Fashion is still a laggard when it comes to sustainability

The fashion industry has a disastrous impact on the environment. In fact, it is one of the largest polluters in the world, just after the oil industry. The fashion industry accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, it is a major water consumer and polluter, and textile wastage seems to be increasing every year, with an estimated 92 million tons created annually.

As global leaders gathered for COP26 the past couple of weeks, heads turn once again to an industry that, considering its impact, seems to be lagging behind in terms of ambition to tackle climate change.

A new analysis takes a closer look at how some of the biggest fashion and apparel companies are performing in reducing their supply chain emissions in line with a 1.5ºC emissions pathway of the UN Paris Agreement. These are some of the key findings:

Fashion brands are off track in meeting the 1.5ºC pathway: In fact, the supply chain emissions of eight of the nine companies included in the analysis had increased in 2019. Despite COVID-19 downturn, brands are producing more climate pollution. It is alarming that the companies increased their emissions during a recession, when they have committed to cutting their climate pollution within the decade. There is no “sustainable fashion” with fossil fuels: Solutions like switching to recycled polyester or reducing energy use in their stores are far from enough to tackle the climate and toxic pollution the fashion industry generates. Brands must move fast to rapidly decarbonize their supply chain by phasing out fossil fuels as a source of energy, fabric, and shipping fuel.

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There is some hope as big brands step up to the plate

It is clear there is a huge amount of work that still needs to be done, but there is room for hope. The United Nations Fashion Industry Charter For Climate Action – originally launched in 2018 and signed by 130 brands – is ramping up its efforts to reduce fashion’s environmental impacts, with brands now committing to halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (compared to the previous target of 30%).

Along with commitments to cut emissions more rapidly, the Charter has also set a new target for 100% of “environmentally preferred” materials – such as cotton, viscose, polyester, wool and leather – to be low climate impact by 2030.

Leading the way in making sure fashion brands shift their supply chain towards environmentally friendly fabrics, global non-profit Textile Exchange presented a request at COP26 to help the industry achieve its climate goals through trade policy - calling for preferential tariffs on materials like organic cotton and recycled fibers.

Over 50 brands, suppliers, retailers, NGOs, and industry associations have joined forces to ask for policy change to incentivize the use of these environmentally preferred materials. Using trade policy to incentivize better practice in raw materials sourcing would be a ground-breaking use of legislation to level the playing field for fashion and textile companies looking to lower their environmental impacts.

Environmentally preferred materials should be defined as those from certified, verified sources that can be traced from raw material to finished product. For example, organic cotton typically has a lower carbon footprint than conventional cotton, as is the case with recycled polyester when compared to virgin polyester.

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But is that enough for the change we need now?

Based on its present trajectory, the wider industry will fall well short of the pledge to halve their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. It is also worth noting that the signatories to the updated UN fashion charter, including LVMH, Kering, Chanel, Nike, Adidas and Puma, represent just a fraction of the sprawling apparel and footwear industry. Even though they may influence industry-wide targets, the industry is composed of thousands of companies based all across the globe.

Another figure to keep the impact of the global industry in perspective: the fashion industry was responsible for about 4% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, comparable to the combined emissions of France, Germany and the UK, according to McKinsey.

We need transformative climate action now. It is not too late for the brands we all love to step up to the challenge and lead the way.