Editor’s Note: Julie Wainwright is CEO of TheRealReal. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
It’s a well-kept secret that fashion is one of the dirtiest industries out there, contributing up to 8% of the world’s total carbon footprint, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. It’s so under the radar that it’s nowhere to be found on the official agenda for COP26, the two-week-long UN Climate Change conference that’s currently underway.
It’s a painful omission, considering that on its current trajectory, fashion could use more than 26% of the global allotted carbon budget allocated across all industries to limit global warming to 2°C by 2050. It’s a legacy industry that’s been operating unchecked for generations, and it isn’t going to make the dramatic changes needed to curb emissions on its own. Change will only come when there are laws that require it. But there is no environmental regulation specific to fashion in the United States. It’s time to put the industry on notice and push US legislators to take immediate action.
Up to 98% of the fashion industry’s emissions come from production. And clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2015, driven by global “fast fashion” brands that release more collections each year than traditional brands. With buyers discarding clothing after just a handful of wears, a garbage truck’s worth of textiles is now landfilled or burned every second, leading to even more harmful emissions. Changing this starts with shifting consumer behavior to recirculate, rather than dispose of, items they no longer wear, but it has to continue with legislation to rein in fashion’s footprint.
Europe is a prime example of how Congress can take legislative action. In 2020, France passed a law that prohibits burning or landfilling unsold fashion items, requiring companies to donate or recycle unsold items. The European Commission’s Sustainable Products Initiative aims to make products across the EU more durable and recyclable, and to address harmful chemicals in items like textiles.
To truly join in the fight and be a leader in climate change, the US must follow suit. The government has to create policies that will curb the unsustainable rate of the industry’s emissions over time. It can start by:
- Implementing consumer incentive programs that encourage the purchase of resold or consigned goods, such as a consumer-facing rebate at the point of sale or an individual tax deduction at the end of the year
- Mandating that the Environmental Protection Agency appoint a “fashion czar” to oversee government-wide efforts to reduce emissions from the fashion industry, including examining and regulating environmental impacts
- Instituting fines on harmful practices, like destroying unsold products, while promoting incentives like annual tax deductions for companies that work to lower emissions
- Incentivizing and rewarding regenerative farming and production of raw materials that are not harmful to the environment
- Discouraging the production of disposable fashion through regulation and taxation
Addressing the climate crisis means creating permanent change within the fashion industry and reversing the damage we’ve done. There is no time to waste. We need to take action now.