Apparel Sourcing Intelligence - Worldwide

Are carbon labels viable for clothes?

The first serious attempt to launch a garment with a robust carbon label seems to demonstrate how limited the idea’s use might be in today’s clothing industry.

But it also shows how important carbon calculations can be

Continental Clothing is the first company to label a garment according to the new PAS 2050 standard for calculating the carbon emissions generated in a garment’s production. The idea seems simple: our food is labelled with clear indications of the amount of carbohydrates or sodium in the pack, so surely a T-shirt made on the other side of the world ought to give buyers similar information about the garment’s contribution to global warming?

But the findings of the first exercise show just how difficult such an exercise is likely to be. Continental still won’t reveal the full details of the research it did, but it claims its working example of a T shirt made in India and sold in the UK would generate 2.34 kg of carbon dioxide over its whole life. 48% of that comes from assumptions about how buyers would wash the shirt, and how often: interesting, but pure speculation, rather than research. Raw materials and manufacturing accounted for 15.3% of the total carbon emissions – less than transport and packaging (18.4%) and less than retailing (also 18.3%). Of the 18.4% of emissions created by transport, about a third came from local transport around India, though Continental have not explained how this figure was arrived at. Ocean freight was trivial (0.8% of emissions).

However reliable the data is, all this raises several serious difficulties.

  • First, well over half the claimed numbers are just assumptions.

    Not just about how buyers treat the shirt after they’ve bought it, but about how the shirt was handled in the distribution chain after the label was attached. Continental have no idea how long the average shirt will sit in a warehouse, what proportion will be scrapped or sent to an emerging market because they don’t sell, or how fuel-intensive household delivery will be (Continental assume the shirts are sold over the internet). Their assumptions might turn out to be correct – or they might not. There are good arguments for including distribution and customer treatment in the calculation – but doing so is going to make comparison between two products practically impossible. A typical fast fashion blouse from TopShop or Juicy Couture, for example, just isn’t going to be repeatedly washed or delivered by an internet fulfilment agency: a garment aimed at middle aged rural dwellers will be distributed and laundered completely differently. Now we know how important post-production events are in calculating carbon emissions, who’s going to be responsible for these assumptions?


  • Second the transport problem

    Continental won’t tell us how they came to calculate that moving a shirts round India caused eight times as many carbon emissions as freighting it halfway round the world. We can guess – but the likeliest explanation has worrying implications. Moving garments made for a small niche retailer from an eco-friendly production centre in India to an ocean port is probably a great deal less fuel-efficient than shipping T shirts for Gap from a factory in Guangdong to Hong Kong. A few garments on an ancient gas-guzzler, forced to sit in traffic jams, go through octroi barriers at each State boundary and wait for hours at inefficient ports hundreds of miles from the Indian factory will probably burn up as much fuel as 50,000 garments in one container trucked down a Chinese motorway by a modern Mercedes for a couple of hours. But does that mean that all carbon labels need a step by step analysis of every single activity carried out? Some garments will go straight from factory to ocean freighter: others sent back and forth to subcontractors for embroidering or embellishing. In between: every single new garment uses energy differently from every other one. Monitoring costs look potentially horrendous – and it’s no surprise it’s taken Continental over a year from starting this research to launching a product that uses it. With garments taking 6-8 weeks or less from drawing board, through Asian production, to selling out in a shop, the timescales of adequate monitoring just don’t work with mainstream retailers’ scheduling or budgets.


  • Third: Continental’s reticence

    There’s probably a really good reason Continental are being so quiet about their research. Doing it properly’s expensive, and their business niche is taking sustainability more seriously than anyone else. They’d be mad to give away too many of their findings. They may want to save the planet – but they need to keep their business viable, and giving other brands and retailers free advice isn’t going to help. But this means every retailer has to research the carbon cost of each step in every single garment’s life – and that’s probably why Tesco, the world’s third largest retailer, seems to have made so little progress with its carbon labelling programme, announced 18 months ago with what seemed a remarkably generous budget.

So the evidence so far looks as if Continental’s label may be of limited use in helping customers make decisions, especially if the research has to be repeated for every single garment they sell. But the process of doing the research probably yields extremely valuable information about how alternative ways of doing things really do change a garment’s carbon emissions. Ultimately, that’s bound to create more sustainable manufacturing and distribution – and possibly persuade customers to care for their clothes in a more responsible way.

But that’s not the result of the label. It’s the result of careful operational research – and arguably research that didn’t really need a label to carry out. The question now is, of course: who’s going to pay for such research ion the future?