The UK recently hosted COP26, the 26th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, where over 200 world leaders came together to figure out how to keep our planet from getting much hotter than it already is.

This means keeping the rise in global warming to well below 2, preferably 1.5, degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. This has been declared the breaking point where the risk of catastrophic natural disasters and ecosystem devastation exponentially increases. We're currently sitting at about a 1.1 degrees Celsius increase, which has already proven harrowing for some as ferocious heatwaves, wildfires, and sea-level rises affect communities globally. The climate emergency has been declared a "code red" for humanity, and this year the message from COP26 was loud and clear: time is running out.

But while the notorious trio of fossil fuel industries—coal, oil, gas, and big emitters like agriculture, forestry, and transport were scrutinised at the main table, the fashion industry remained on the fringes despite contributing an estimated 8-10% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is more than shipping and aviation combined!

Here are five takeaways from COP26 when it comes to fashion:


1. The goalposts have changed


The UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, created in 2018, is a series of commitments aligned to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. This means reaching a neutral balance between GHG emissions produced and GHG emissions removed from the atmosphere. So far, 130 companies have committed to the charter, including many of the big, mainstream fashion brands. But big changes occurred to the charter at COP26, with the UN Global Climate Action manager saying, "We realised [the 2018 Fashion Charter] isn't enough any longer...we need to make it stronger, more concrete, more ambitious." One of the biggest changes in all the new commitments is that brands are now responsible for working with suppliers to reduce emissions. This holds brands more accountable for what happens in their supply chains, which accounts for an estimated 70% of emissions.

Here are the updated commitments:
  • Halving total emissions, including the supply chain, by 2030 (an update from the previous 30% target).
  • Sourcing 100% renewable electricity in owned facilities by 2030.
  • Phasing out coal from tier 1 (final stage manufacturing) and tier 2 (fabric weaving, dyeing) of the supply chain by 2030, including no new coal power by 2023.
  • Collaborating with suppliers to significantly reduce emissions by 2025 (this is a biggie!).
  • Sourcing of 100% environmentally friendly raw materials by 2030 (bye, bye, bye new polyester).
  • Align consumer and industry communication efforts to a 1.5-degree pathway.

Signatory brands have one year to submit an action plan for how they will meet these targets, but it has never been clearer:
 

2. Actions must speak louder than words


Commitments to the charter are encouraging, but what happens if these targets are not achieved? There is no penalty outside of consumer pressure if fashion brands don't take action to meet them.

In the 2021 Ethical Fashion Report, we found that only 29% of companies surveyed could show a public commitment to reducing aggregate emissions by 30%, and it's not guaranteed that all of them were on track to meeting that original target.

Many critics of the charter are saying these targets don't go far enough and argue that transitioning the entire supply chain to 100% renewable energy should be required for all fashion brands, as it will be critical to achieving the level of emissions reductions needed. Others say achieving these commitments will be nearly impossible if governments don't provide incentives for fashion brands. And that leads me to my next point...

 

3. Fashion is being left out of climate policy


If the fashion industry were a country, it would rank as the seventh-largest economy in the world. The UN Environment Programme has declared that if the fashion industry does not take immediate action to reduce its carbon footprint, then its emissions will increase by more than 50% by 2030...the exact opposite of the charter's target. The fashion industry is an integral part of our global economy and people's lives, which means it holds immense responsibility for creating solutions to the problems it creates.

COP26 is primarily focused on government action or inaction. But while negotiations on commitments to incentives and stringent legislation included a variety of high-emitting industries, fashion was not in the room where it happens. Instead, these conversations remained largely on the fringes at panels and exhibitions with young climate activists like Emma Watson and Vanessa Nakate, and eco-friendly fashion designers like Stella McCartney.

Many designers and brands are saying that financial incentives and regulation in the fashion industry will be imperative to reaching climate targets. For example, Textile Exchange, an NGO that aims to create textile standards in the industry, has requested a trade policy that incentivises the use of traceable environmentally preferred materials, such as organic cotton and recycled fibres, through tax breaks. The idea is that this would level the playing field for fashion companies striving to lower their environmental impact.

Textile production contributes to an estimated 1.35% of global oil production. Of course, shoppers can choose not to buy items made from fossil fuel-based fabrics like polyester, but we can't expect individuals to change the system alone—regulation and legislation will be necessary.


If-the-fashion-industry-does-not-take-immediate-action-to-reduce-its-carbon-footprint-then-its-emissions-will-increase-by-more-than-50-by-2030-(1).jpgIf the fashion industry does not take immediate action to reduce its carbon footprint then its emissions will increase by more than 50% by 2030.
 

4. People in power are tiptoeing around calling the solution what it is: degrowth


*And all the fashion brands who sell shirts for $5 spiral into a frenzied panic*

This is just a fancy word for "making fewer clothes". But for the many brands that increase profits annually by making more clothes, this concept is less than ideal.
Page two of the charter says: "Current solutions and business models will not be sufficient to deliver on the current climate agenda". Echoing this, the UNEP's economy division deputy director urged, "Addressing consumption is a central part of reducing climate impact, from the volume of new products purchased to the carbon footprint of how we use these products".

But, despite this not-so-new realisation, not a single panellist mentioned the issues of overproduction and overconsumption during one of the only fashion sessions at COP26, Fashion Industry Race to Zero. That is until a young woman from the audience asked about fashion's unsustainable production rate of clothing. Then, finally, one of the panellists declared it crucial for the industry to "change business models and reach true systemic change," while the COO of Textile Exchange called degrowth imperative to achieve the charter's targets: "We do have to slow the amount of year-on-year growth".

While clothes made from things like mushrooms and pineapple waste will be essential for addressing the climate crisis, they are not a silver bullet for solving fashion's issues if the business model itself is unsustainable.


Addressing-consumption-is-a-central-part-of-reducing-climate-impact-from-the-volume-of-new-products-purchased-to-the-carbon-footprint-of-how-we-use-these-products-(1).jpgAddressing consumption is a central part of reducing climate impact from the volume of new products purchased to the carbon footprint of how we use these products.


5. Our collective voices MATTER.


Carry Somers said it best, "Consumer demand can revolutionise the way fashion works as an industry." COP26 drew more young activists than any other climate conference. While only a few were included in the official events, about 100,000 stood in the streets campaigning for climate action.

Vote with your wallet. Buy less. Buy better. Instead of shopping on Black Friday, Boxing Day or Cyber Monday, use it as a segue into a conversation with friends or family about the impacts our buying can have on people and the planet.

Lastly, encourage change by writing to the brands you love and telling them to commit to the UN Fashion Industry Charter.

If there is one thing the industry cannot show up fashionably late too, it's the climate crisis.

To learn more about the fashion industry's impact on climate change, check out our blog The Climate Challenge, which is an abridged version of The Climate Challenge chapter in the Ethical Fashion Report.

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