OBSERVER: Copernicus provides solutions to achieve a more sustainable fashion industry

OBSERVER: Copernicus provides solutions to achieve a more sustainable fashion industry

OBSERVER: Copernicus provides solutions to achieve a more sustainable fashion industry

Thu, 12/01/2023 – 11:15

A highly environmentally costly industry

The drop in clothing prices over the last decades has resulted in people buying ever more clothes. In 2020, Europeans bought on average almost 10 kg of clothing items between garments and shoes[1], 5 times more than two generations ago. However, the climate cost of fashion is high. According to the EU Environment Agency, when considering European consumption, textiles are indeed in fourth place when it comes to the negative impact on the environment and climate change, just behind food, housing, and transport. The fashion industry contributes approximately 4% of the total global carbon emissions[2], of which 38% can be imputed to raw material production[3]. In the context of the climate crisis, these emissions need to be reduced and rapid changes are needed along the whole supply chain to achieve a more sustainable production and decarbonize this sector. While a big challenge, this is also a considerable opportunity. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of this challenge and their consumption habits are progressively changing as they apply greater scrutiny to the environmental footprint of brands and retailers, which can therefore adapt their business models to cater to these emerging needs.

Estimated per capita consumption of clothing, household textiles and footwear in 2020, in kg
Source: EEA

Improving the sustainability of cotton production, a huge stake to lower the environmental cost of clothing

Present in most of today’s everyday wardrobe staples worn by people across the globe, from T-shirts and socks to blue jeans, approximately 75% of the world’s clothing products contain at least some amount of cotton[4]. Being the most widespread profitable non-food crop, its production provides income for more than 250 million people worldwide and accounts for the employment of almost 7% of all labor in development countries[5]. Regarding its wide global reach and its important use in the fashion industry, achieving a more sustainable production of cotton is therefore a considerable stake to lower the industry’s overall environmental impact. But the challenges are multiple.

Cotton clothes are made of woven cotton fibre, obtained from the material harvested in the seed pods of cotton plants. Sometimes, the cotton threads are blended with other threads, like elastane for instance, to make a finished textile. Even though cotton fibre is not synthetic, its production often has a serious impact on the environment. Issues raised by cotton crop include:

The important use of pesticides to grow it: cotton uses 2.5% of arable land on Earth and accounts for 6% of the world’s pesticide and 16% of the world’s insecticide use, more than any other single crop[6]. These chemicals provoke serious damage to ecosystems, soils and local waterways. They destroy the natural biodiversity within the soil, therefore lowering its carbon absorption capacity, and run into local waterways, polluting them for years.
The gigantic amount of water required: cotton accounts for 69% of the water footprint of the entire textile industry.  A kilogram of cotton requires between 10,000 and 20,000 litres of water to produce[7].
Ethical human issues: cotton also has a serious impact on the lives of those who grow it. While cotton farming is a very intensive and dangerous labour because of the number of pesticides required, smallholder farmers often live in extreme poverty, and children themselves are frequently forced to work.

How can Copernicus help achieve a more environmentally and economically sustainable cotton production?

Initiatives to grow a more sustainable and ethical cotton are multiplying. For instance, labels are being created to help consumers choose the most ethical and environmentally respectful cotton products. Agricultural processes are also improved, such as by growing organic cotton, which is claimed to have the potential to half cotton’s impact on global warming compared to regular cotton. One of the promising new agricultural processes is regenerative agriculture, which emphasises good soil and water management, chemical use minimisation, plant crops diversification and tillage limitation with the aim of naturally improving yield while reducing soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions.

To achieve these new agricultural processes, farmers need an increasing amount of data to monitor their crops. This is where Earth Observation data, such as those gathered by the Copernicus Sentinels and provided by the Copernicus Land Monitoring Service, have a huge potential to benefit cotton farming. Multi-spectral and ground-based sensors indeed have the capacity to guide the cotton growers to only use the strictly necessary volume of water or other applicants and to help to monitor soil health. Hence, it improves soil and water management and limits chemical use. Moreover, data collected are precious to measure the initial impact of the crops on the environment and monitor the progress that is being made in achieving more sustainable production. This is of special importance for brands and retailers to make the best choices when it comes to their environmental impact. More generally, it enables to set and monitor sustainability metrics in terms of reduced water, energy efficiency, land use, greenhouse gas emissions or soil loss.

The monitoring enabled by Earth Observation data is even more precious in the context of a warming climate. A rise in temperatures, drought, limited freshwater and unpredictable rain patterns indeed alter cotton productivity, which affects local economies and global supply chains. Having access to improved forecasting tools is therefore of critical importance to better inform the cotton growers about future changes in the climate, to anticipate weather patterns and not waste resources because of unpredicted disasters, or incompatibilities between their crops and the local climate.

Cotton farms, like the one in this picture, are very sensitive to climate change

An overview of Copernicus applications for a more sustainable cotton production

EOXPLORE is a company which uses Earth Observation and geospatial data to analyse and extract actionable information for businesses and organisations. Together with Terranea, a company specialised in Earth Observation data analysis and mapping to create location-based application supporting businesses and governments, they are developing the Climate Change Impact on Cotton (CCIC) application, which focuses on delivering climate change information relevant to the supply of cotton from around the world. This information will be useful to textile manufacturers, fashion brands and retailers to foresee and better manage the long-term climate-related risks that their supply chain is facing. This can help them reduce their supply chain risks, assist them in sustainable sourcing of cotton and improve their relationship with climate-conscious customers. This application is being developed using data and tools from the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) Climate Data Store (CDS). It will track cotton-specific variables and give regional and local statistics on past, present and future climate measures and scenarios. Weather predictions for the months ahead will also be provided by the C3S seasonal forecasts to help better manage the crops in the shorter term. Hence, the application will benefit a variety of stakeholders, within both the value chains and supply chains.

The role of regulation for a sustainable cotton industry

Fashion For Biodiversity Solutions (FFBS) is a RegTech which works to improve the implementation of the regulation of the EU on organic production labelling, to tackle the problems raised in the labelling process. The EU is indeed very strict when considering labelling any raw material or product ORGANIC. However, the system to check this compliance is still manual, hence very easy to manipulate. This results in several fake organic fashion products in the EU, damaging European consumers and causing heavy financial loss for fashion brands, finance sector and European importers. FFBS provides visibility and traceability of the textile raw material from origin to retail thanks to geo-mapping and triangular monitoring enabled by advanced data and technologies such as Earth Observation data from Sentinel satellites, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and Internet of Things (IoT). This enables the fashion industry to measure its impact on the environment and to find mitigating solutions.

The textile industry has a large impact on our climate and environment, but new and improved processes as well as regulations are contributing to a more sustainable future for the industry. Copernicus plays a crucial role in the achievement of a more sustainable fashion industry, as its data can enable both enforceable regulation and innovative green solutions.

Thu, 12/01/2023 – 12:00

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