO2 annually (2% of global emissions).
> Resource Intensive: EU textiles in 2020 used nine cubic meters of water, 400 square meters of land, and 391 kg of raw materials per person.
> Significant Carbon Footprint: US textile production’s annual carbon footprint is 445 million tons of CO2e (equivalent to 89 million cars).
> Impact Areas: Apparel processing- 35% of carbon footprint & fiber production- 42% of carbon footprint.

It is now well known that the textile and apparel sector significantly contributes to environmental pollution and carbon emissions. Transitioning to a circular economy within this sector is essential for achieving the United Nations’ net zero carbon emission targets and promoting sustainable development.

The textile industry is responsible for substantial greenhouse gas emissions, with material production and garment manufacturing being the primary contributors. In 2019, the apparel sector emitted approximately 1.025 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent, representing about 2% of global emissions​ (World Resources Institute)​.

As outlined in the Paris Agreement, the UN’s net-zero carbon emission target is part of the broader effort to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The says that the global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050.

The textile sector was the third largest source of water degradation and land use in 2020 when it took on average nine cubic meters of water, 400 square meters of land, and 391 kilograms (kg) of raw materials to provide clothes and shoes for each EU citizen.

Textile purchases in the EU in 2020 generated about 270 kg of CO2 emissions per person, according to the European Environment Agency. That means textile products consumed in the EU generated greenhouse gas emissions of 121 million tonnes.

According to a UK study from Wrap published in 2017, each ton of clothing generates approximately 26.2 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e). Assuming a similar carbon intensity in the US, the total annual carbon footprint of the country’s clothing and other textile production is a whopping 445 million tons of CO2e. That’s equivalent to a year’s worth of greenhouse gas emissions from over 89 million gasoline-powered cars, according to the EPA.

The textile industry significantly impacts carbon emissions, with apparel processing and fiber production being major contributors. Based on WRAP and EPA data, processing is responsible for about 35% of the total carbon footprint, equivalent to approximately 156 million metric tons of CO2e in the U.S. Fiber production has an even greater impact, contributing around 42% of the total carbon footprint, or about 187 million metric tons of CO2e.

To come out from this dire situation by adopting circularity principles—such as recycling, reusing, and designing for longevity—the global textile industry can significantly cut down these emissions. Enabling circularity involves a complex web of logistics and changes in purchasing and use activities which is gradually emerging, however, it is still in the early stages.

Promoting sustainable practices

Circularity in textiles involves creating a system where products and materials are kept in use for as long as possible. This approach contrasts with the traditional linear model of “take, make, dispose.” Key strategies to create a circular system can be sustainable material use, energy efficiency, and waste management.

By designing products for circularity now, designers are playing a crucial role in catalyzing the development, commercialization, and scaling up of alternative business models, new infrastructure, and innovation.

Increasing the use of recycled and sustainable materials like organic cotton and recycled polyester is reducing the reliance on virgin resources and lowering emissions associated with raw material extraction.

Improving energy efficiency in manufacturing processes can lead to substantial emissions reductions. Techniques such as heat recovery, efficient motors, and better insulation are crucial. Investing in renewable energy sources for production can also make a significant impact​(World Resources Institute).

Implementing zero-waste policies and promoting the recycling and repurposing of textile waste can minimize the environmental footprint. Transforming waste materials into new products can help reduce the industry’s reliance on virgin resources and lower carbon emissions. Also, implementing closed-loop production systems can help minimize waste and maximize resource efficiency, ultimately reducing the industry’s carbon footprint.

Supporting UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Circularity in the textile industry aligns with several UN SDGs, including:

  • Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG 6): By reducing water usage and ensuring proper wastewater treatment, the industry can contribute to cleaner water resources. Advanced technologies in wastewater treatment, such as membrane filtration and biological processes, offer improved efficiency and environmental protection. 
  • Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8): Circular practices can create new job opportunities and promote sustainable economic growth.
  • Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12): Encouraging consumers to adopt sustainable consumption habits and fostering responsible production methods are key aspects of circularity.
  • Climate Action (SDG 13): Reducing carbon emissions through circular practices directly supports global climate action goals. By reducing emissions and moving towards net-zero emissions, in line with the Paris Agreement’s 2050 target, the industry is trying to combat climate change.

Achieving these goals requires collaboration across the entire textile value chain, including manufacturers, brands, policymakers, and consumers. The UNEP’s global roadmap outlines actions for various stakeholders to promote sustainability and circularity, emphasizing the need for improved practices, infrastructure investment, and shifting consumption patterns. This roadmap will ultimately reduce carbon emission.

Transitioning to a circular economy in the textile and apparel industry is crucial for meeting the UN’s net zero carbon emission targets.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button