Biomass is no solution to cleaning up fashion supply chains

As part of the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, 100 fashion brands, retailers and manufacturers have set a target to phasing out coal across their Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers by 2030, including no new coal power by January 2023 at the latest. 

This matters because the majority of fashion’s greenhouse gas emissions are generated at the fabric processing stage, where coal-powered boilers produce vast quantities of hot water and steam to dye fabrics to meet the color demands of our non-stop trend cycle. 

Whether the challenge of this commitment is being met by all signatory members is under debate, but the promise itself is a positive sign that coal as a source of energy is moving towards extinction in the fashion industry. 

However, phasing out fossil fuels is only part of the goal. Ultimately, the aim is for a genuinely sustainable industry, with today’s polluting supply chain transitioning to clean renewable energy such as wind and solar.

Unfortunately, some brands are taking shortcuts to get there. The result of which is even more harmful impacts on people and the planet. The strategy they are betting on is switching from fossil fuels to biomass, a broad term covering anything from trees to agricultural waste replacing coal in powering the textile manufacturing.

For example, Inditex (the parent company of Zara, Bershka, Pull & Bear, Stradivarius, Oysho and Massimo Dutti) announced in June that they would be phasing out coal by 2030 in order to meet seemingly ambitious new 50% emissions reduction targets. But environmental campaign group argued this strategy relies on biomass which will distract from crucial investments in clean renewable energy:

“Inditex’s new on-site coal phase out target is an essential step, the company dilutes its own climate targets by promoting biomass burning as an alternative — a process environmentally worse than coal burning — instead of electrification. Biomass throws out harmful air pollution, impacting workers and communities around Inditex’s own factories, and is associated with serious human rights concerns.”

This concern is shared by several civil society organizations in Indonesia, where deforestation of ancient rainforests caused by the growth of the biomass energy market is threatening local livelihoods and biodiversity. The organizations, including Trend Asia, Rainforest Action Network and Friends of the Earth Indonesia, recently published an open letter to the fashion industry expressing concerns about the social and environmental harms of biomass being used as a fossil fuel alternative. 

The letter urges global fashion brands and retailers to reconsider using biomass in their supply chains because of how deforestation threatens the livelihoods of Indigenous people, damages wildlife habitats through monoculture practices, and competes with land use for farming, which impacts food security for local communities. 

“We are deeply concerned that fashion brands’ decarbonization strategies fail to consider the detrimental social and environmental impacts of biomass on communities in Indonesia and other regions of Southeast Asia… As a concrete step towards a 100% renewable energy commitment, we urge the fashion industry to phase out fossil fuels, leapfrogging the practice of burning biomass, and accelerate the adoption of genuinely clean energy sources like solar and wind power.”

Beyond Indonesia, a study from Royal Holloway found that a third of the estimated 1,200 garment factories across Cambodia were burning through an average of 562 metric tons of forest wood every day, using it as fuel for generating thermal energy. A recent investigation has since linked fashion companies’ use of biomass to illegal logging from ancient and endangered forests in Cambodia, including Target, H&M, Gap, Inditex, Levi’s and others. 

Meanwhile, research group Ember has shown that burning woody biomass in the UK actually generates more CO2 emissions than the coal it claims to replace, while the growth of biomass power plants in the EU also risks worsening the impacts of climate change. This builds on the debunked claim that biomass is carbon neutral — evidence suggests that the carbon debt resulting from deforestation would take several decades to repay, and in the meantime, emits more carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced than fossil fuels when it’s burned. 

The solution is clear: the fashion industry needs to invest in decarbonization of their supply chains by scaling up clean, renewable energy from solar and wind through onsite generation and power purchase agreements, transitioning to electric boilers, and advocating for a clean energy grid to power them, and innovating with dry processing technologies to reduce energy demand. 

While brands must continue to phase out fossil fuels such as coal, the use of biomass is a false solution. Instead, fashion brands must commit to 100% clean renewable energy in their supply chains by 2030, in order to reduce their emissions and tackle climate change.