This Jan. 6, 2014 photo shows a stream running through a wooded area in Lakehurst, N.J. On March 25, 2019, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection ordered five companies that make chemicals used to stain-proof clothing and make non-stick cookware to fund a plan to clean up contamination of the state's environment, including waterways, that have been tainted by the presence of the chemicals. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

While the last four years haven’t exactly been marked by avid environmentalism among U.S. political leaders, the next four may be greener.

That’s according to experts, who expect the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden to make some key and critical strides in stemming the tide of the climate crisis.

For fashion, that may mean greater support for things like decarbonization, a shift to renewables and efforts to realize a more circular economy.

“There is going to be attention toward environmental issues in this next administration, certainly a circular economy and sustainability will continue to be top of mind both for retailers, brands, consumers and employees,” said Shelley Kohan, adjunct professor of retail at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management who also teaches courses at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “There’s definitely a perspective from the Biden-Harris initiatives on environmental impact from a business perspective, so I definitely believe that long term there can be a profound impact on sustainability in the fashion and retail industries.”

Biden, as part of his Build Back Better plan, has said he will launch a “national effort” designed to build a more sustainable and resilient economy that, according to his web site, sets the U.S. on “an irreversible path to achieve net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050.” Part of the plan includes what he has called sustainable job creation and investing in new, innovative industries “commercialized into new and better products that can be manufactured and built by American workers; and put together using feedstocks, materials and parts supplied by small businesses, family farms and job creators all across our country.”

It’s a commitment that diverges from those of the outgoing Trump administration and one that has many in sustainability keen to see what takes shape.

First up may be reentering the Paris Agreement, a worldwide effort signed in 2016 to keep the increase in global temperatures this century to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and ultimately limit it even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. President Trump said in 2017, to much controversy, that the U.S. would exit the Paris Agreement, saying at the time that it “disadvantages the United States,” but the formal withdrawal just took effect on Nov. 4, the day after the 2020 election. In its exit, the U.S. leaves nearly 200 other countries aligned in fighting the climate crisis, though Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris — both skewing pro-environmental — have already expressed their intent to rejoin the agreement.

“President-elect Biden ran on climate, he won on climate, he immediately was tweeting about climate and getting back into the Paris climate agreement on Day One — they have very strong climate commitments on the transition web site, so I think it’s clear,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, which has kept tabs on how members of Congress (current and former) have voted on environmental issues. “[Harris] has been a longtime champion both for climate action and environmental justice even before she got to the Senate. She started the first environmental crimes unit in the San Francisco district attorney’s office. Then as the attorney general of California she defended California’s climate laws and then she’s really built on that in the Senate with the introduction of bills like the Climate Equity Act and the Environmental Justice for All Act.”

Biden, per the LCV’s scorecard, has an 83 percent lifetime score (out of 100), meaning he has averaged a solid “B” with far more pro-environment votes than anti during his Senate tenure. Harris charts a 91 percent lifetime score and in the last two years, she has been in favor on all environmentally tied issues she voted on.

“The thing that I think is really great is the way that both President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris talk about the four interwoven crises that we face — of the coronavirus pandemic, economy and economic inequality, racism and climate change — and that the solutions to all of those are interconnected. And as grim and awful as 2020 has been, that there is such an opportunity to rebuild our economy in a way that is more equitable,” Sittenfeld said. “It’s been clear as they pivot to the transition that it remains a very top priority and that they’re going to get going with ambitious action right away and that’s such a relief because, clearly, the threat from the climate crisis in particular — but also threats to our air, our water, our land — have never been greater.”

Impacts for fashion

When it comes to how the new administration addresses these threats in ways that have obvious impacts for fashion, Julia K. Hughes, president of the United States Fashion Industry Association, believes Harris will have a lot to bring to the table.

“I’m excited about Vice President-elect Harris because California is already a leader in the commitment to look at how to develop programs to support sustainability, recycling, eliminate waste from the supply chain. So I think, I don’t know this, but I am anticipating that that’s going to be a space where her team is going to be active and there are the connections already there with the brands and retailers that are based in California, so I think that that’s also that’s going to really help. I anticipate that there’s going to be a lot of creative thinking,” Hughes said. “Let’s wait and see who’s named to some of those top positions — it’s going to be important.”

Fashion has long been a gross polluter, and for years many have been producing with abandon and little regard for the outsize impacts. While recent years have seen ramped up efforts to dial some of that back, it’s a long road ahead — and one that still requires greater awareness, greater alignment and greater action within the industry. It will also require redoing some of what Trump has undone.

“The Trump administration has advanced more than 100 rollbacks of common sense environmental and public health protections,” Sittenfeld said, noting that restoring some of these will be a key first priority for Biden and Harris. These rollbacks include curbing protections for public lands and reversing rules that regulated air pollution and emissions, water pollution and protections from toxic substances.

Trump’s tenure has also been marked by ruffling trade relations with key partners, like China, whose influence on fashion’s supply chain remains unmatched. In so doing, these actions — including lobbing tariffs left and right as a strategic play — have weakened relations and, with that, global collaboration around issues like sustainability.

As Jeff Wilson, senior business development manager for sustainability at public health and safety standards organization NSF International, explained, seeing greater sustainability industry-wide and beyond will take rebuilding.

“The extent to which [the Biden] administration, through diplomacy in our trade organizations, can rebuild the relationships to try and drive, in a collaborative way, how we decarbonize emerging developing economies that actually produce our products, whether it’s China or Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, that we have mechanisms in place through investment, through trade policy, through tariff policy, that we can promote decarbonization of those economies that fuel our industry [will be key],” he said.

Hughes said, done right, improving trade relations could also mean even more specific boons for the fashion business.

“There are also ideas kind of kicking around about are there ways to use trade policy to maybe support organic, and I don’t want to attract opposition before we’ve even gotten there, but the idea about are there duty preferences, are there ways to encourage more organic or recycled inputs. I think a lot of that is going to be on the table for discussion this year,” she said. “But…it’s not the top issue, I mean we’ve got COVID-19 and we’ve got all the other things that the administration will be doing but I expect that they’ll be ready to listen and that we’ll be moving forward.”

As Wilson added, moving fashion forward toward more holistic sustainability will require thinking outside of climate change, too.

“The extent that we can tie economic and public health wellbeing out of COVID-19 would be really important,” he said. “The idea that climate and environmental risk equals public health risk is important and I’m not sure people really make that connection broadly. And, truthfully, public health risk ultimately is economic risk, and that equates to investor and capital risk and uncertainty….A number of these initiatives and policies that ought to be part of the agenda will help alleviate a number of these elements of uncertainty and risk.”

Alleviating uncertainty and risk could help bring the capital allocation fashion needs to advance its sustainability efforts, both upstream and downstream.

“If we don’t figure out a way to more consistently line up with the investment community about how to manage and measure all of that, we’re not going to build the trust and the confidence and the credibility within the investment community. There’s so much out there it’s just such a mess the way we speak about all of this,” Wilson explained. “We’ve got to figure out a more consolidated consistent messaging about what decarbonizing really means and how we measure it and report otherwise financial investors might just think it’s a joke. I think that they believe in it but I don’t think our work and all the different initiatives that seem so fragmented help generate credibility and trust in the financial community about what the hell we’re doing.”

At the brand and retailer level, greater investments in sustainability could also mean greater industry-spanning alignment.

“[It] will help align brand initiatives in reporting, it will help suppliers understand what is going on and what they need to do to ‘comply’ or to adopt initiative X or initiative Y that are often just sort of laid out to them by the brands,” Wilson said. “The extent to which we can promote a broader awareness in our industry across all stakeholders of the need to really invest in decarbonizing both owned operations as well as overseas and vetted scope three impacts [indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain] that’s really, really, really important.”

The fight ahead

How smoothly it will go for the incoming administration when it comes to policy changes around environmental issues will depend on whether Democrats take control of the Senate (as to be determined by Georgia’s Senate runoffs in January), which would give Biden greater support. However it shakes out, Lamar expects Biden will govern “from the middle” to align both sides of the aisle on issues including but not limited to sustainability.

“We’re going to see a lot of quick action to kind of put us back on that path toward global sustainability,” he said, noting that it remains to be determined how that shows up in various policies from tax to trade.

What most involved in sustainability and the fight against climate change can agree on is that time isn’t on our side, that the figurative clock is ticking, so to speak.

“It’s hard to make up for the lost time. There’s a limited ability to kind of repair any damage that’s been done because we’ve lost the ability to have been in the [Paris] climate accord or to have, as a country, been really focusing on any of these changes means we are even further behind in our ability to tackle the climate crisis,” said Steve Lamar, president and chief executive officer of the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “We need to engage with all of our resources, all of our energy in this area and I think that this is something you’re going to see this administration doing and it’s certainly something that our industry has been pushing for — to get people aligned on sustainability, on a comprehensive, consolidated approach.”

AAFA is set to continue its work in getting the fashion industry aligned and integrated when it comes to sustainability and ensuring the sector can adequately and cohesively tell that story. The organization will also be rallying behind improvements on trade as a tool to facilitate greater sustainability.

“One of the things we’ve always been pushing for — and we’ll continue to push for that as well — is the linkage between trade policy and environmental issues,” Lamar said. “It’s very important to us that as these supply chains are advanced, that they continue to be supply chains that support comprehensive irreversible sustainability goals and that means including environmental approaches and trade policies. We see that, for example, in trade agreements and so forth so we’ll be continuing to push in those areas as well.”

Fashion has reached the point where it’s no longer about whether marketing around sustainability rings authentic, but whether sustainability is part of the business DNA, Lamar said. And whatever policies materialize, cleaning up and cutting back is now the industry’s greatest mandate.

“We’re probably not going to get all that we need but I think if we can get started and find comprises, particularly in the early years, that’s a win,” Wilson said.

Regardless, what it all boils down to for Wilson is fashion really getting its act together — politics or not.

“It’s the industry that needs to take the lead in all this, not legislation, not NGOs, not consumers. The industry needs to know and recognize these problems, embrace them and make the change and be the change,” he said. “We don’t need legislators to tell us what to do, we don’t need NGOs to tell us what to do. We know enough already to make the changes at scale and to do this work on our own and shame on us as an industry, particularly the brands and the suppliers, if we can’t figure this out in spite of legislative obstacles without having NGOs campaign against us. Shame on us.”

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