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‘Everything’s Urgent’: How Global Fashion Agenda Prioritizes Industry’s Impacts

“Fashion is about change,” said fashion insider Federica Marchionni. “You can let it happen, or you can make it happen.”

The CEO of Global Fashion Agenda (GFA), for one, is about the latter. Writing in the introduction of The GFA Monitor, a new report the sustainability think tank published Monday, she called for “bold commitments, decisive actions and rigorous follow-through” to “put back more into society, the environment and the global economy than it takes out.”

Time is running out. Current efforts, Marchionni noted, fall short of aligning the industry with the goal of limiting additional global warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Nor are they sufficient to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals as laid out by the United Nations.

Marchionni urged fashion leaders to think of the report, which offers consolidated sustainability guidance, as “your companion on your journey.” The GFA Monitor arrives a day before industry movers and shakers descend upon Copenhagen for the Global Fashion Summit, previously known as the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, to converse about all things sustainability. This year’s theme centers on alliances for a new era. In that spirit, the report consulted more than 30 partners and organizations, including the Apparel Impact Institute, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Fair Labor Association and Textile Exchange, to provide expert insights on the state of the sector, available solutions and proven best practices.

“As fashion leaders, you have the power to shape the course of change,” Marchionni said. “You have the power to bring about a net-positive fashion industry that puts back more into society, the environment, and the global economy than it takes out. This report features the progress the industry has made so far. Many of the solutions and tools that fashion needs to improve already exist. It’s time to use them ambitiously. Now, as policies to promote a sustainable fashion industry emerge, it’s more essential than ever to take bold and urgent action.”

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The GFA Monitor builds upon GFA’s previous work with its Fashion CEO Agenda and the Pulse of the Fashion Industry reports, Holly Syrett, the organization’s impact programs and sustainability director and a co-author of the report, told Sourcing Journal. Its framework revolves around five priority areas: respectful and secure work environments, better wage systems, circular systems, resource stewardship and smart materials choices. It’s through action in these areas, she said, that the industry can progress toward fair wages, a significant reduction of conventional virgin resources and decreased emissions that will result in a net-positive fashion industry.

“We want to provide all of the tools that are already out there and really help direct the industry to use what’s been proven as successful,” Syrett said.

The GFA Monitor isn’t a static instrument, she said. Beginning next year, GFA will incorporate indicators that demonstrate progress—or lack thereof—in those different topics through a newly formed partnership with Higg, the sustainability insights and measurement platform. The idea is to create an annual gauge of industry performance that can expose where the biggest pain points are.

Collaboration can’t be just a buzzword, Syrett said. These are issues that are simply too big to tackle alone. Progress, she said, cannot be borne on the backs of the “usual suspects.” Neither can the sector be held accountable if only a fraction of it is working to improve its ecological impact. The UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, for instance, has only 108 signatories. The Fashion Pact has just 71. According to GFA’s 2020 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, 40 percent of the industry is “doing next to nothing” on sustainability.

“It’s been so much work, but it’s been a huge industry consultation and stakeholder collaboration,” she said. “I think it’s really a sign of the times—and with everything that has happened around Covid—that we have to come together as an industry. It’s not helpful having lots of different things happening when we’re just getting in each other’s way.”

One thing that came into focus when GFA was compiling the report was the lack of prominence the sector gives its social impacts over, say, using more recycled fibers, Syrett said. Although conversations about decent work and living wages have been happening for decades, there remains “still so much” to be done. As the industry grapples with a new post-pandemic normal, it’s time for a “more human-centric era,” she said.

This applies to more well-trodden ground in the environmental realm, too.

“What we’re advocating for is more of a global perspective,” Syrett said, pointing out, for example, the “quite big risks” of approaching circularity only from a global North or European perspective. “[As we’re] opening recycling hubs in Europe, having fantastic innovative recycling technologies in Scandinavia, what does that mean for manufacturers in Bangladesh?”

In short, it’s time not only to tackle the hard things but to prioritize them too. This includes developing better social protections for workers, improving purchasing practices and promoting freedom of association.

“It’s not difficult for people to talk about reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, but it’s a lot harder when you’re trying to [weigh] out what’s the value of someone’s wages,” she said. “And because it’s a more difficult topic, it can slip on their priorities. But we feel it has to be prioritized. And we have to collaborate as an industry to improve the livelihoods of those that are not only working within the supply chain but also influenced by it as well.”

With a climate crisis, a global health catastrophe and increasing geopolitical volatility to contend with, stakeholders must “act in lockstep” if a net-positive industry is to be anything but a pipe dream, the report said. Moving away from fossil fuels, whether in coal-powered factories or synthetic materials, is critical, as is decoupling economic growth from the use of natural resources. The trick is getting the buy-in from the silent majority of stakeholders who haven’t engaged in these issues, whether from lack of will or knowledge.

“The urgency has been there for the last years; we don’t believe we need to make anyone aware of that anymore,” Syrett said. “But we do need to give pragmatic tools and see how can we help mobilize that action. When everything’s urgent, do you make something tangible and actionable?”