The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC), published last week, makes for bleak reading. Scientists have warned that we need to reach peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 at the latest to stand a chance of keeping global warming to 1.5C compared to pre-industrial levels and to avoid catastrophic effects worldwide.
While the 2,913-page report may seem far removed from the world of fashion, it’s not something that can be ignored – particularly as the industry is currently responsible for between four and 10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions globally. “The report made it clear in no uncertain terms that immediate action is needed,” Maxine Bédat, executive director of the New Standard Institute, tells Vogue.
Despite a flurry of climate commitments from brands in recent years, a 2020 report by McKinsey and Global Fashion Agenda found that fashion’s greenhouse gas emissions are actually set to rise to around 2.7 billion tonnes a year by 2030 if no further measures are taken. Even if fashion continues to adopt decarbonisation initiatives at the current pace, emissions would still remain about the same – double the levels needed to keep to the Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to 1.5C.
While the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter For Climate Action did include a more ambitious goal at Cop26 to cut absolute emissions by 50 per cent by 2030, it remains a huge challenge for the industry at large, particularly given that the majority of fashion’s emissions are produced in the supply chain. “What we identified was essentially that about 60 per cent of the efforts that are needed to get [fashion] in line with the 1.5C [pathway] is upstream,” Peder Michael Pruzan-Jorgensen, interim chief impact officer at Global Fashion Agenda, explains. “We’re looking at transitioning to 100 per cent renewables and also increasing energy efficiency across the board.”
The new UN agreement does reference the need to phase out coal from owned and supplier factories, but campaign groups such as Stand.earth have criticised the fact that it does not commit to moving to 100 per cent renewable energy across the supply chain. A recent report from Fashion For Good and the Apparel Impact Institute, meanwhile, found that there’s an enormous funding gap of $1 trillion in order to decarbonise the industry by 2050.
“What needs to happen is much more significant investment from fashion brands to support suppliers in shifting their operations away from fossil fuels to renewable energy,” Muhannad Malas, senior climate campaigner at Stand.earth, says. “We also need to be paying attention to whether fashion brands are advocating [for] governments and policymakers in countries where their supply chain is concentrated to make or develop policies that ensure rapid deployment and use of renewable energy in the grid, as opposed to the extension of coal.”
Accountability, too, is another major issue. Analysis conducted by Stand.earth in September 2021 found that major fashion brands had “made little to no progress in eliminating coal and other fossil fuels from their supply chains”, with emissions actually increasing substantially for some companies. Meanwhile, the Guardian revealed over the weekend how some brands are reporting that their emissions are decreasing overall, despite the fact their actual emissions are increasing – because they are reporting emissions against their total revenue.
“Transparency really becomes vital,” Malas continues. “If companies are making commitments but are not being transparent around reporting their emissions and energy use in a comprehensive way across their supply chain, then there are some important questions to be asked about those companies’ genuine and serious interest in tackling the climate crisis.”
Given that emissions targets are currently voluntary (and considering the terrifying rise of ultra fast fashion brands we’ve seen in recent years), legislation may well be needed in order to spark widespread change across the industry. “We need regulation to help make sure companies are not lagging behind and set a common standard that everyone has to abide by,” Bédat, whose organisation put forward The Fashion Act in New York earlier this year, says. “We cannot have some leaders [doing the work] and then others that are moving in the wrong direction.”
In the meantime though, time is running out. “There is zero doubt that fashion needs to step up,” Bédat concludes. “All of us are looking for leadership in this space [so that we can] move beyond lip service to actual action.”