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Fossil Fuels Are the ‘Elephant in the Room’ Fashion’s Happy to Ignore

Fashion is still struggling to kick its fossil-fuel addiction, and its continued reliance on dirty coal and petrochemical-derived materials undermine its sustainability efforts amid a worsening climate emergency, environmental campaigners warned Tuesday.

Stand.earth’s annual Fossil-Free Fashion Scorecard delved into the 2030 commitments of 47 leading brands and retailers. Nearly three-quarters of them, including American Eagle Outfitters, Boohoo, Prada and Uniqlo, flunked the evaluation. Even sustainability leaders such as Eileen Fisher, Patagonia and Kering received middling to failing grades on impact areas such as climate commitments, energy-efficient manufacturing, renewable energy advocacy, low-carbon materials and greener shipping.

Leading the class with the report’s sole B-minus was Mammut, the Swiss outdoor-wear maker that recently pledged to transition to 100 percent renewable energy. It was followed by Nike, which copped a C-plus, then Asics, Levi’s, Puma and The North Face owner VF Corp., which all received Cs. Filling out the top 10 were Adidas, Arc’teryx, H&M and Patagonia, which were awarded C-minuses.

Though sportswear firms tended to perform better, Stand.earth dinged Lululemon with a D- for “taking no meaningful action to get rid of coal and deploy renewable energy in its manufacturing.” Among the fast-fashion chains, Zara owner Inditex, the biggest apparel retailer by revenue, barely eked by a D. The reason? “Its increasing dependence on cheap, fossil fuel fabrics like polyester and for demonstrating little progress in decarbonizing its manufacturing,” the report’s authors wrote.

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The “runway to 2030” is getting shorter every day, yet the industry remains in a holding pattern, Muhannad Malas, senior climate campaigner at Stand.earth, told Sourcing Journal. “It’s quite troubling to see the persistent inaction in the sector,” he said. “We’re less than eight-and-a-half years away from 2030. And we continue to see companies putting out more promises and making commitments, but not really backing up their commitments with action.”

Malas said the situation wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. “One of the encouraging findings of the scorecard is that there are several brands that have shown considerable progress over the last couple of years in tackling their emissions, becoming more transparent, investing in renewable energy and starting to also look at how their materials and shipping contributes to the emissions problem,” he said.

Asics, for instance, reported that it has eliminated all on-site coal burning at its Tier 1 facilities, while Allbirds has committed to achieving 100 percent renewable energy for its Tier 1 suppliers. In 2020, H&M, Levi’s, and VF Corp. signed letters to the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam cautioning against plans to increase coal-fired power and requesting a pilot program to purchase renewables. And last September, VF Corp subsidiary Icebreaker committed to phasing out all fossil synthetics, including recycled versions, from all its product lines by 2023—the only brand to do so.

But brands and retailers need to turbocharge their ambitions, especially in light of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which sounded a “code red for humanity” over “unequivocal” human-caused climate change that will continue to ramp up temperatures to scorching highs. Only Asics, Mammut and REI have set climate targets robust enough to meet the scale required to align with the Paris Accord’s 1.5-degree Celsius pathway, according to Stand.earth.

“There’s definitely some troubling trends of greenwashing where companies continue to focus on commitments that may generate positive PR attention, but when you really start digging deeper into what they’re committing to, you find that those commitments do not include aggressive emission reduction targets or commitments to move to renewable energy,” Malas said.

Even strategies centered around “carbon neutrality” or “climate positivity” frequently fall short if they eschew absolute emissions reductions targets for carbon offsets or renewable energy targets for renewable energy credits, Malas said. “It means the company is not really focused on cutting its emissions, but rather potentially continuing to increase its emissions while finding ways to take credit for the emissions elsewhere,” he added.

Regenerative agriculture, too, isn’t a solution if it’s conducted in isolation. “If [brands] are not really investing in renewable energy in the supply chain and if they’re not really reducing their emissions, then that could be meaningless and a waste of resources,” Malas said.

A circularity ‘wrong turn’

Meanwhile, the apparel industry needs to decouple itself from synthetic fibers such as polyester, which is derived from fracked gas and should be anathema to any climate-conscious company, Stand.earth noted.

“With the booming use of polyester in the fashion sector, fracking is not only a climate issue but also a significant environmental justice issue in the United States and other countries due to its toxic pollution in local communities,” Malas said. “It’s not something that fashion brands should be promoting and they need to get out of that business model very quickly.”

Another of Stand.earth’s criticisms: While many brands and retailers are phasing out virgin polyester and other fossil-fuel-based fabrics as part of “sustainable material” commitments, they’re also “doubling down” on fibers made from recycled plastic waste, which the organization says is ultimately destined for the landfill. Recycled polyester is also synonymous with recycled plastic bottles, Malas said. Not only does employing this model continue to “reap the use of virgin fossil fuels” but it also results in a circularity “wrong turn,” he added.

Shipping is another industry “blind spot,” even though decarbonizing shipping could lead to a 10 percent reduction in emissions across the supply chain, Malas said. Fewer than half the companies assessed by Stand.earth paid shipping any heed in their supply chain emissions reduction targets. Only Mammut has committed to shifting to zero-emission shipping vessels by 2030.

“Some brands have made commitments or taken steps to reduce air freight, which is a huge contributor to emissions, so that’s a really positive trend that we’re seeing in the sector,” he said. “But as companies move from air freight to more maritime shipping, we need to make sure that these brands are also thinking about, ‘O.K., how do we make sure that we’re not increasing the emission from the cargo that we’re shipping?’”

Malas said the aim of the scorecard isn’t just naming and shaming but to compel brands and retailers to think deeply about how they can knock fossil fuels out of the equation. Doing so isn’t just good for Mother Nature, he said, but it’s also a savvy business decision since consumers are increasingly aware of the urgency of the climate crisis. Climate change/protecting the environment is among the top three concerns for millennials, according to a recent Deloitte survey. For Gen Z, it was their No. 1.

“One of the elephants in the room has always been fossil fuels—you don’t really hear commitments around moving the supply chain off of fossil fuels,” he said. “The goal of this scorecard is to provide companies with that sort of roadmap toward how they could become true climate leaders and ensure that they are redesigning their business model, as they’re coming back from the Covid-19 pandemic, around a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels from across the entire value chain.”

Sourcing Journal reached out to all the brands that were mentioned in this story for comment.

H&M said it agreed that the “necessary change is not going fast enough,” adding that it’s a founding member of The Race to Zero Breakthroughs: Retail Campaign, which “aims to create a movement in the retail industry to drive climate action.”

“We acknowledge the report’s conclusions on the necessity of an accelerated shift of the whole industry, strong climate actions and an absolute reduction of carbon emissions,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “H&M Group is on our journey towards becoming climate positive no later than 2040, of which one step is to achieve a climate-neutral supply chain by 2030. But to achieve a systemic change—industry-wide collaboration is key. Today only 5 percent of the global retail industry by revenue has committed to take action to limit global warming in accordance with the Paris Agreement goals.”

A representative from Adidas said the company values feedback from its stakeholders and despite ranking among the top 10 wants to “consistently push to improve our climate protection efforts further.” The sportswear Goliath also said it plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025 and has committed to reducing the carbon footprint per product by 15 percent by 2025.

“We have also committed to reduce carbon emissions in our complete supply chain by 30 percent by 2030, compared to 2017, and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050,” the spokesperson said. “Our targets have been approved by the Science Based Targets initiative.”

Eileen Fisher said it “acknowledges” the conclusions of Stand.earth’s report and the need to accelerate its reduction of emissions.

“We work with organizations like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and B Corp to understand the impact of our business practices and authenticate the progress we’ve made,” Shona Quinn, director of social consciousness, told Sourcing Journal. “While the pandemic hit us hard and we’ve lost some momentum, we continue investing in sustainability and addressing all the areas Stand.earth is evaluating.”

A member of the Fashion Pact, Prada said it has always been committed to reducing its environmental impact, “especially in terms of CO2 emissions, investing a lot of resources at a global scale in renewable energy procurement, LEED certifications of its premises, LED technology and continuously updating its heating and conditioning systems.” The luxury house said it has committed to the Science Based Targets initiative and more updates on that front will be coming shortly.

“With regards to the Stand.earth’s new ‘fossil-free fashion’ report, we are currently studying it to improve our score in the future,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal.

Editor‘s note: This story was updated on Aug. 31, 2021, to include a statement from Prada.