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Over the past year, the focus on sustainable fashion has continued to grow, as industry leaders have made commits to sustainable development at COP26, accelerated material innovation and began to explore circularity. More importantly, a growing awareness has emerged that climate change is as much about equity as it is about carbon footprint.
“Climate change is not about emissions. This is a system that benefits some at the expense of the vast majority of people on the planet and the planet itself,” says Muhannad Malas, climate campaign manager for advocacy group Stand.earth.
Fashion takeaways from COP26
The UN Climate Conference is over, with major lessons for the fashion industry on policy change, sourcing and digital transparency.
But despite the interest and focus on sustainable fashion, the industry as a whole has made little tangible progress this year. Emissions continue to rise, circularity remains elusive, next-generation textiles have yet to evolve, and countless garment workers are still underpaid. Actions speak louder than words, but even so, for the fashion industry, increased conversation and urgency is a positive sign. Critics are encouraged by the fact that some of the biggest brands and senior executives are talking about end-of-life impacts and setting biodiversity strategies, reflecting a shift in mindset as new goals are set for the coming year.
“The last 12 months have shown me that mindsets and decision-making frameworks are changing,” says Rebecca Burgess, founder of the nonprofit organization Fibershed. Alarm bells are ringing, she says, triggering meaningful action.
The implications of textile dyeing now feature more prominently in the conversation about ethical fashion. Due to the application of synthetic dyes and chemicals to textiles, toxins are released into sewage near garment factories. The water consumed and used by the inhabitants of these areas causes serious damage to health and the environment, including an increased risk of cancer, skin problems and the extermination of animal populations. Now, in countries like Bangladesh and China, which are home to major centers of garment manufacturing, the government is starting to take action.
Companies are beginning to prioritize not only the sustainability of their product, but also the impact of their packaging on the environment – which, with the rise of e-commerce, has become particularly unhelpful.
To date, progress in fashion durability has been slow because it’s designed to be, changing only the edges, advocates say. The changes that would have the greatest impact – eliminating fossil fuels in manufacturing processes and increasing wages for garment workers – both require a systemic transformation of industry infrastructure and business models. They top experts’ lists as the most fundamental priorities to tackle next year and rank among the top sustainable fashion trends in 2022.
Fossil fuels and low wages: fashion catalysts
Decarbonizing the fashion supply chain is complicated, but singularly it can have the biggest impact in terms of reducing the industry’s carbon footprint. If achieved, it will also inherently address some of fashion’s other issues, such as the waste, overproduction, and overuse of dangerous chemicals.