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Does the Fashion Industry Need Another Sustainability Pact?

More than 20 fashion brands and retailers, including H&M, Kering and Zara owner Inditex, are expected to convene at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, this weekend for the signing of a global pact to tackle issues such as climate change, biodiversity and ocean health.

Led by Kering CEO and chairman François-Henri Pinault, who was tasked by French president Emmanuel Macron in May to spearhead efforts to green one of country’s tentpole industries, the initiative is expected to rally signatories around targets such as eliminating disposable plastics within three years or switching to renewable power by 2030.

“It will be the first time the private sector is showing something at the G7,” Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer at Kering told reporters Thursday. “We have great momentum, but the most important challenge is to be sure that the fashion pact will become a reality. It is key to define quantitative targets with a specific deadline and work together to achieve them.”

The fashion industry is coming under increased pressure to reduce its environmental footprint, which currently accounts for 8.1 percent of global greenhouse-gas emission—or as much as the total climate impact of the entire European Union, according to environmental consultancy Quantis. Already, activists from Extinction Rebellion are planning to cause roadblocks and other disruptions at London Fashion Week next month after calls to cancel the event in the face of a “climate and ecological emergency” went unheeded by the British Fashion Council.

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“Fashion should be a cultural signifier of our times, and yet it still adheres to anarchic system of seasonal fashion and relentless newness at a time of emergency,” activists wrote on Instagram.

British lawmakers recently rejected recommendations by the cross-political Environmental Audit Committee at the House of Commons to “fix” fashion. Suggestions included a one-penny charge per garment that would fund a national clothing-recycling scheme, a ban on incinerating or landfilling unsold stock, a virgin-plastic tax on textile products containing less than 50 percent recycled PET, mandatory environmental targets for apparel companies with a turnover above 36 million pounds ($44.1 million) and “clear economic incentives” for businesses that offer repair services for clothes.

Commitment fatigue?

But while the increasingly urgency of action by the fashion industry is without question, the addition of another global pact isn’t. The past couple of years have seen the assembly of a number of agreements. As it is, H&M, Inditex and Kering are members of the United Nations’ Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action to collectively achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. H&M and Inditex are also among the 350 signatories of the New Plastics Economy Commitment, headed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the United Nations Environmental Programme, to increase the recycled content of their packaging from a current global average of 2 percent to 25 percent by 2025. The Sustainable Clothing Action Plan 2020 has committed 85 of the United Kingdom’s leading apparel retailers, charity shops and clothing recyclers to whittle their carbon, water and waste-to-landfill footprints by 15 percent and waste across the product life cycle by 3.5 percent by 2020.

Most visibly, the Global Fashion Agenda, the sustainability think tank that organizes the Copenhagen Fashion Summit every June, has the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment—H&M and Kering are both Strategic Partners on the steering committee, and Inditex is also a signatory.

But a recent “Year Two” report found that the commitment’s 90 participating brands and retailers have made just 21 percent progress toward goals designed to accelerate fashion’s entry into the circular economy, the Global Fashion Agenda said. Similarly, the organization observed in May that the fashion industry’s efforts to improve its social and environmental profile have slowed by about a third.

It’s also unclear what brands and retailers will be promising at G7 that they haven’t already. Inditex made headlines last month when it announced a raft of sustainability targets, including using only 100 percent sustainable viscose and organic, sustainable or recycled cotton, linen and polyester by 2025. Among H&M’s ambitions is to use only 100 percent recycled or sustainable materials by 2030 and achieve a “climate-positive” value chain by 2040. Kering’s 2025 Sustainability Strategy has likewise laid out a precise roadmap for what the luxury conglomerate wants to achieve, such as a 50 percent reduction in Scopes 1 to 3 carbon emissions by 2025.

The fashion industry, in short, loves a good chinwag, but will more of the same move things along at this point? That’s the trillion-dollar question.