June 15, 2023

How Better Data Can Drive Fashion's Sustainability Agenda

With improved insights, fashion companies can have a major impact on reducing the carbon emissions tied to their business operations.

Amer Taleb
How Better Data Can Drive Fashion's Sustainability Agenda

The debate about sustainability within fashion revolves around two words: supply chains. As complex as it may be to untangle, it’s ultimately these connective threads that reveal emission hotspots, and that enable companies to focus their decarbonization efforts more efficiently.

Of course, for this to work, a business needs access to the kind of data that can unearth actionable insights. The more visibility an organization has into its operations, the more levers it can pull to lower its emissions.

Marc Allen, the Chief Sustainability Officer and Co-Founder of Unravel Carbon, sat down to discuss the topic with OnePointFive (OPF)—a New York-based sustainability advisory firm—which we recently launched a partnership with. Below, we dive into the key points that Marc highlighted in his conversation with Matthias Muehlbauer, Founding Partner of OPF.

Setting the stage: the fashion industry and sustainability

The fashion industry is linked to high greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, when we delve into the inner workings of supply chains, there are two challenges that become quickly apparent.  

First is the use of natural resources for key inputs ranging from growing cotton to making synthetic textiles. And the second is that, at times, being able to trace exactly what happens from start to finish is a difficult task.

Before mentioning solutions that can be taken to remedy this, it’s important to note the following: ultimately, achieving the climate change goals outlined within the Paris Agreement will require cooperation that extends from across business sectors to government and civil society.

Measuring carbon emissions more accurately

In terms of the ways that a business can go about working toward decarbonization, there’s one area that stands out amongst the rest: leveraging more granular data to better assess the scope of their emissions. As noted above, the more comprehensive a picture that a company forms of its supply chains, the more effectively it’ll be able to spot challenges and implement solutions.  

However, the actual process of achieving this isn’t always so straightforward. For full coverage, the carbon footprint associated with a fashion product like a t-shirt before it reaches your consumer and how they use it once it’s in their care should be included within the analysis. It’s not just your direct emissions from stores, warehouses and e-commerce platforms that are of relevance. 

For example, this can be the materials used, finishing, product assembly and essentially other operations that occur upstream of your business. You’d also have to consider how consumers handle your goods after purchasing them, which includes everything from how frequently they wash an item to the manner in which they dispose of it. 

These are often parts of the supply chain you have little control over and insight into. However, solutions like ours exist to help you gain greater clarity. For the companies we partner with, we’re able to take their accounting data, analyze and then convert it into actionable insights. Our AI-powered decarbonization platform helps companies identify both the sources of their emissions, as well as steps they can take to lower them.

Of course, what Unravel Carbon is able to generate also relies on the inputs that a retailer has regarding the organizations it partners with. Data quality is important to us so we take special care in helping our customers improve data collection processes.  

Balancing business growth and environmental responsibility  

Admittedly, pinpointing the right balance between a focus on profits and prioritizing a company’s commitment to decarbonization isn’t always easy to discern. While there may not be a one-size-fits-all approach, as a general principle, it’s important that companies try to work in a manner that’s as efficient as possible.

This means, where feasible, everything from using renewables to developing products that are easy to disassemble and reuse. Certainly, within an industry such as fashion, where ever-changing trends regularly impact business operations, the idea of creating items that are meant to be used for long periods of time may lead to points of friction.

Though navigating this territory can be challenging, there are efforts to help guide fashion companies toward reducing emissions, such as the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, whose signatories include organizations such as Nike, Burberry and LVMH.

Another area to take note of is that as a result of stakeholder pressures ranging from investors to the general public, companies are being expected to demonstrate that they’re thinking beyond just profits, and that they’re purpose-driven as well.

The role of data in consumer education and behavior

Data is a powerful tool that enables companies to hasten their pace toward decarbonization. It’s also an invaluable resource for consumers to leverage as well. In particular, insights that are more detailed, granular and that peel back what actually went into producing an item can have a significant impact on a buyer’s purchasing decisions.  

These insights also help build trust and confidence with your customer in regards to the sustainability claims you make. When saying that a product is carbon neutral, having the numbers to back you up allows customers to better understand what’s behind the claim.

As measuring processes become more comprehensive, timely and unlock new findings, we could eventually move toward a world where the standard expectation for consumer goods is that they’re accompanied with a label that would serve a similar purpose to nutritional information being listed on the back of cans and packages.

Imagine picking up an item, quickly scanning its QR code and then instantly gaining access to that product’s emissions-related data.  

How Unravel Carbon supports fashion companies

Recently, Unravel Carbon began helping a publicly listed, multinational fashion retailer with their carbon reduction efforts. We were able to assist the company in migrating from an old Excel system to our modern digital platform, which has enabled the business to streamline and automate their emissions reporting efforts.

The company also benefits from a platform feature - our Supplier Module -  that requests emissions and energy-related data from suppliers, which has led to more visibility within the organization’s operations. With our Supplier Module, you could even get as specific as: the emissions associated with the production of this shirt, at that particular time, from this supplier was a certain amount of kilograms of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent).

The Unravel Carbon Supplier Module

In addition to tools that businesses across the board can make use of, some aspects of Unravel Carbon’s platform were designed specifically for the fashion industry. Where possible, we collect information on material composition so that the emissions for a specific item can be determined in real time on the platform. 

Our platform can also take into account contextual fields (where available), such as where a material was produced or manufactured to help companies drill down the granularity of their emissions measured.

The reason specificity is so important is because the more granularity there is, the easier it becomes to identify opportunities for carbon reduction such as choosing a lower-emitting supplier or addressing emissions arising from transport distance and mode.

Interested in learning more about how Unravel Carbon supports fashion companies reach their sustainability goals? Get in touch with us.

The full interview

To watch Marc and Matthias’ discussion, check out the video here:

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