How Is Fashion Actually Measuring Up To Its Climate Goals?
It’s no secret that fashion needs to drastically slash its greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why a number of major brands have committed to cut emissions by half by 2030 and to reach net zero by 2050, as part of the United Nations’s Fashion Industry Charter For Climate Action, which ramped up its ambition level last year.
Now at Cop27, the UN’s climate change conference taking place in Egypt, the question is exactly how fashion is measuring up to its goals. Currently, all 100-plus signatories of the Fashion Charter have to report their greenhouse gas emissions annually, with 89 per cent of companies submitting data this year (those that fail to comply are removed as signatories). “These accountability requirements are important because it creates that push for brands to go on and do the right thing,” Lindita Xhaferi-Salihu, the Fashion Charter lead at UN Climate Change, tells Vogue.
While the UN is yet to collate the latest figures, initial analysis suggests that, disappointingly, the majority of brands are far from being on track to meet its commitments, after a resurgence of emissions following the lockdowns of 2020. A report by Stand.Earth looked at the progress of 10 major brands (all Fashion Charter signatories) and found that only one of them – Levi’s – was on course to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent by 2030 (a higher benchmark that the UN’s Emissions Gap report in 2021 said was required to keep to the 1.5C limit set out by the Paris Agreement). In fact, the campaign group found that emissions for eight of the brands actually rose last year. It’s worth remembering that these are the companies that have actually signed on to climate commitments – a significant proportion of the industry have not.
“In many cases, emissions did drop during Covid, [but] they’re really climbing back up again. It’s completely out of step with maintaining that 1.5C scenario,” Rachel Kitchin, corporate climate campaigner at Stand.Earth, comments. The pursuit of continuous growth by companies is the elephant in the room that the industry still needs to reckon with. “It’s essential for [brands] to take action now to stop feeding the growth of fossil fuels for power and switch to renewable energy, phase out coal from the supply chain, and really look at how they’re using fossil-fuel derived materials,” she continues.
While some of the brands dispute the methodology used by Stand.Earth (H&M, for example, says that “the increase of emissions due to the recovery [following Covid] is definitely not the way we see forward”), it’s clear that a huge amount of work still needs to be done. Based on the UN Fashion Charter’s own figures from 2020, just 15 per cent of signatories were on track for the 1.5C pathway, while around 30 per cent were on target for the 2C pathway.
Considering that the production and processing of textiles is responsible for the majority of the industry’s footprint, materials are a crucial part of the puzzle. Last year, Fashion Charter signatories made a new commitment to ensure all priority materials – such as cotton, viscose, polyester, wool and leather – are low climate impact by 2030. But a recent report from Textile Exchange also concluded that not enough was being done to meet current climate commitments.
“Global fibre production reached an all-time high again in 2021 after a slight decline due to Covid the previous year,” Claire Bergkamp, Textile Exchange’s chief operating officer, says. “It is expected to grow [again] in 2030 if business as usual continues. Without rethinking untethered growth, the industry will not stay within the 1.5C pathway. We will need both replacement and reduction, as well as innovation and partnership to allow us to advance and scale known solutions.”
The need for tangible solutions is why the UN Fashion Charter added a requirement for signatories to submit relevant reduction pathway plans last year. “What are the actions they will be taking? Do they have the necessary support internally and externally to actually make it happen? What are some of the contingency plans that they will put in place if they can’t achieve those targets?” Xhaferi-Salihu says of the questions that’ll be asked of brands.
It’s also why the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has partnered with the Global Fashion Agenda to launch a new Fashion Industry Target Consultation in order to set concrete milestones that will help the industry to become net-positive. These will focus on five key areas: respectful and secure work environments, better wage systems, resource stewardship, smart material choices and circular systems. “What are the actual steps the industry needs to reduce carbon emissions, but also for a much broader group of sustainability topics?” explains Holly Syrett, Global Fashion Agenda’s impact programmes and sustainability director.
How to actually deliver on current commitments is a key theme for Cop27 as a whole – and the fashion industry is no different. “The ambition is there, but going forward our focus is [going to be] on accountability,” Xhaferi-Salihu concludes.