LONDON — As the United Nations Climate Change Conference kickstarts today in Glasgow, there’s worldwide momentum building around the sustainability conversation.
For fashion businesses, this means an opportunity to put themselves in front of global leaders and lobby for government support that will advance their efforts to become circular or achieve net zero emissions. Alternatively, for those fast-fashion businesses that continue to rely on cheap labor and polluting production practices, this might also be the time they are called out — and in the long term, taxed for their murky supply chains.
With the world watching so closely at COP26, there’s also an opportunity to educate audiences about the climate emergency and individual business’ efforts to reduce their environmental footprints.
“Finding a digestible way to communicate the vastness of the issue at hand is the biggest challenge. But fashion can perform a crucial part in trying to get the message across. The cultural voice of fashion can have a massive impact on people,” said Edzard van der Wyck, chief executive officer of the sustainable knitwear label Sheep Inc., one of the first brands to produce carbon-negative clothing and incorporate environmental donations as part of its business.
Part of this collective communications effort by fashion firms has included everything from a giant art installation mounted in central London to raise awareness — it’s shaped like the Loch Ness monster and made of recycled jeans — to virtual exhibitions and online events such as Fashion Open Studio, which is showcasing the work of sustainable designers from countries such as Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal and South Africa.
“Fashion professionals face the opportunity to leverage communication around the COP and educate their customers about their climate efforts, the materials they use and their impact on the environment and people but also share knowledge in a broader sense,” said Cecilie Thorsmark, CEO of Copenhagen Fashion Week and a longtime sustainability advocate in fashion.
But communications aside, what the industry really needs is recognition first and foremost — followed by legislation.
“The fashion industry is an interesting sector as it is an all-encompassing industry — you talk agriculture, you talk fashion, for example. You talk deforestation of the Amazon, you talk fashion. So it would be wonderful if finally fashion was considered on the political agenda once and for all,” said Livia Firth, whose sustainability consultancy firm Eco-Age co-signed an open letter demanding world leaders’ attention. The letter — which was also signed by Fashion Roundtable, Fashion Revolution and the Center for Sustainable Fashion — was a reminder that “if fashion was a nation state, it would rank as the seventh largest economy.”
Despite its size and impact, the fashion sector is “one of the least legislated of all,” according to Firth, who points to the urgency for better government regulation. Some of the points made in the letter Firth co-signed include “collective action to achieve net zero emissions by no later than 2050”; holding businesses accountable for their supply chains; supporting educational initiatives around making and repairing clothing, and supporting circular business models.
Globalizing the European Union’s green deal and circularity plan would be a good place to start, while looking at the links of climate change and social injustice is also crucial.
“Any businesses that rely on fast consumption, like Amazon or fast-fashion retailers, are only made possible by the use of slave labor. If those businesses had to pay a living wage to all their workers, there is no way that they could produce those volumes, at those prices. So make the payment of a living wage mandatory and you automatically cut huge amount of waste and pollution — it’s very simple,” contended Firth.
Her thoughts were echoed by other sustainability advocates in the industry, who are looking to COP26 to introduce solid legislation and financial penalties for those profiting from overproduction and cheap labor.
“We need decisive action that shows a clear plan to improve one of the most polluting industries. The conference needs to result in legislation that gets enforced immediately, with severe penalties for those who don’t comply. There cannot be any more excuses or vague roadmaps that promise targets with no clear plan on how to get there. The time for talk and endless debate is over,” said van der Wyck, adding that sustainable businesses are the ones having to pay a heavy premium for ethical production. “In the meantime, those that make cheap disposable clothing at a huge environmental cost can continue to perform business as usual. The bottom line is that there needs to be huge financial penalties levied against those who continue to damage the planet.”
Carlo Centonze, who spearheads the materials innovation company HeiQ, also thinks the key lies in financial incentives if world leaders want to reach decarbonization goals and avoid “bringing back out the four riders of the apocalypse.”
“The more this circular approach is propagated and supported from the top, the more likely the industry will follow. Tax waste, tax carbon emission and reward circularity. It would be simple if [they] stopped listening to the oil lobby,” he added.
Ditto for Nicolaj Reffstrup, founder of the popular Copenhagen label Ganni, a pioneer in the sustainability field by investing in making its supply chain transparent and utilizing new material innovations such as recycled textiles and grape leather.
“I hope to see concrete government intervention through drastic carbon taxes, mandatory carbon reporting and science-based reduction goals. Our politicians have to find the guts to agree on, amongst other things, global carbon taxation. That’s the first step, and really the least, we can do to regulate our behavior,” said Reffstrup, adding that individual company initiatives aren’t enough. “Government intervention levels the playing field by ensuring the climate is a prerequisite for doing business, not an afterthought. At the moment you can get away with all talk and no action.”
Numerous fashion sustainability activists, as well as executives from top firms such as Burberry, Kering and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, will be on the ground at COP26 making the case for better industry regulation and support.
On Nov. 8, the U.N. Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action will host an event where brands will offer updates on their targets to reduce carbon emissions, first introduced at COP24 in 2018.
The British Fashion Council is also hosting a showcase on innovation across the supply chain featuring both established names like Burberry and Stella McCartney and up-and-coming ones, such as Ahluwalia and Helen Kirkum.
Individual activists are planning to make their voices heard as well. Environmentalist and content creator Sierra Quitiquit will be on the ground filming a new video series “Ear to the Ground COP26” featuring NGO founders, scientists and fellow activists. The plan is to share the series with her 122,000 Instagram followers and broader online community, with the aim of offering “an approachable communication” around the complex issues on the conference’s agenda and strengthening people’s connection with nature.
“At this point, given the state of humanity and the climate crisis, if you have an audience and you’re not using your platform to inspire, impact, or better the world, you should probably do some self-reflection. It’s time to move from ego to eco thinking. We’re a system and interdependent,” Quitiquit said. She added that she’s expecting to see global adoption of some of the regulations the European Union has been putting in place to aid circular business models in fashion.
Thorsmark added that the European Union’s Policy Hub is already doing a lot of work to outline necessary policies that would encourage circularity and the COP26 platform has “huge potential to enhance circular business practices and push the industry in a common direction.”
“The truth is, the fashion industry is living in climate denial and in for a rude awakening. If companies are smart they will see what’s coming and start to build climate resilience in their business and operating models now. But they may just need to get hit in the face with government rules and regulations that disrupt their bottom line before they’re incentivized to change,” Quitiquit added.
For all the positive momentum and expectations around COP26, sustainability activists and advocates are also keen to highlight their reservations.
Fashion Revolution has pointed to an imbalanced male-to-female representation at the conference.
“The all-male organizing committee has now become more balanced with 45 percent women and 55 percent men but almost all senior public facing roles are taken by men. I fail to see how we can create workable solutions if we diminish 50 percent of the population of the planet. This goes for social, racial and cultural representation as well,” said Niamh Tuft, global network manager at Fashion Revolution and Fashion Open Studio.
Aja Barber, author of the newly published book “Consumed” on fashion’s injustices, also pointed to some wealthier countries’ continued unwillingness to pay more to poorer nations to speed up their move to greener technologies or quickly move away from the use of fossil fuels.
“The gist I get is anytime a country’s GDP is threatened they ask scientists to remove the backing scientific facts from their reports. Why? Because we center capitalism over all things at all time, even when your planet is on fire,” she wrote.