AAFA president and chief executive officer chats with panelists including Amina Razvi, executive director of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

On the banquet tables at the American Apparel and Footwear Association’s annual executive summit at the Conrad Washington, D.C., there were iPhone charging stations, mini-hand sanitizer bottles bearing the AAFA label, and jugs of water. Conspicuously missing were plastic water bottles — instead, guests received metal Patagonia cups. 

The omission was intentional, AAFA president and chief executive officer Stephen Lamar told the audience of apparel, textile and other retail industry executives.

Words are nice but it’s more than just about the words, it’s about the doing,” he said on Wednesday, the summit’s second day. “In the interest of reducing single-use plastics, you won’t see bottled water.”  

The AAFA board had just voted on Tuesday to create a c-suite level sustainability committee, the first issue committee the industry group has created at the board level. 

The need for action on climate change is at a critical point, environmental experts have said. To stop irreversible global warming, carbon dioxide emissions must become “net zero” by 2050, according to a U.N. Climate Action Summit report in December, which said that such a target demands an “urgent and unprecedented social and economic transformation.”

Meanwhile, the Global Fashion Agenda, a sustainability-focused fashion industry group, has said that without active corporate change, greenhouse gas emissions from textile production will increase by more than 60 percent by 2030, according to its CEO Agenda 2020, issued in January and cowritten by fashion and retail companies including H&M, Nike Inc., PVH Corp. and Target Corp. 

Although sustainability programs are in vogue, with major brands touting their eco-friendly efforts in recent years, the numbers point to a systemic problem bigger than individual brand efforts, said Avi Garbow, environmental advocate at Patagonia Inc.

He said the challenge requires more close coordination with suppliers across the chain and ensuring that production, especially overseas, meets environmental goals. 

“Everyone’s got a sustainability program, and they define them differently,” Garbow told WWD at the event. “Let’s not focus on low-hanging fruit.” 

Even expanding government regulatory oversight in the U.S. “is not going to capture the industry created outside our shores,” Garbow said, referring to raw material and finished goods production taking place in factories overseas.   

The summit’s second day unfolded as results of the Super Tuesday elections vaulted Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden to front-runner status, while his counterpart Michael Bloomberg said Wednesday that he was suspending his own presidential run. The event’s attendees generally declined to discuss politics on the record — Patagonia’s Garbow would say only that he believes “climate change shouldn’t be political” — though some did exchange excited whispers during the event about Biden’s surprise comeback and the likelihood of Bloomberg now helping to fund his campaign instead.  

The environmental nonprofit Greenpeace, which has evaluated the Democratic field’s climate change policies, gives Biden a B-plus, in part for his climate plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Biden’s main competition at this point, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, clinched an A-plus from Greenpeace for his advocacy for a Green New Deal that envisions a complete switch to renewable energy, and which argues for greater accountability for the fossil fuel industry.  

Fashion company executives said one of their main challenges lies gauging what metrics fashion companies should be monitoring, and in devising a way to measure the industry’s impact.

“We use a lot of energy in our industry,” said Sarah Clarke, executive vice president, PVH Supply North America, PVH Corp. and AAFA secretary. “We’re trying to figure out how to even measure it.”

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