LONDON – Do fashion industry executives know something we don’t? This is the only logical conclusion one can draw considering their recent decision to renew the terms of the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action after convening at COP26. The new Charter commits signatories to halving carbon emissions by 2030 – an update on the previous target of 30 per cent reductions by 2030 – and achieving net-zero emissions by no later than 2050.
Currently, 130 companies have signed the Charter, including well-known names such as Burberry, H&M Group, VF Corporation, Adidas, Kering, Chanel, Nike, and Puma.
Who makes the decisions to sign these charters? And do they read the small print?
In the week this announcement was made, analysis from US NGO Stand.Earth showed supply chain emissions from fashion brands are going up not down. In fact, it examined nine major fashion brands and found all nine are projected to fail to reduce their supply chain emissions in line with the 1.5C pathway, if their emissions continue to increase at the rate of growth demonstrated before the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is an important caveat. It’s telling to note that the only time fashion’s emissions have been in-line with internationally agreed climate targets in recent years is during the height of the pandemic when lockdowns were in place across the world – which is kind of unfortunate.
The problem is supply chains. Fashion retailers have already taken most of the low hanging fruit by introducing renewable energy into owned-operations.
Decarbonizing carbon-intensive supply chains, where upwards of 90 per cent of fashion’s emissions occur, is an entirely different challenge.
China’s textile industry, still comfortably the largest in the world, remains heavily dependent on coal. More generally, China currently consumes more than half the world’s coal, burning three billion tonnes in 2020 alone.
In other sourcing countries, the shift to renewable energy and clean production methods by garment manufacturers remains sluggish. These things take investment and often depend on commitments by national governments in terms of the overall national energy mix.
In the meantime, the fashion industry continues to grow. It has bounced back remarkably from the pandemic, with most of the world’s leading fashion retailers now comfortably back in the black. The industry appears to have returned to its traditional growth trajectory.
US consultants Textile Exchange recently reported that global fibre production has almost doubled in the last 20 years from 58 million tonnes in 2000 to 109 million tonnes in 2020. They also suggest fibre production is expected to increase by another 34 per cent to 146 million tonnes in 2030 if the industry builds back business as usual beyond the pandemic.
If these figures hold true, the fashion industry will be dependent on decoupling growth from carbon emissions if it is to come anywhere meeting the targets set at COP2026.
Can it do this and, if so, how? To this end, Textile Exchange has called for an increase in the use of ‘preferred fibres’ and materials – these mainly being identity cottons such as Better Cotton and organic cotton along with recycled polyester.
This kind of tinkering is unlikely to have any real impact on emissions, even assuming that the ‘preferred fibres’ being referenced by Textile Exchange have lower environmental impact than their conventional counterparts (and the evidence in many cases is questionable).
Others have suggested that recycling is the way forward. In theory, a closed loop industry which recycled fibres ad infinitum could slash the emissions associated with the production and processing of new fibres (although one must bear in mind that the process of textile recycling itself is emission-intensive).
The problem with this is that a fully closed loop textile industry is a fantasy. Consider that one of the first movers in the pure textile-textile chemical recycling space, Worn Again, has now been around for 16 years and is still only at pilot stage. Other tech companies in this space – the likes of Renewcell, Infinited Fibers – have made impressive progress in terms of turning old fibres into new ones, using old cotton. But they remain hampered by a lack of decent quality feedstock, with fibre blends and the extensive use of elastane in fast fashion causing huge problems for them and other recyclers. It is hard to see this situation changing.
Against this backdrop, and by process of elimination, it seems the fashion industry has only two options if it is to reduce its emissions in line with the targets set at COP26. Option A is to embark on a huge process of investment in supply chains, supporting manufacturers financially to move towards cleaner, less energy-intensive production processes. As part of this, fashion might do well to lobby governments in sourcing hubs such as Bangladesh and Cambodia, encouraging them to make a major strategic shift at national level towards renewable energy. They could even use their buying power to make long-term, legally-binding sourcing commitments to specific countries provided those countries pledge to invest massively in renewable energy over the next decade.
Supply chains need to be the number one focus for fashion brands if they are serious about meeting COP26 emission-reduction targets, and this means major commitments and investments in the tens of US$millions. Anything else – tiny pilots with one or two suppliers, pledges to source ‘sustainable’ fibres and so on – is a case of simply rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.
I said there were two options, so what about Option B? It’s simple: shift away from the growth-at-all-costs business model and embrace slow fashion.
Plan A it is, then.