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Climate Change Risks to the Fashion Industry

There is widespread consensus among the international scientific community that the world’s climate is being affected by anthropogenic (i.e. human-induced) emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. Furthermore, it is projected that climate change will accelerate, if we fail to significantly reduce GHG emissions. Hence, there is an urgent global call across industries to radically transform incumbent ecologically unsustainable patterns of production and consumption.

The fashion industry is highly resource intensive, with several negative environmental (e.g. exhaustive water consumption and GHG emissions) and social impacts (e.g. child labour, unsafe working conditions) along its value chain. While the fashion industry is a significant contributor to global GHG emissions, it is conversely sensitive to the feedback (e.g. global warming) posed by climate change due to its dependence on natural resources. For example, agricultural inputs (in particular, cotton) and the agricultural systems that deliver them are extremely sensitive to climate change and therefore present a risk to global fashion value chains.

Cotton Bulb

Child Labour in a Factory

In an era of “low cost and fast fashion”, the apparel manufacturing sector is facing increasing supply chain challenges premised on commodity price volatility and resource availability, while the scientific community agrees that present and future global supply chain risks related to climate change are greater than ever. Specifically, climate change risks present themselves as changing weather patterns and extreme weather events causing apparel manufacturers to experience uncertainty in procuring agricultural inputs, disrupted distribution networks and damaged manufacturing facilities. Additionally, rising temperatures and consequently less reliable traditional seasonal cycles result in changing consumer behaviour. It is also argued that increasing consumer environmental awareness will affect buying behaviour.


Physical Climate Risks to the Apparel Sector Chart

 “Low cost, resource intensive and fast fashion” is an outdated and unsustainable model of production and consumption. In a future with shortages of key natural resources, a “business-as-usual” will be unviable. To remain competitive, fashion brands will need to evolve their business models. Ultimately, the fashion industry as a whole requires a new economic narrative, underpinned by a radical improvement in overall aggregate efficiency.

As a starting point, climate change and social risk identification and assessment will become strategic factors driving new investments. The evolution of the fashion industry will command a stronger gravitation towards more sustainable patterns of production and consumption (e.g. circular economy models – reuse, remanufacturing and end-of-life solutions) and the utilisation of more environmentally friendly materials (e.g. organic cotton, hemp, bamboo).

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 Kruschen Govender is an interdisciplinary scholar, specialising in design and innovation for sustainability. He is completing his doctorate at the Department of Civil Engineering, University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is also the co-founder of a sustainable innovation and design firm, “Thinked”,

 Linus Naik is a chemical process engineering consultant in the waste, energy, and sustainability sectors. He completed his doctorate at the Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Cape Town. He is also the co-founder of a sustainable innovation and design firm, “Thinked”,

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