Another day, another climate commitment. The fashion industry is finally waking up to the enormity of the climate change challenge—or is it?
Despite the plethora of sustainability pledges, only two major fashion companies—Levi Strauss and American Eagle—have announced targets that align with the 2016 Paris Agreement’s goal to limit temperature increases to a further 1.5 degrees Celsius, which would mitigate the worst effects of climate change, according to a new report by Stand.earth, an environmental nonprofit with offices in San Francisco, Washington and Vancouver.
Published Thursday, the “Filthy Fashion Climate Scorecard” ranked the climate commitments of 45 leading brands and retailers that have thrown their support behind the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action or the Kering-initiated G7 Fashion Pact, including Levi’s, American Eagle, Burberry, Gap, H&M, Patagonia, Kering, Inditex (which owns Zara), Nike, Patagonia and VF Corp. (which operates The North Face and Timberland).
But with the exception of Levi’s and American Eagle, corporations have made commitments that will “put the world on a path” to 2 degrees or more of warming, resulting in higher rises in sea level, more extreme heat events and more frequent droughts than if warming were capped at 1.5 degrees. Indeed, 17 of the 43 remaining companies have made limited to no climate commitments, which would pave the way for a potential 3 or more degrees of warming and almost certain “climate catastrophe,” Stand.earth noted.
“A handful of companies, including Levi’s, Burberry, the Gap, H&M and American Eagle are taking meaningful strides to shift their global supply chains off dirty fossil fuels,” Liz McDowell, director of the Filthy Fashion Campaign at Stand.earth, said in a statement. “But many other companies are relying on false solutions to meet their climate commitments—easy measures that look good on paper but fail to tackle carbon pollution in the real world.
“While the industry’s progress is encouraging,” she added, “signing onto one of these initiatives doesn’t guarantee that a company will take climate action in line with the scale of emissions reductions needed to keep the world below a dangerous level of warming.”
Stand.earth graded companies such on several criteria, including “concrete commitments” to reduce direct emissions from owned and controlled operations, power those facilities with renewable energy and reduce absolute greenhouse-gas emissions through their supply chains in line with the Paris Agreement.
Full points were awarded, for instance, to businesses that targeted 90 percent reductions in owned and controlled operations by 2035, aimed to use 50 percent renewable energy by 2025 and pledged to reduce supply-chain emissions by 40 percent by 2025 and 66 percent by 2050.
Stand.earth gave “extra credit” to companies that offered supplier incentives to help factories and mills improve energy efficiency and transition to renewable energy, goals to power supply chains with at least 50 percent renewable energy by 2035 and low-carbon material sourcing programs.
The decarbonization of the fashion supply chain is vital to the fate of the planet. If the fashion industry were a country, it would be the fourth largest polluter on the planet, according to Stand.earth. In 2018, Quantis, an environmental consultancy, estimated that fashion accounts for 8.1 percent of global greenhouse-gas emission—as much as the total climate impact of the entire European Union and greater than all international airline flights and maritime shipping trips combined.
“The vast majority of the fashion industry’s climate pollution is hiding in global supply chains,” McDowell said. “Right now, most of the fashion industry’s factories are powered by coal, one of the dirtiest fuels on earth. Not only is coal a huge contributor to climate change, but the toxic smog belched out by coal-powered factories impacts the health of millions of people every year, especially those living in the world’s poorest countries.”
Because of their “giant energy bills,” the world’s biggest fashion companies must shoulder significant responsibility for promoting the shift to renewable energy worldwide.
“Not only is this their responsibility—it is an urgent imperative,” McDowell added.
In his opening speech at the Sourcing Summit New York 2019 Thursday, Sourcing Journal founder Edward Hertzman echoed much of these assertions in his no-holds-barred assault on fashion’s “greenwashing, cause marketing tactics and just a sheer lack of accountability across the supply chain.”
Branding the apparel sector as “the new oil industry,” Hertzman took fashion to task as “the new bad guys” and “the ones destroying the Earth.”
“Books and Netflix specials are dedicated to our pollution of water, the cost of fast fashion,” Hertzman charged. “It seems like a lot of effort is going into the fibers and dyes we use, the water treatment facilities and laser machines we purchase and operate, but isn’t it a little ironic that an industry so obsessed with sustainability has unsustainable amounts of inventory damaging both their businesses and the planet?”
It is incumbent upon apparel companies that want to make a meaningful difference to push back “against the useless buzzwords that are just painting a false sense of progress in our industry,” Hertzman said.