The impact of transport in the fashion industry

By:Edmond Research and Development | 23/01/2023

The transport of garments, as with everything else, has increased drastically. With globalization, garments today are likely to have travelled half the world before ending up on our racks. With the rise of fast fashion and online retail, materials and clothes are being imported and exported at a faster rate and in larger quantities than ever before.

The lifecycle of a garment may start in a cotton field, travel to clothing factories in Asia, and end up in high street stores in the United States. Connecting these stages requires a huge amount of transport. Shipping is made necessary by these long distances; however, it has serious environmental impacts. Container and cruise ships generate the same amount of gas emissions as a quarter of all of Europe’s cars, according to a report from Transport and Environment, a Brussels-based NGO.

These are the usual steps across the supply chain of an item of clothing:

As the diagram indicates, the journey is complex and lengthy. It’s extremely rare for raw materials to be grown, processed, sewn, and sold all in one location. Each stage of the supply chain has some form of impact on the environment.

Manufactures move their factories to countries with cheaper production costs . Above 60% of the world’s clothes are manufactured in developing countries, with Asia producing more than 32% of this (and China leading world supply at 13%). With the rising costs in China, manufacturers move to countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam or Pakistan, where production and labor costs are cheaper.

Raw materials are also sourced from different areas such as India or China. Consequently, raw materials could be processed in one country and the textiles could be produced in another, increasing the need for transport.

Clear example is cotton: the leading global cotton producer in the period 2010-2020 are India, China, United States and Brazil whilst the leading global cotton mills are, for the same period, India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey.

Companies are often blind to where these fabrics originate from and sometimes even where the garments were manufactured.

When we look at shipping specifically, the impact on the environment is considerable. Ships handle roughly 90% of global trade, transporting nearly 10 billion metric tons (11 billion tons) of goods per year. It has been estimated that shipping accounts for 2.5% of the world’s total CO2 emissions and a 2015 report from the European parliament estimated that number could rise as high as 17% by 2050.

Despite this pretty major carbon impact, transport via boat is actually the cheapest and most carbon-efficient option we have right now. A big ship will emit about 10 grams (0.4 ounces) of carbon dioxide to transport 1 metric ton of cargo 1 kilometre (2 tons of cargo 1 mile). That’s roughly half as much as a train, one-fifth as much as a truck, and nearly a fiftieth of what an aeroplane would emit to accomplish the same task.

This is a snapshot of January 18th 2023 global from

Garments are transported by ship, train or plane, across the globe and then by truck to get to retail stores. It is difficult to estimate exactly how much fuel is used, but around 90% of clothes are transported by container ship yearly. Garments are sealed in plastic packaging and cardboard boxes, which are eventually thrown away. Items are also price tagged, contributing to the waste. When we order clothes online, they come in plastic postage bags or boxes, stuffed with tissue paper or bubble wrap, with bits of tape here and there. Shoe boxes also become purposeless once we take the shoes out of them. Sportswear brand Puma has found that by replacing the shoe boxes with recyclable bags, they save 20 million megajoules of electricity, 1 million litres of water and 500,000 litres of diesel per year, and use 65% less paper.

Edmond’ Carbon footprint calculators allow fashion brands and their producers to punctually calculate the CO2e emissions in each stage of the supply chain, from raw materials to stores, including transportations of all kind between each step or production and distribution.

Source: Bloomberg, CNN, Goodonyou, (NTU) Nanyang Technological University -Singapore research

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