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Can Fashion Truly Decarbonize? Only if Rivals ‘Put Competition Aside’

Is fashion finally getting serious about carbon?

On Thursday, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) announced a new decarbonization program, one that the trade group said will “support” and “drive” the industry’s efforts to check its ballooning emissions.

Joyce Tsoi, head of collective action at the SAC, admitted that clothing and footwear production’s current trajectory, which is responsible for anywhere between 2 percent and 10 percent of the global carbon budget, is “well off pace” to deliver the 45 percent absolute reduction needed by 2030 to limit global warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.

“Right now, the fashion industry is not on track to hit net zero by 2050,” she said. “We need to be accelerating the actions now.”

The program will first require members from Amazon to Zara to commit to and set Science Based Targets to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from 2023, said the organization, whose roster makes up roughly half of the apparel and footwear sectors.

From there, the SAC will take a “collaborative approach” to wrench the levers that the World Resources Institute and Apparel Impact Institute have identified as wielding the greatest impact, including maximizing material efficiency, scaling sustainable materials and practices, improving energy efficiency, accelerating the development of “next generation” materials, eliminating coal in manufacturing and shifting to renewable energy.

“Our position as a convener of around half the sector means that we have a unique opportunity to leverage and influence the scale and impact of our community to get the industry back on track and deliver emissions reduction in line with Science Based Targets, to prevent the worst impacts of climate change,” Tsoi said. This includes providing a space where companies can “put competition aside” to share insights, best practices and even join forces with shared manufacturing facilities, she added.

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Fashion’s carbon struggles are nothing new, with environmentalists long sounding the alarm on the lack of progress on lofty climate goals. Last month, Stand.earth warned that brands and retailers were nowhere close to hewing to Paris Agreement targets because of their continued reliance on fossil fuels. If anything, it said, their climate burdens were getting heavier.

“If climate action is a catwalk, most of these brands are still looking for the dressing room,” said Rachel Kitchin, corporate climate campaigner for Stand.earth. “The data is clear, the leading fashion brands need to step up and do more to lower their carbon emissions.”

Most of the industry agrees that this isn’t a problem one company can tackle on its own. (The SAC’s annual meeting, held in Singapore last month, was themed “Collective Action on Common Ground.”) Whether it can put aside individual financial interests for this shared purpose, however, is one question. Who will foot the bill for making the necessary investments, particularly in a cost-of-living crisis, is another.

“There’s an urgency for us to tackle the current climate crisis,” said Delman Lee, vice chair at TAL Apparel, a longtime Brooks Brothers supplier. “We must take more actions where value chain partners should be equally engaged and motivate each other to drive urgent actions to reduce emissions as a shared objective.”

There are signs of change—and loosening purse strings. Target and Calvin Klein owner PVH Corp. recently threw $10 million apiece behind Apparel Impact Institute’s $250 million Fashion Impact Fund, whose goal is to identify, fund and scale verified solutions to decarbonize the fashion supply chain. H&M Group, a founding donor, has also vowed to invest an annual 3 billion Swedish kroner ($291 million) to phase out coal, scale up better-for-the-planet practices and promote next-generation materials.

On Thursday, Bestseller revealed plans to install solar panels on the roofs of partner factories in Bangladesh, which the Danish retailer said will “integrate renewable energy” into the production of its goods.

“We’re very aware that the majority of our total climate footprint is from our indirect value chain,” said CEO and owner Anders Holch Povlsen. “It’s crucial that the factories we collaborate with also have better opportunities to use renewable energy. With this initiative, we want to strengthen our suppliers’ opportunity to invest in more sustainable solutions for the benefit of their own companies, their local communities, our business and the entire green transition.”

The initiative will kick off next year with the Jack & Jones owner’s strategic supplier Body Fashion Limited in Gazipur. The panels will be installed by Green Garments Initiative, a company established by Bestseller parent Heartland and the cleantech company SolShare.

“The project is the first joint venture between an international fashion brand and a climate technology company in Bangladesh,” said Sebastian Groh, managing director and co-founder of SolShare. “We look forward to building solar plants across Bestseller’s suppliers via a close collaboration based on dialogue and fast and reliable execution.”

Also on Thursday, the Fashion Pact, a coalition of 75 CEOs from brands such as Adidas, Burberry and Chanel, touted a Collective Virtual Power Purchase Agreement, or CVPPA, aimed at expanding renewable energy adoption in Europe.

So far the heads of a dozen companies—Bally, Capri Holdings, Ermenegildo Zegna Group, Farfetch, Ferragamo, Kering, Prada Group, PVH Corp., Ralph Lauren, Tapestry, Under Armour and Zimmermann—have individually committed to procuring renewable electricity for use across their operations.

The project, which will run in partnership with the energy and technical consultancies Guidehouse and 2050, seeks to add more than 100,000 megawatt hours per year of new renewable electricity generation to the grid, the equivalent of eliminating roughly 24,400 cars from the road.

“The Fashion Pact was created to bring together fashion and textile industry players to set practical objectives for reducing the environmental impact of their industry,” said François-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of Kering, who has spearheaded the organization since its creation at the G7 Summit in 2019.

The CVPPA, he said, is a “clear illustration” that companies can be “part of the solution” if they move beyond mandatory requirements and work together.

“Using 100 percent renewable energy across our own operations by 2030 is one of the concrete, science-based targets that we all agreed on,” said Pinault, who will make way for a new Fashion Pact chief next year. “We are now taking action with the launch of this Collective Virtual Power Purchase Agreement aimed at accelerating the transition to clean energy.”

This first iteration of the CVPPA is just a “testing ground,” according to the Fashion Pact. Eventually, it will be joined by future programs across other geographies and include other industry stakeholders interested in whittling their own emissions.

“Joint action is critical to driving solutions that address the fashion industry’s contributions to climate change,” said Stefan Larsson, CEO of PVH Corp. “The Collective Virtual Power Purchase Agreement conveys that industry leaders are taking action to drive progress against renewable electricity targets and demonstrates the value of collective effort in tackling the fashion industry’s carbon footprint.”