Planet Earth is burning. Is fashion stoking the flames?
The answer, while far more complicated than a simple yes or no, is far from reassuring, according to recent assessments of the industry’s climate efforts.
The latest of the lot, the Fossil-Free Fashion Scorecard published Wednesday by the environmental nonprofit Stand.earth, asserts that more than 40 of the most influential fashion companies have failed to “show leadership” in ridding their supply chains of coal, oil and other fossil fuels, which in turn is undermining their ability to cut emissions at the scale necessary to keep global temperatures from rising past 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
A proliferation of commitments by brands and retailers over recent years aside, overall progress has been “insufficient” and “extremely disappointing,” said the report, which awarded just over half of the 43 companies it examined a D average based on their climate ambitions, renewable energy use and advocacy, material choices and shipping footprint. Despite just seven years remaining in the Paris Agreement, no company obtained an A. The highest-scoring firm, H&M Group, copped a B- for making the most progress relative to its peers, particularly for promoting the shift to renewable energy with its suppliers. While it outstrips competitors like Zara parent Inditex, which garnered a D+, the Swedish retailer still has a “lot of work to do” in terms of its reliance on synthetic materials and the fast-fashion model, Stand.earth said.
“Shockingly,” six nameplates—Boohoo, Chloé owner Richemont, Mountain Equipment Co-operative (MEC), Salvatore Ferragamo, Shein and Prada—flunked out with matching Fs. These, the report said, have failed to disclose any meaningful action to decarbonize their supply chains, a complaint that extends to the luxury category as a whole, with the exception of the C-rating—and environmental-goal-exceeding—Kering, the parent of Balenciaga and Gucci. Lululemon, Stand.earth’s longtime nemesis, earned a C-. While the yogi outfitter is making strides, it still “lags behind” its rivals in setting aggressive climate and energy objectives, the watchdog group pointed out. Amazon, which shareholders said last year could end up posing a “climate risk,” squeaked by with a D-.
MEC said that Stand.earth’s timeline did not allow for its current work and initiatives to make the scorecard’s cutoff, but that it hopes to improve its grade next year. Ditto for Boohoo, which said that it’s in the middle of compiling an ESG report that will “update our progress against the targets in our sustainability strategy,” including one to reduce Scope 3 emissions by 52 percent by 2030, relative to growth. A spokesperson for Prada told Sourcing Journal that the group has been “constantly investing” in energy-efficiency projects and initiatives, aimed at reducing its energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions, since 2014.
An H&M spokesperson said that the company is “proud” of its scorecard standing. “In consideration of the threats which the progressing climate crisis has on the environment and societies, we stay humble and focused on our commitment to accelerate climate action beyond our value chain and the minimum ambition needed to align with 1.5-degree Celsius science,” the representative said. “We continue to work hard on achieving net-zero by 2040 and to accelerate the shift of the whole industry; strong climate action and rapid and deep reductions of greenhouse-gas emissions.”
The other companies did not respond to a request for comment.
Rachel Kitchin, corporate climate campaigner at Stand.earth, characterized the landscape as one riddled with “small pockets of progress.” Two years ago, when the first Fossil-Free Fashion Scorecard came out, she would have given the industry a blanket F. She’s feeling more generous these days, however. “I think we’re starting to see an industry that’s shifting its gears and kind of preparing itself to start moving, but it’s happening far too slowly,” Kitchin said. “The runway is getting shorter.”
The urgency is even more acute in light of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “final warning” this week. Without a severe course correction to “defuse the climate time bomb,” as United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres put it, the severe weather conditions brought on by increased warming will wreak untold damage on nature and humanity. And there will be no turning back, with the choices and actions made this decade reverberating for “thousands of years.”
“This report is a clarion call to massively fast-track climate efforts by every country and every sector and on every timeframe,” Guterres said Monday, before namedropping this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture. “Our world needs climate action on all fronts: everything, everywhere, all at once.” Reiterating his pleas for richer countries to swerve away from fossil fuels, he said that humanity is “on thin ice—and that ice is melting fast.”
“I think the IPCC report should, as ever, be a real wake-up call,” Kitchin said. “The phrase that they used was, I believe, ‘rapid, deep and immediate’ emissions cuts this decade. And that means that it has to be happening now and it should have been happening years ago.”
She noted that only five brands—Allbirds, Asics, Puma, H&M and Kering—have committed to switching some or all of their production to clean energy. Meanwhile, some of the luxury companies Stand.earth assessed had Scope 3 targets of 10 percent, which are not only underwhelming in ambition but “so far behind what’s needed.” The change, Kitchin added, needs to “happen immediately” because “we can’t afford to wait.”
Last month, Carbon Market Watch and the NewClimate Institute estimated that net-zero pledges made by 24 of the world’s top corporations will whittle their greenhouse-gas emissions by only 36 percent. H&M was among just five to pledge to decarbonize their emissions by at least 90 percent by their respective net-zero target years. The climate strategies of Amazon, Uniqlo owner Fast Retailing, Inditex and Walmart, on the other hand, were described as “low integrity” and “wholly insufficient” to meet the 1.5-degree Celsius trajectory.
A representative from Fast Retailing told Sourcing Journal that it has been making “steady progress” in its sustainability initiatives after formulating its 2030 target and action plan but that it welcomes “dialogue and scrutiny” of its commitments. Walmart said that it was the first retailer to set science-based targets and that the report “mischaracterizes” its goals to achieve zero emissions—not “net zero”—across its Scope 1 and 2 operations by 2040 and help reduce or avoid 1 billion metric tons of emissions in its Scope 3 value chain by 2030.
Amazon said that it’s working to reach net-zero carbon by 2040 and that it has already attained 85 percent of its goal to power operations with 100 percent renewable energy. It’s also decarbonizing its transportation network with electric vehicles and squashing the environmental impact of its buildings. “Some actions will have immediate carbon savings, while others will take years to demonstrate results—and we will continue to invest in both proven and new science-backed solutions to help solve this crisis,” a spokesperson said.
Still, Carbon Market Watch and the NewClimate Institute said that most corporate 2030 targets “cannot be taken at face value.” Many of their targets, the report said, address only a “limited” scope of emissions sources, such as only direct emissions (Scope 1) or emissions from procured energy (Scope 2) and only selected other indirect emissions categories (Scope 3). For others, 2030 targets are “misleading” due to a reliance on offsetting. Or to put it another way, greenwashing.
“The rapid acceleration of corporate climate pledges, combined with the fragmentation of approaches, means that it is more difficult than ever to distinguish between real climate leadership and unsubstantiated greenwashing,” the report said. “This is compounded by a general lack of regulatory oversight at international, national and sectoral levels. Identifying and promoting real climate leadership, and sorting it from greenwashing, is a key challenge that, where addressed, has the potential to unlock greater global climate change mitigation ambition.”
What it comes down to is that brands must “actively and supportively [engage] their suppliers in order to make the transition happen,” Kitchin said. Even the better-performing firms are only at the “beginning of their journey.”
“They can’t hide behind the fact that these aren’t their own operations,” she said. “They are responsible for these emissions because they’re coming in order to make their products and to feed their profits.”