The Covid-19 pandemic has plunged the fashion industry into the fight of its life. The situation is bound to get worse before it gets better, and recovery may feel like a distant dream, but the seismic shock of the coronavirus will be nothing compared to the existential peril of climate change, a new report by a leading environmental organization warned Thursday.
It’s critical, therefore, that apparel and footwear makers focus on breaking their supply chains away from fossil fuels as they emerge on the other side of the crisis, said Stand.earth, which outlined steps such as the use of renewable energy, more sustainable materials and eco-friendlier shipping.
Failure to do so would be nothing short of catastrophic: The sector accounts for 8.1 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions, or as much as the total climate impact of the entire European Union, according to environmental consultancy Quantis. Euromonitor analysts have further cautioned that fashion’s annual 5 percent growth, which could increase annual production to more than 100 million tons by 2030, risks “exerting an unprecedented strain on planetary resources.”
Yet despite climate change emerging as a banner issue for industry bosses in 2019, most brands have yet to take the steps necessary to contract their carbon footprints and ditch their dependence on fossil fuels in their supply chains, said Stand.earth, which has offices in San Francisco, Washington and Vancouver.
A 2019 study by the nonprofit found that only two major fashion companies—Levi Strauss and American Eagle—have committed to Science Based 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, such as extreme temperatures and unprecedented natural disasters.
Even the industry-wide recommendation of 30 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030, as put forward by the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Change, falls “far short” of the 55 percent in cuts that climate scientists say are needed in the next 10 years to stay within the 1.5 degrees Celsius range.
Fashion still relies heavily on coal-fired supply chains for electricity and heat generation, fossil-fuel-derived synthetic materials such as polyester and highly polluting shipping by air and sea.
The fast-fashion churn, in particular, has turbocharged consumption of the industry’s take-make-waste business model, with 97 percent of the materials used stemming from virgin sources and the majority made from fossil fuels, Stand.earth said. The aforementioned polyester, which the group says can promote fracking, currently comprises more than two-thirds of the materials used in apparel.
All of which is to say that it’s now more imperative than ever for fashion companies to turn their promises into meaningful action as part of their post-Covid-19 strategy.
“Despite commitments to slash their emissions, the fashion industry’s supply chain saw more dirty coal, more fossil fuel-based fabrics and more delivery by highly polluting cargo ships prior to the Covid-19 outbreak,” Gary Cook, global climate campaigns director at Stand.earth, said in a statement. “As brands look to restart after the pandemic, the industry must implement concrete, collaborative efforts to tackle its pollution problem through a combination of rapidly transitioning factories to renewables, eliminating fracked fabrics like polyester and greening up shipping.”
Brands, Stand.earth said, should aim to reject coal and transition to a renewably powered supply chain by 2030, form partnerships with suppliers to share capital costs and advocate with suppliers to block new investments in coal while demanding clean energy policies to green electric grids and the transportation infrastructure.
To reduce the climate impacts of how their products are shipped, brands must support solutions like slowing ships and eliminating “dirty fuels” in the short term and a decarbonization strategy by the end of the decade in the long term. They must also commit to sourcing lower-carbon and longer-lasting materials, phasing out fossil-fuel-based plastic fabrics such as polyester.
On top of that, fashion businesses should steer clear of pitfalls such as “false ‘clean’ energy transitions” from coal to fracked gas or coal to biomass and “greenwashing initiatives” such as renewable energy credits and carbon offsets, Stand.earth said.
As the coronavirus brings into focus the value of environmental and social responsibility, the post-pandemic consumer will gravitate toward brands they see are making progress on their sustainability goals, the non-profit said. And indeed, a recent survey found that 85 percent of Americans have been thinking about sustainability the same amount or more since the outbreak. In another poll, 57 percent of respondents across eight countries indicated a desire for businesses to strengthen sustainability efforts in 2021. People on the whole are shopping less and reevaluating their values more, experts say, and half-hearted corporate measures and nebulous virtue signaling may no longer pass muster.
“Rather than trying to make a pre-pandemic business model marginally more sustainable, the Covid-19 crisis offers a critical opportunity for the fashion industry to rethink key aspects of how it operates,” said Liz McDowell, director of campaign strategies at Stand.earth. “Now is the time for brands to rebuild their business model and supply chain around a rapid decrease in fossil fuels over the next decade. By doing this, the fashion industry can transform from being one of the world’s largest climate polluters to catalyzing the decarbonization of our global economy.”