Clothing Consumption: Analyzing the Apparel Industry’s Current and Future Impact on Greenhouse Gas Emissions
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CitationJacobs, Matthew. 2020. Clothing Consumption: Analyzing the Apparel Industry’s Current and Future Impact on Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Master's thesis, Harvard Extension School.
AbstractThe highly pollutive apparel industry represents a significant global challenge in light of forecasted population and economic growth – the two most significant drivers of carbon dioxide emissions. Recent trends that have allowed consumers to “spend less, buy more” are expected to continue for decades, including in developing countries where over one billion new consumers will arise by 2030. Under the industry’s current operating model, the aforementioned trends will cause a significant rise in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Surprisingly, the clothing we produce, consume, and discard has received little attention when it comes to understanding the totality of its future impact on GHG emissions across developed and developing countries.
My research sought to quantify and evaluate this impact against 2030 and 2050 climate mitigation targets under the IPCC’s 1.5°C and 2°C pathways by addressing four main questions: What portion of GHG emissions are currently associated with the apparel industry? What is the projected contribution of GHG emissions from the industry under different scenarios of production, consumption, and post-consumption relative to the IPCC’s 1.5°C and 2°C pathways? To what degree will apparel-related emissions represent a greater proportion of GHG emissions in the future than they do today? Finally, to what extent will apparel consumption impact emissions associated with developed and developing countries?
Given the population and economic growth forecasts, I hypothesized that the apparel industry would account for more than 30% of the 2050 carbon budget associated with the IPCC’s 1.5°C pathway, and that developing countries would soon account for greater emissions from apparel than developed countries despite having lower per capita levels of consumption. To address the aforementioned questions and hypotheses, I obtained population, economic, demographic, consumer, transportation, and industry-specific data from dozens of publicly available sources and developed an Excel-based model to assess current and forecasted GHG emissions associated with each phase of the apparel life cycle for developed and developing countries.
The model was run to evaluate GHG emissions under four scenarios of varying production, consumption, and post-consumption activities, including a separate baseline “business as usual” scenario from which a sensitivity analysis was conducted to determine which variables had the greatest impact on emissions. The sensitivity results showed that consumption rates in both developed and developing countries had the largest impact on apparel emissions, but for different reasons: for developing countries, this result was due to the multiplication effect of rapidly rising population against the carbon intensity of materials; for developed countries, it was strictly related to overconsumption. Furthermore, the baseline scenario indicated that the apparel industry will represent 20% of the remaining 2018 carbon budget under the 1.5°C pathway, and up to 72% of the remaining budget when accounting for Earth-system feedbacks.
This thesis demonstrated that up to 85% of emissions from apparel occur in the material production stage, indicating a need to rapidly reduce the carbon intensity of materials and divert finished garments from landfill. If population growth and corresponding demand for apparel cannot be decoupled from the carbon intensity of production, it will be difficult to remain within 2°C of warming, much less 1.5°C.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37365025
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