The fashion industry is not only one of the most influential and impactful sectors in the world but also one of the most polluting and wasteful. According to the UN Environment Programme, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and 20% of global wastewater, pollutes our oceans with plastics, and consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined. It also consumes precious natural resources, such as water, land, and biodiversity, which are increasingly threatened by climate change.
The fashion industry, therefore, is central to the conversation on the climate crisis and has a responsibility to address the challenges that make it polluting, resource-intensive, and environmentally unsustainable.
The United Nations Climate Change Conferences, also known as the Conferences of the Parties (COPs), have evolved into the main platform for the international community to negotiate and debate climate-related issues. The fashion industry has been participating in the COPs since 2018 when the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action was launched with the support of UN Climate Change. The Charter is a voluntary initiative that brings together 130 fashion companies and 41 supporting organizations to commit to a common vision and roadmap to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The Charter also sets out specific targets and actions for the fashion industry, such as sourcing 100% of electricity from renewable sources by 2030, sourcing of environmentally friendly raw materials, and phasing out coal from the supply chain by 2030.
As the world gets ready for COP28, which will take place in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, from 30 November to 11 December 2023 against the backdrop of a world divided over the Israel-Palestine conflict, we do a recap of key takeaways of COP26 and COP27 for the global fashion industry, talk about the growth of sustainable fashion and look forward to what the industry can look forward to at COP28.
COP26: When the Fashion Industry Stepped Up
COP26, which was held in Glasgow, United Kingdom in November 2021, was widely regarded as a critical and decisive moment for climate action, as it marked the first time that countries were expected to update and enhance their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which are the plans and targets that each country sets to reduce their emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
The fashion industry assumed center stage for the first time as policymakers recognised the importance of sustainable fashion and its critical role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It was a landmark moment for the industry where several initiatives and commitments were announced.
- The Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action announced its renewed commitments, which increased the ambition level to align the industry with 1.5 degrees.
- The Race to Zero campaign, which is a global initiative that mobilizes non-state actors to join the net-zero movement, launched the Race to Zero Breakthroughs for the fashion sector, which are specific and ambitious goals that leading fashion companies and organizations have committed to achieve by 2030.
- The UN Fashion Alliance, a coalition of 12 UN agencies and initiatives that work on various aspects of sustainable fashion, launched its first joint report, titled ‘Fashion and the SDGs: A Decade of Action’. The report provides an overview of the current state of the fashion industry and its alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as recommendations and best practices for accelerating the transition to a more sustainable and inclusive fashion system.
- The Fashion Pact, a coalition of more than 70 fashion and textile companies that have pledged to reduce their environmental impacts, released its first progress report, which showed that the members have collectively reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 11% since 2019, increased their use of renewable energy by 45%, and improved their circularity performance by 19%.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates for a circular economy, launched its Jeans Redesign Guidelines, which are a set of minimum requirements for the design, production, and aftercare of jeans, based on the principles of durability, material health, recyclability, and traceability.
Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation
For the first time, COP26 recognized the fashion industry as a significant contributor to global carbon emissions and called for immediate action to reduce its impact. The conference highlighted the need for the fashion industry to adopt more sustainable practices and significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
COP27: Facing the Challenges and Opportunities
COP27, which was held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022, was expected to build on the momentum and outcomes of COP26, as well as to address the remaining gaps and challenges in the implementation of the Paris Agreement.
The fashion industry faced some difficulties and criticisms at COP27, as it struggled to demonstrate its progress and credibility in the face of the growing climate emergency and the increasing demands from civil society and consumers. However, the fashion industry also seized some opportunities and initiatives to improve its performance and collaboration.
- The Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action released its first progress report, which showed that the signatories have collectively reduced their emissions by 14% since 2018, increased their use of renewable energy by 52%, and improved their material efficiency by 23%.
- The UN Fashion Alliance launched its second joint report, titled ‘Fashion and Climate Action: A Decade of Delivery’, that provided an update on the fashion industry’s alignment with the Paris Agreement and the SDGs, as well as a roadmap and a call to action for the industry to accelerate its decarbonization and resilience.
Given that waste remains a significant challenge for the sector, the fashion industry pledged at COP27 to adopt measures to close the loop on textile waste, such as implementing recycling programs and designing products with end-of-life considerations in mind. It also recognised that engagement with governments can lead to more significant and impactful change towards a sustainable future and highlighted the need for greater collaboration between the fashion industry and governments.
Fashion waste at Atacama Desert, Chile (Source: greenmatters)
Another highlight of COP27 was an emphasis on the importance of digital innovations in the fashion industry towards sustainability. By implementing digital technologies, such as 3D printing and Artificial Intelligence (AI), fashion brands can reduce their carbon footprint by optimizing the production process and reducing waste. Read more about how technology can enable a more sustainable fashion industry here.
Growth of Sustainable Fashion
With the growing awareness of climate change and the environmental impact of the fashion industry, there has been a shift in consumer demand towards sustainable fashion. Successive conferences have highlighted the need for the fashion industry to respond to this demand by adopting more sustainable practices, prioritizing transparency, and reducing its environmental impact.
Successive conferences have highlighted the need for the fashion industry to respond to this demand by adopting more sustainable practices, prioritizing transparency, and reducing its environmental impact.
Several fashion brands, including Gucci, Burberry, and H&M, have pledged to reduce their carbon footprint at these conferences. These commitments included reducing the use of fossil fuels, increasing the use of renewable energy, and adopting circular economy principles. LVMH, which is one of the world’s largest luxury groups and a signatory of the Fashion Charter and the Fashion Pact, has committed to reduce its emissions by 50% by 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality across its entire value chain by 2050.
However, while many global fashion brands are making the right noises, they are failing to keep to their commitments to transition to sustainable fashion because they are not taking enough concrete and ambitious actions to reduce their environmental and social impacts. According to a report by McKinsey & Company and the Global Fashion Agenda, the fashion industry is not on track to meet the 1.5-degree pathway of the Paris Agreement and needs to cut its emissions by 50% by 2030 to align with the science-based targets.
One of the key reasons for fashion brands falling behind is that many of them do not have reliable and consistent data on their emissions, energy use, water consumption, waste generation, and other environmental and social indicators making it difficult for them to measure and manage their impacts, as well as to report and disclose their performance to. They also do not have direct control or influence over their suppliers and manufacturers, often located in different countries with varying environmental and social standards and regulations, which makes it challenging for them to ensure compliance with their sustainability policies and requirements.
Then there is the problem of fast fashion, a business model that is based on increasing consumption of cheap, disposable fashion that finds its way to landfills well before the life cycle of the products has been fully utilised.Fashion brands must become more proactive and take ambitious actions to transition to sustainable fashion. As consumers get conscious and the demand for sustainable fashion grows, the fashion industry needs to get better at circular fashion commitments, reporting and disclosing their progress and performance regularly and transparently, and collaborating with their supply chain partners and stakeholders, to train them and ensure that they comply with their sustainability policies and requirements.
COP28: Setting the Vision and Direction
COP28 is being held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates in December 2023 in an environment where the climate crisis has been exacerbated by the new conflict in the Middle East which has polarised the world, perhaps more than any other war in this century. The conference delegates will likely have much on their minds as they gather to deliberate on the way forward.
However, given the scale of the climate crisis, there is no time to lose! COP28 will be an opportunity for the fashion industry to set the vision and direction for the next decade of climate action, as well as to demonstrate its leadership and innovation in the face of the climate crisis.
It is expected that the fashion industry will showcase its progress and achievements in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, increasing its use of renewable energy, sourcing environmentally friendly raw materials, and improving its circularity and resilience, and report on the challenges and barriers that it faces. It will also explore new technologies, innovations, and business models that can enable a more sustainable and inclusive fashion system and engage its stakeholders, such as consumers, investors, media, and policymakers, to join and support the net-zero movement.
- Adoption of Circular Economy Principles: The fashion industry is expected to intensify its adoption of circular economy principles at COP28. The adoption of circularity is seen as a crucial step in reducing the fashion industry’s impact on the environment. By keeping materials in use for longer, fashion brands can reduce waste and resource consumption, contributing significantly to climate change mitigation efforts.
- Innovative Material Development: At COP28, there will be a focus on developing innovative, sustainable materials for use in the fashion industry. With the increased demand for sustainable fashion, there is a need for new materials that can replace traditional, resource-intensive materials. Research and development towards sustainable materials can pave the way towards reducing the fashion industry’s carbon footprint.
- Increased Transparency and Collaboration: COP28 is expected to reinforce the importance of transparency and collaboration within the fashion industry. By adopting comprehensive sustainability and social reporting, fashion brands can be held accountable for their environmental and social impact. Greater collaboration between fashion brands, industry organizations, and governments can lead to a more significant impact on sustainability efforts.
- Implementation of Low-Carbon Technologies: COP28 is expected to highlight the importance of implementing low-carbon technologies, adopting renewable energy, and embracing innovations such as smart automation that can reduce waste.
The global fashion industry is at a critical juncture where it is required to demonstrate its credibility and accountability in the face of the growing climate emergency and the increasing demands from civil society and consumers. There is no room for denying the crisis or delaying the adoption of solutions anymore. The fashion industry will have to face the reality and the urgency of the climate crisis and align its goals and strategies with the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.
COP28 is a chance for the fashion industry to prove that it can be a part of the solution, not of the problem.