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The environmental challenges facing the fashion industry

Erika Whillas

By William Gritten

The textile wastes in a landfill around Damascus, Syria  Photo by  Mohammad J. Taherzadeh

The textile wastes in a landfill around Damascus, Syria
Photo by Mohammad J. Taherzadeh

For many people, fashion begins and ends as “a fun and glorious accompaniment to the act of self expression”. These are the words of Lucy Collins, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Fashion Institute of Technology, speaking at Pioneer Mode 2015, a conference entitled “The Future of Fashion”.

Collins’ words were a call to individuals not to take the world of fashion too seriously, but to approach it innovatively, without fear, with a sense of perspective and irreverence. Increasingly, however, the impact of the fashion industry is going beyond the aesthetic, the cultural, and the expressive. More and more, people are waking up to the environmental realities of the seemingly benign objects they wear. At a time when fashion is second only to oil as the most polluting industry, both the fashion industry and consumers need to face the stark reality.

The Pioneer Mode 2015 conference was called in part to investigate the environmental challenges facing the fashion industry - challenges that must be seen in the context of a world already mired in a crisis of scarcity, pollution, and climate change. At current rates, our planet takes one and a half years to regenerate what human beings consume in one. Not only do we consume vastly more than we produce, but the consequence of this production is carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, as well as other pollutants.

Speaking at the conference was, among other thought leaders on the issue, CoClear’s Chief Product Officer and Cofounder, Erika Whillas, who explained how life-cycle analysis drives product innovation, and how both are integral to a sustainable modern fashion business. In particular, the audience was encouraged to discard the assumption that companies are playing a zero-sum game between serving shareholders and serving the environment. The message was clear: in the modern world, corporate profitability is intrinsically linked to environmental sustainability.

Few Industries are affected more by the global increase in consumption than fashion. Countries like China, which produces nearly 40% of apparel products sold in the USA and manufactures an estimated 65% of the world’s textiles, and India, are now significant not only for their productive prowess, but for their consumers’ voraciousness too. Spearheaded by the rapidly swelling middle class in the BRICS nations, global demand for clothes and accessories, already unprecedented, is set to grow and grow. China, technically the world’s fifth largest luxury market, becomes the world’s largest if you take into account the purchases of Chinese tourists abroad. This massive, virgin marketplace is a fashion company’s fantasy, and from fast fashion to luxury, corporations are working hard to carve out their own market share.

Fashion is a globalized industry, and as such runs the gamut of environmental negatives. Far from being the only culprit, fast fashion companies are a particular environmental problem, given not only their colossal use of raw materials and natural capital, but also the fact that their products, made in large part from synthetic materials, and treated with dyes, heavy metals, formaldehyde, and other toxic chemicals, tend to end up as waste in landfill sites, or worse, dispersed throughout ecosystems. Indonesia’s Citarum River, lined, as it is, by over 200 textile factories that release their untreated effluent indiscriminately, is known now as the world’s most polluted river. For the 30 million people and aquatic life it used to sustain, the poisonous implications are devastating.

Rhett Godfrey, Sustainability Director at Loomstate, who spoke at Pioneer Mode, sought to bring the conversation about sustainability away from the near-incomprehensible scale of global-warming to a more tangible and human level. Godfrey noticed that communities that produce in an ecologically friendly way need the stability of financial security to continue to do so. His idea was to bring together a number of small to medium sized fashion companies to syndicate the purchasing of organic cotton, an enterprise that is usually hamstrung by the fact that, because of the instability inherent in smaller businesses, long-term contracts with producers are often impossible. The group spreads the risk, acting as guarantors to the contract.

According to the WWF, while as little as 2.4% of global cropland is planted with cotton, 11% of the world’s pesticides are used in it’s production, and it accounts for 24% of the world’s insecticide market. The toxic effects of pesticides on communities and ecosystems are well documented, and as such it is of major consequence that cotton is produced organically. The formula offered by Godfrey is an example of how even small startups can play a part in a sustainable future while remaining up-scalable and financially ambitious.

Humans are not evolved to solve problems the effects of which are dispersed, insensible, and experienced over the long term. We rely on the patterns and conditions of the present to provide our concepts of the future, but the realities of climate change, and shifting consumer values in light of those realities, mean that there can be no ‘business as usual’.

Innovation in both technology and ways of thinking about systems is crucial in today’s globalized fashion industry, where a single product’s constituent ingredients can derive from multifarious sources, each with its own potential for ecological misadventure. It was with this in mind that both Erika Whillas of CoClear, and Dr Leonardo Bonanni of Sourcemap spoke about life-cycle analysis and supply-chain accounting. The chain of production for a given product can span dozens of companies and numerous continents. If every element of this chain can be mapped, from procurement, packaging, and transportation, to retail, use, and even disposal, then businesses will have the data they need to reduce both environmental and monetary costs. Improvements could range from changing the location of a factory, to altering the design of the product itself.

A convenient truth is that unnecessary energy use is more expensive both financially and environmentally. Companies that map their supply chains are empowered to approach their operation holistically and iron out anything otiose in their operation. A more efficient process is a cheaper process in every way.

Perhaps one of the most intractable obstacles to the concept of transparency about environmental impact is the lack of incentive for large companies. It takes just short of 10,000 liters of water to make a pair of jeans, and approximately 30lbs of carbon dioxide to produce a pair of running shoes. These environmental costs, otherwise known as externalities, though significant to the societies the businesses are part of, are not reducible through scale in the way the monetary cost of goods is. In this way big business loses its primary historic advantage – that of up-scaling production to reduce the cost of individual units – and will intrinsically be uncomfortable with the idea of accounting for externalities. Transparency in this area seems to hold no palpable benefit.

However, consumer behavior is changing, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for companies to justify unsustainable practice, not only environmentally, but also financially. Central to CoClear’s message is the fact that contemporary consumers will increasingly reward companies who show themselves to be environmentally sound, and punish their competitors who do not. Transparency is key. According to the Fairtrade Foundation, 76% of the public thinks that independent third-party certification is the best guarantor of environmental or social responsibility. Businesses, therefore, must not only behave more sustainably, but also, crucially, be seen to behave as such.

This trend will only accelerate. 45% of Millennials are likely to refuse to buy from a company that has been shown to be socially or environmentally harmful, and a more likely to pay a premium for green products than other, older generations.The burgeoning consumer classes of the Asia-Pacific region are actually more discriminating than their European and North American counterparts: while the region’s reputation for mass-production and counterfeit knock-offs might imply consumer naivety to some, the reality is that it has bred discernment and a high demand for quality as a means of differentiation. In a recent survey, 75% of Chinese people said they try to live eco-consciously, compared to 61% in Europa, and 46% in the USA. Spending far more time communicating among themselves than using traditional media, Post-Millennials will be more likely to prefer a brand that comes recommended to them, and businesses will find it increasingly hard to achieve a positive reputation through advertising.

It is self-evident that in order to be profitable a business must first exist, and thus to have any true concept of longevity it cannot allow itself to free-ride on the planet’s limited resources in a way that undermines the stability and viability of the communities who support it. Further to this reality, companies must work increasingly hard to differentiate themselves from their competitors in a world where the marketing of companies’ green credentials has become almost ubiquitous. Consumers are becoming more exacting in their standards. In America, 50% of Millennials say they conduct research into the environmental practices of the businesses they buy from, compared with 31% of Generation Xers and 20% of Baby Boomers. Companies like CoClear offer businesses not only certification, but also consultation and data to improve the efficiency of products both in their use and in every facet of their construction.

Innovation is therefore essential not only in the spiritual heartland of fashion - aesthetics, identity, and culture - but also in the industry’s products, supply chains, and business practices. Responding to the consumer is necessary for any business, but the most successful companies are not just agile, they operate ahead of the curve. The curve predicts that the prosperous companies of tomorrow will be those who make significant and decisive strides towards sustainable practice today.