‘Brands get away with murder’: Stella McCartney and fashion personalities on Cop26 fallout

AAt the Cop26 conference, prestigious British brands such as Stella McCartney, Burberry and Mulberry presented their vision of an ethical and sustainable industry. Today, all fashion companies are increasingly being asked to make legally binding commitments to address the impact of their supply chains on the environment. While hundreds of companies – including Kering, owner of Gucci, H&M and Inditex, owner of Zara – have signed the United Nations’ Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, which sets science-based targets in line with Paris Agreement, there is no obligation to participate, nor a legal mandate to hold brands to account.

Leading industry figures say if fashion brands are to have any chance of having a meaningful impact on the climate crisis, legislation is needed.

As recently as 2019, the UK government rejected all suggestions – including a ban on incineration or landfill of unsold stock that can be reused or recycled, and mandatory environmental targets for fashion retailers with turnover in excess of £36 million – made in the environmental audit committee report Fixing Mode: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability.

Well known for her ethical fashion campaign, McCartney, who curated her Future of Fashion exhibit at the conference, told the Guardian that the lack of a mandate is why “brands get away with murder and we’re in the critical state we’re in.” Incentives need to be introduced for the industry to clean up, she said. “The problem is that we have no way to measure our harm by as a collective. If we were to have a one-size-fits-all way… then brands would be forced to disclose their current [practices] and make informed changes to their supply chain. »

British Fashion Council chief executive Caroline Rush (centre) poses with models and designers on the steps outside the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum during a photocall for the Great Fashion for Climate Action event Photography: Peter Summers/Getty Images for BFC

The fashion industry is currently the third largest manufacturer in the world, with clothing and footwear responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. At this month’s conference, a trade policy request submitted by the Textile Exchange pointed out that global fiber production has nearly doubled in this century alone, Forbes reports, from 58 million tonnes in 2000 to 109 million tons in 2020.

Although the UNFCCC’s Fashion Charter for Climate Action also offers new commitments (including achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and sourcing environmentally friendly raw materials by 2030 ) at the Glasgow event, Liv Simpliciano, head of policy and research at campaign organization Fashion Revolution, says things need to speed up and more pressing issues need to be addressed.

“Although there has been positive progress, it is still far too slow,” she says. “What was glaringly missing from the conversation was the issue of growth, both in terms of financial growth and production volumes. With an average growth of 3-4% per year, the fashion industry must decouple financial growth from reducing emissions. There are [also] a huge lack of visibility downstream of the value chain. This is where human rights and environmental abuses thrive, and where we most need tougher reduction commitments.

To facilitate this, Simpliciano says brands need to stop relying on second-hand data to estimate emissions and collect their own to get the hard facts. They should be compelled to disclose their findings and incentivized by governments to track data throughout the supply chain to reduce their overall impact. Fashion Revolution research shows that “only 17% of brands disclose their annual carbon footprint at the raw material level”.

Dr Antoinette Fionda-Douglas of the Generation of Waste collective says companies still cling to such an “extractive and exploitative business model”.[s] as long as they can to make as much profit as they can, refusing to accept that transformative and systemic change is needed for fashion to be truly sustainable”.

Still, Simpliciano points out that it makes good business sense to produce better clothes in smaller quantities. “According to the OR Foundation, brands overproduce their SKUs by 20-30%. Some accumulate billions of unsold items each year due to failures in demand forecasting, so there is a business case for producing less, producing smarter and producing better.

Addressing more the question of degrowth, she asserts that political, industrial and cultural changes must occur simultaneously. “We can’t exactly tell fashion brands to produce less, but we can encourage them to slow down, and we know one way to do that is through consumer demand, or legislation and incentives. financial.” She cites raising taxes for the culprits as a solution.

“Overall, what we should be talking about more in the industry is ‘post-growth’,” she adds. “It means going beyond just producing less and reaching a point where the idea of ​​success is not tied to the endless pursuit of growth and monetary reward. [but] where we can really start valuing people over growth and profit. »

Extinction Rebellion protest against fossil fuel fad in London
Extinction Rebellion protest against fossil fuel fad in London. Photography: Wiktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

To highlight the need for brands to take responsibility, Generation of Waste staged a huge installation in the high-profile Blue Zone of the conference. He showed that while post-consumer waste accounts for 92 million tons of textile waste generated worldwide each year, 57 million tons of textile waste is generated before consumption. This involves a mix of design, production and distribution (the latter responsible for filling the equivalent volume of London’s O2 center 19 times a year).

“Too often, the solutions offered by governments and industry shift the blame and responsibility for waste onto consumers or citizens,” says Fionda-Douglas. “It’s easier for big brands to push accountability while they continue to business as usual.”

Focusing only on net zero will not create the necessary change, she argues: “Fashion is so interconnected with other sectors such as agriculture and transport. Any new legislation must be holistic in order to create positive ripple effects across the industry and affected communities. »

To bring about tangible change quickly, Simpliciano says brands should focus on raw materials, “given that half of total greenhouse gas emissions, as well as more than 90% of biodiversity loss and stress water, are due to the extraction and transformation of resources”. .

Caroline Rush, CEO of the British Fashion Council (BFC) which held its Great Fashion for Climate Action showcase at Cop26, told the Guardian: “We need to slow the pace of the industry as a whole and invest in innovation to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. Rush says “brands and governments can develop new techniques, manufacture on land and retrain workers, extend the life of garments and fibers by reintroducing old materials into the fashion economy, and end the linear life cycle currently associated with industry”.

During the two-week Cop26 event, Burberry released an update on how it intends to source its materials. Working with the Sustainable Fiber Alliance, its new biodiversity strategy promises, among other things, to ensure that all of its key materials – such as leather, cotton and wool – are 100% traceable by 2025.”[These are] used most widely in our collections and contributes to our greatest impacts,” said Pam Batty, Vice President of Corporate Responsibility. The brand is also “expanding our approach to sourcing our materials from regenerative farming systems, which will work with farmers to adopt low-carbon practices for these key materials.”

For all brands to make sustainable practices scalable, investment is needed, says Fionda-Douglas. “There are amazing fashion organizations around the world that truly care about contributing to a sustainable future for fashion, but there aren’t enough resources or investment for these solutions to increase their impact in a sustainable way. .”

Ultimately, Simpliciano says, “we have to see the willingness of our legislators to take bold and unpopular action now.”

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