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Sustainable fashion: Your personal consumer footprint

Global in nature, the fashion industry has high levels of carbon emissions, water and pesticide use, and is associated with social and labor-related issues. With nearly every person on the planet contributing to this industry, improved consumer behavior would undeniably help reduce its overall environmental footprint.

Fashion’s environmental footprint

Estimates put the industry’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions at up to 10%1; greater than that of all international flights and maritime shipping combined2. It is also estimated to be the second-biggest consumer of water, producing 20% of global wastewater3.

Treeprint: When emissions turn personal

As consumers, we all make daily lifestyle choices that ultimately drive global greenhouse gas (GHG) emission levels. In order to understand and personalize the environmental impact of our way of life, Credit Suisse has introduced the “Treeprint” concept. By providing emission data for a wide range of activities – and the associated number of trees, or Treeprint, needed to offset each activity – consumers can make informed choices about the measurable impact of changing their behavior and/or planting trees to reduce GHG emissions.

Treeprint: When emissions turn personal

The carbon intensity of clothing lifecycles

Although garment lifecycle assessments show that the production, transportation and retail of clothes all create emissions, studies suggest that a significant proportion of overall emission intensity occurs in the post-production phase4 (i.e. washing and drying done by consumers).

The carbon intensity of clothing lifecycles

Additionally, a significant share of clothes are not even worn. Analysis from Weight Watchers in the UK showed that 55% of the clothes in an average woman’s wardrobe and 47% of clothes in a man’s wardrobe are never worn. And a 2017 survey done by VoucherCloud among women in the US found that 20% of the respondents’ clothes were not worn. In such instances, emissions associated with the production, transportation and retail of the clothes appear completely unnecessary.

The environmental impact of online vs offline shopping

Analysis shows that online shopping has a slightly better emission footprint than when consumers shop in-store5. The carbon footprint of a website is smaller than that of a store, and parcel carriers are likely to use a more efficient delivery system than a consumer who drives to a store. However, the results are different if we look at the buying behavior of a “rushed consumer”. Consumers who use “same-day delivery” options or order multiple pieces of the same item with the intention to return all but one put significant stress on the delivery system, which dramatically increases the emission footprint of the item. MIT concludes that this type of online behavior is less environmentally friendly than if a consumer buys in-store.

How consumers can improve their fashion footprint

  • Invest in higher-quality clothing that lasts longer
  • Wear items more often
  • Wash clothes less frequently, at lower temperatures
  • Use air-dryers rather than tumble dryers
  • Opt for in-store shopping, especially when using public transport, walking, or cycling to get to the stores

Looking beyond the consumer…

The Credit Suisse “Lasting Values” podcast explores in more detail the environmental impact of the fashion journey; from the sourcing of raw materials all the way along the supply chain to retailers and, ultimately, consumers. Find out from industry experts how – alongside consumers – investors, innovators and even regulators can play their part in making fashion more sustainable.

Estimates from the UN, McKinsey, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Estimates from the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) and the UN.
Estimates from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
WARP in the UK (A Carbon Footprint for UK Clothing and Opportunities for Savings, 2012) and Roos et al (Environmental Assessment of Swedish fashion consumption, 2015).
MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics (“Environmental Analysis of US Online Shopping”).