As warnings of rising temperatures continue to dominate headlines, the fashion industry’s leading climate initiative is upping its ante, although some naysayers say its ambitions still need more teeth.
At the international climate change summit known as COP26 in Glasgow on Monday, the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action committed its signatories to slash their emissions by half over the next decade, with an eye on achieving net-zero emissions “no later” than 2050. The agreement, which was forged at COP24 in 2018, previously asked companies to cut emissions by 30 percent by 2030.
“This is an important milestone for the Fashion Charter, as it increases the ambition level in an effort to align the industry with 1.5 degrees,” Stefan Seidel, head of corporate sustainability at Puma and co-chair of the Charter’s steering committee, said in a statement. “It is a signal that we need to work closely together with our peers, our supply chain, policymakers and consumers to get on the track to net zero.”
Other commitments in the updated agreement include sourcing 100 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2030, increasing the use of environmentally friendly raw materials and phasing out on-site coal from supply-chain operations by 2030. The revised Charter also called for incentive mechanisms to help suppliers decarbonize manufacturing, as well as measures to engage other stakeholders, including policymakers, financial institutions and communicators.
“In a time when the climate crisis is accelerating to unprecedented levels, we need the real economy to lead on climate action,” said Niclas Svenningsen, manager of global climate action at UN Climate Change. “The strengthened commitments of the Fashion Charter signatories is an excellent example of such leadership.”
But environmental campaigners say the Charter can go further. Stand.earth said Monday that the new commitment only applies only to boilers and other sources of coal-fired heat or power generation, leaving out coal electricity, a “key source of climate pollution.” The advocacy group also cautioned against the Charter’s renewable-energy commitment, calling it a “major gap” because it only applies to owned and operated facilities and not the full supply chain.
“The renewal of the UN Fashion Charter marks an important step breaking the industry’s addiction to coal, and bring its emissions in line with goals to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” Muhannad Malas, senior climate campaigner at Stand.earth, said in a statement. “While the Charter misses the mark by not committing the industry to transition to 100 percent renewable energy in its supply chain by 2030, which would be critical to achieving its goal, the new commitments to phase out on-site coal usage by 2030 and pursue zero-emission shipping solutions are some signs of encouraging progress.”
In a recent analysis, Stand.earth found that most fashion companies are failing in their efforts to meet the 1.5 degree Celsius pathway. Of nine brands—American Eagle Outfitters, Gap, H&M, Inditex, Kering, Levi Strauss, Lululemon, Nike and Uniqlo owner Fast Retailing—eight have increased their supply-chain emissions “substantially,” which the group said is “is inconsistent with UN Fashion Charter goals.” Gap, Uniqlo, Kering and Levi’s, it said, showed double-digit year-over-year growth in supply-chain emissions in 2019, as did Nike during its 2020 fiscal year. Despite the pandemic-induced downturn, Lululemon’s supply-chain emissions rose by 12.7 percent from 2019 to 2020, while H&M’s showed a 1.7 percent uptick.
“Our new analysis found that fashion companies have made little to no progress in eliminating coal and other fossil fuels from their supply chains. In fact, emissions grew substantially for some companies, and others were more dependent on coal-powered manufacturing facilities than when they first signed the UN Fashion Charter,” Malas said. “These are troubling findings, especially since the vast majority of the sector’s emissions are hidden in complex supply chains. This should be a wake-up call to some of the world’s biggest fashion brands that if they want to meet the UN’s 1.5-degree-Celsius emissions-reduction target, they must do a lot more to decarbonize their supply chains.”
The Charter collectively represents 130 companies and 41 supporting organizations, many of which have laid out their own individual targets, including brands such as Adidas, Burberry, H&M, Kering, VF Corp. and Zara owner Inditex, suppliers such as Crystal Group, Clover Group, Elevate Textiles and TAL Apparel, and organizations such as the Apparel Impact Institute, Fashion for Good and Textile Exchange.
Protect, restore, regenerate
COP26 also saw Textile Exchange rally 50 brands, retailers, suppliers and nonprofits to urge for policy change that would galvanize the adoption of environmentally preferred materials such as organic cotton and recycled fibers. Environmentally preferred materials should be defined as those from certified, verified sources that can be traced from raw material to finished product, the organization said. Organic cotton and recycled polyester typically have smaller carbon footprints compared with their conventional and virgin counterparts, for instance.
Perks such as preferential tariffs, Textile Exchange said, would help members such as Gap, H&M, Levi’s, Nike, Patagonia and Kering achieve their collective goal of a 45 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions in the pre-spinning phase of textile fiber and material production by 2030. “With the recognition that appropriate policy initiatives may differ by jurisdiction, in this critical moment at COP26, Textile Exchange urges policymakers to consider working with the apparel and textile industry to develop thoughtful trade policy mechanisms in this area,” it said.
Over the weekend, Burberry unveiled a new biodiversity strategy to “protect, restore and regenerate” nature in an effort to stave off the worst effects of global warming, such as worsening droughts, floods, storms and other weather-related catastrophes. Building on the luxury house’s recent commitment to become climate positive by 2040, the scheme seeks to stem Burberry’s impact on biodiversity through the responsible sourcing of key raw materials such as cotton, leather and wool, which it endeavors to make traceable, certified or recycled by 2025. Using the Burberry Regenerative Fund as a lever, the company plans to invest in more nature-based projects that help restore ecosystems “within and beyond” its own value chain. Burberry also plans to expand its support for farming communities, broadening efforts around farm-level certifications and training where it sources raw materials.
“Climate change is not just a future environmental risk, it’s a socio-economic crisis that is impacting millions around the world today,” Burberry chairman Gerry Murphy said in a statement. “Protecting, restoring and regenerating nature is key to safeguarding the planet for generations to come, and we must be ambitious in our intentions and action-oriented in our approach. Burberry’s biodiversity strategy will not only address impacts in our own extended operations, but also help to create new systems to reduce biodiversity loss in the world’s greatest areas of need, making a meaningful contribution to global conservation efforts.”
Ralph Lauren was name-checked after the company-backed U.S. Regenerative Cotton Fund was named an “Innovation Sprint Partner” of the Agriculture Innovation Mission (AIM) for Climate, a joint initiative of the United States and the United Arab Emirates that was unveiled at COP26 last week with an “early harvest” of $4 billion to drive innovation and climate action in the agriculture sector. Ralph Lauren, which pumped $5 billion into the fund, is the only retail company to be selected as part of AIM. Described as an “industry-first,” the fund seeks to help American farmers implement regenerative agricultural practices, such as cover-cropping and no-tillage, across more than 1 million acres of cropland.
“We must come together as a global community to address the challenges of today so that future generations inherit a world filled with natural beauty and inspiration,” Patrice Louvet, president and CEO at Ralph Lauren Corp., said in a statement. “That’s why we are working toward our net-zero goal, and it’s why the U.S. Regenerative Cotton Fund, created through [a] partnership between the Ralph Lauren Corporate Foundation and the Soil Health Institute, complements our goals. We’re honored that this work is recognized as an AIM for Climate Innovation Sprint Partner.”
Aldo Group is another company that is using COP26 to tout its climate commitments. The Canadian footwear manufacturer revealed Monday that it has renewed its climate-neutral certification for the fourth consecutive year. A few weeks ago, Aldo Group enlisted with We Mean Business, an international coalition of more than 600 companies that is asking the world’s largest economies to reinforce their climate action objectives during the G20 and COP26 events. In 2020, the company, which joined the Science Based Targets initiative the year before, cut down emissions from its operations by 74 percent compared with 2013 levels.
“Inspired by the COP21 in Paris six years ago, we made a decision in 2018 to become the first climate-neutral fashion footwear company,” David Bensadoun, CEO of the Aldo Group, a member of the Fashion Charter, said in a statement. “This year’s COP will be a critical meeting—there is massive worldwide support for bold action on climate change. We hope that our participation will contribute in a small way to a very big global challenge.”
Across the industry, a sense of urgency has been building, yet fashion doesn’t get as much attention as obvious polluters in the aviation and automotive industries, said Stella McCartney, one of the industry’s most vocal environmental proponents. Speaking to an audience at COP26 on Monday, the British designer said the future of fashion “looks bleak unless we step up.”
“It’s incredible how the fashion industry has just gone under the radar. Look at us, look at us, look at us, but don’t look at us when it comes to that part of the conversation,” she said. “There’s what feels like gazillions of fashion houses. We’ve got to have a method to measure across the board, there needs to be law on that. Our politicians need to step up.”
Similarly, Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability and institutional affairs officer at Kering, which owns Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga and Gucci, touted the need for policy to “create a level playing field” and “increase the speed of change.”
“However, we must not wait for policy to change—the fashion industry must act today,” she wrote in an op-ed for Vogue Business last week. “The hope is that COP26 results in concrete actions to move the Paris Agreement forward, but action from the private sector is going to be essential to its success. And while COP26 is a rallying cry for our industry to commit and recommit to being better, we must all do the hard work to not only stay on course on emissions reductions but also to restore the natural systems we have relied on for centuries. Only then can we truly be in service to our planet and to our future.”
Daveu added that the industry needs to focus on the supply chain, where 90 percent of its impact occurs, even though “customers cannot see these impacts directly.” Nearly half of fashion’s supply chain, for example, is linked with deforestation, while the world’s waterways are polluted at “all stages of the value chain.”
“By focusing on a radical approach to biodiversity conservation and the multi-benefits of regenerative farming, immediate and positive change for nature and climate is possible—especially across fashion’s key raw material supply chains for cotton, wool, cashmere and leather,” she said. “This will not only change the rules of the game in fashion, but regenerative agriculture is a key game changer for the future.”