COP26, the event that happened in Glasgow that has taken over the news, but did you understand what it was exactly, what it has achieved (or failed to achieve) and what the implications for the fashion industry are?
Let’s start from the basics:
THERE ARE PLENTY OF GREAT SUMMARIES OF THE COP26 AGREEMENT, INCLUDING A MORE POSITIVE ONE FROM UNEP AND LESS HOPEFUL ONES BY THE ECONOMIST AND THE GUARDIAN, BUT WE WANTED TO HIGHLIGHT WHAT MADE THE BIGGEST IMPRESSION ON US.
Firstly, there are thousands of scientists, activists, representatives of indigenous communities, and other advocates who worked extremely hard to provide evidence, reports and advice to politicians. So, it wouldn’t be fair to them to say that COP26 was a complete failure.
The conversation is moving in the right direction, and people are slowly grasping the extent of this crisis. Some positive commitments included the end of deforestation by 2030 thanks to a $19.2 billion pledge!
But unfortunately, there have also been horror stories from COP26, including Boris Johnson leaving by private jet from Glasgow to London (around 5h train ride) to make it in time for a dinner with a climate sceptic, and fossil fuel lobbyists being given more time and space than representatives of indigenous communities.
In the agreement, only 40 countries signed a deal to phase out coal in the 2030s, which is particularly disappointing because this commitment will barely bring any change. Countries that are main coal producers and users did not participate, and by the 2030s coal will be so much more expensive than renewables (which it already is) that it will be phased out anyways. This is particularly relevant to the Fashion Industry, because key coal producers and users are also major fabric, garment and footwear manufacturing hubs, especially India and China. As you can read in the Supply Chain 101 the environmental impact of the spinning and weaving stages comes mostly from energy production, so sourcing from major coal using countries is bad news for the carbon footprint of our clothes.
The agreements will affect the fashion industry both in direct and indirect ways. Let’s take deforestation: the fashion industry contributes to it in the sourcing of leather, cellulosic materials such as viscose, and the destruction of forests to set up chemically intensive fibre production. The fashion industry must step up its efforts to ensure that cellulosic materials are manufactured in a renewable way, where the rate of production allows trees to grow back, (what FSC certifies). All the commitments that affect the generation of electricity will also affect the fashion industry indirectly, as countries will change their energy mix and therefore the sources of electricity used in factories, offices and shops.
Fashion was also discussed at COP through the Fashion Charter, which asks companies to set science-based targets or cut their emissions by 50% by 2030, and achieve net zero emissions no later than 2050. Additionally, it asks companies to ensure that the materials used are low impact and fit for a circular economy, and that brands will work with suppliers to reduce emissions. The latest version can be found here.
The issue is that although more than 100 brands are signatories, they only represent a very small proportion of the fashion industry. Even signatories who say that they will commit to specific goals are all based on calculations done by the brands independently, and are not legally accountable for it.
Another issue with these targets is that too often brands have to act deep in their supply chain to make a real difference, and the information and incentives for this are missing.
Most brands are very far from having the transparency that would allow them to work with farmers and raw material processing factories. On top of that, brands often share such facilities, and therefore do not want to invest into the manufacturer alone. A potential solution for this, which would also highly improve social standards, would be for brands to have long term commitments to manufacturers, so that they have a visibility over their financial performance that goes beyond single orders, and they can invest in sustainable techniques, technologies and training.
Are we trying to say that we are doomed because COP26 went terribly? No, in fact, not at all. The Fashion industry is very different from other industries such as Aviation or Food. The technologies for making fashion more sustainable already exist (regenerative agriculture practices renewable energy, greener chemicals, water processing facilities, to name a few). Making a sustainable pair of jeans is not as difficult as flying people across the globe using only green energy. The need for fashion can also be reduced by reducing the constant change of trends, or the idea that to be fashionable we need to keep buying new clothes, rather than clothes that will last forever. Feeding the world is a much bigger challenge than dressing the world, we can’t slow that down. COP26 goals had to take into account all industries and be realistic about limitations. Fashion will have to go above and beyond them.
We believe in the power of consumers and industry professionals like you to push brands to go beyond such commitments and focus on real actions. Brands can reduce their emissions much more than what the government commitments are in the country where they operate. And by making more informed purchasing choices, you communicate this at every transaction.
Until next time friends, always be curious and stay diligent! 🤓