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Fashion Has ‘Carbon Tunnel Vision.’ Textile Exchange Wants to Fix That.

What Textile Exchange will consider a preferred fiber or material next year won’t be the same as what it does today. It’s a necessary part of what the sustainability-focused nonprofit dubs its “direction of travel,” one that it hopes will help its members hit its Climate+ goal of slashing fiber and material production emissions by 45 percent by 2030. This includes “raising the bar” by moving from fibers and materials that are “less bad” to “more good.” In the case of cotton, for instance, incorporating a soil health program will soon be a minimum requirement.

“We’re not standing on a holy hill judging everyone that you’re not doing good enough,” LaRhea Pepper, the organization’s outgoing CEO. told an audience of 1,700, both physical and virtual, at Textile Exchange’s 2022 conference in Colorado Springs last month. “We’re here to name and fame; we’re here to inspire and equip. But if we’re going to transform an industry—and we must—we’ve got to take that next threshold, we’ve got to move to that next place in space.”

There’s a reason why there’s a plus sign in both its climate commitment and its forthcoming life cycle assessment methodology, known as LCA+. Too much of the industry has what sustainability advisor Jan Konietzko describes as “carbon tunnel vision,” where companies are so absorbed in their net-zero targets, they ignore everything else.

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“Yes, we’ve got to address carbon concretely,” Pepper said. “But without losing sight of the importance of protecting the ecosystem, protecting the people, protecting the biodiversity, protecting our water. We must be more than islands of good.”

The plus sign also represents collaboration. Since Textile Exchange began 20 years ago—its first conference involved 40 people in a hotel room in Lubbock, Texas—the organization has grown to a powerhouse of 820 members, including major brands such as Adidas, H&M and Patagonia. By the end of the year, its stable of certifications, which include the Global Recycled Standard, the Organic Content Standard and the Responsible Wool Standard, will have endorsed 61,000 sites in nearly 100 countries. These best practices, Pepper said, are part of the mechanism that is driving transformation.

Claire Bergkamp and LaRhea Pepper
Claire Bergkamp and LaRhea Pepper. Courtesy

2023 will see further changes, not least because Claire Bergkamp, the organization’s current chief operations officer, will be taking over Pepper’s role. Textile Exchange plans to harmonize its different standards to create one unified system, with a fresh name and logo. The aforementioned LCA+ approach will infuse a $500,000 tranche of new assessments for cotton, polyester and leather. A slew of new tools is poised to go online, including TrackIt, a platform that will help brands map Textile Exchange-certified raw materials in supply chains; the Shared Measurement System, which will automate the collection and analysis of data; the Transaction Authentication Tool, which will allow users to check the veracity of transaction certificates; and the Climate+ and Materials Dashboards, which will let members measure and track progress across different metrics. Ensuring deforestation-free supply chains will also take greater prominence.

One of the underlying conversations, Pepper said, is about price. The question is how to move the sector from a “price paradigm” to a “value paradigm.” At the start of the year, Textile Exchange released its Regenerative Agriculture Landscape Analysis to chart the burgeoning healthy soils movement. Similar reports on biodiversity and water will be “following shortly,” she added. Overall, there is a desire for more useful data. And on top of that, a need for continuous improvement.

That’s where yet another plus sign comes in.

“It’s not an ‘or” strategy,” Pepper said. “Quite frankly, folks, it’s got to be all of the above. We don’t have time to cherry-pick or do one little shiny thing at a time. We’ve got mountains to move—and they can be moved. But we have to do them together.”

The theme of the conference was “Materials Matter: A Pathway to Positive Impact.” But an unofficial throughline was “Bee Courageous,” complete with a bumblebee emblem that flashed on the screen as Pepper spoke. It was there in the bee-shaped plantable paper, embedded with pollinator-attracting wildflower seeds, that was distributed at every table. It was also alluded to in the jars of amber-hued local honey that speakers received as thank-you gifts.

“I’m going to ask you to be the change; be courageous,” Pepper said. “Because the easy stuff, the low-hanging fruit, has been done. The next steps are going to require courageous conversations with your shareholders, courageous conversations with legislative bodies, courageous conversations with your co-workers, courageous conversations with your consumers to make sure we’re engaging a broader and fuller community.”