Are fashion CEOs finally at a turning point?

By Anvita Srivastava

5 months ago

With greenwashing muddying the waters of sustainable fashion, we can no longer rely on individual brand communications. We need powerful decision-makers to come together and collaborate, rather than compete, and hold each other accountable for authentic action on climate and human rights. In this guest blog post by Anvita Srivastava, explore the five pillars of this year’s CEO Agenda to see what some of the world’s biggest fashion brands are prioritising in terms of sustainability and ethical supply chains. The key question to keep in mind is: Can the CEOs keep their promises?

What exactly is the fashion industry’s carbon footprint? 10% of all annual global carbon emissions? More than maritime and shipping combined? Or is it 4% of the global total? All of these above statistics have been published by credible organisations over the past five years. At this point, everyone recognises that the fashion industry has a massive environmental and social footprint, but nobody seems to know exactly how big it is. The Global Fashion Agenda’s CEO Agenda 2021, is therefore a timely reminder of the pressing need to establish a credible baseline and rebuild the fashion industry with sustainability, transparency, and responsibility at its core.   

The 2021 agenda prioritised five pillars of social and environmental sustainability as the focus areas for the industry: respectful and secure work environment, better wage systems, circular systems, efficient use of resources and smart material choices.   

1. Respectful and Secure Work Environments

The fashion industry’s human rights violations ranging from unsafe working conditions, discrimination, coercion, modern slavery, physical abuse to sexual exploitation have been an open secret for a while. The loss of livelihood, unpaid wages and lack of safety nets, typically in developing or underdeveloped countries, during the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the broken infrastructure and vulnerability of factory workers.  

The agenda says that the baseline for companies is to act as fair business partners with suppliers and track the well-being of garment workers in the value chain. This requires a change in supplier-client relation, necessary not just to protect human rights but support the survival of a functional value chain against disruptions. GFA encourages industry leaders to work with suppliers and invest in technology-driven solutions for greater transparency, data availability, monitoring, documentation and communication across the whole supply chain. 

Although including a respectful and dignified work environment as a core pillar of business strategy sounds like a no brainer, its inclusion in a global industry-wide agenda is indeed a huge milestone. The fashion industry has historically been rife with human rights issues but it is only through the plethora of online engagement, discussions, mainstream media coverage and consumer pressure that brands have been forced to reconcile with these unspoken horrors unfolding right under their nose.

2. Better Wage Systems

Continuing the theme of social sustainability, the second pillar aims to address the economic vulnerability of workers worsened due to complex supply chains. A significant portion of garment workers fall under the informal sector with no legal protection and representation. They were the most impacted group during the pandemic, with both the suppliers and brands shrugging off responsibility and leaving them destitute.  

The agenda rightly says that brands play a role in promoting systemic change and creating mechanisms for transparent record-keeping of fair living wages. This could be through coordination with trade, fair price negotiations, digitalised payment systems and social protection schemes. This will not happen overnight and would need collaboration between companies and stakeholders.  

Despite the horrors brought about by Covid-19, it showed a glimmer of hope. Factories and brands that adhered to employment contracts employed more transparent pay mechanisms and implemented employee protection schemes experienced positive results in terms of resilience and performance.  

Putting workers in the centre of issues is the dire need of the hour. The agenda asks brands to ensure strong due diligence and compliance strategies with local laws, global agreements and obligations. They should more actively participate in wage-setting systems and support the improvement of workers compensation and social protection policies. But what happens when the current legal system and policies fall short? 

One of the critical challenges is the absence of a commonly agreed upon living wage. There is also a significant gap between legal minimum wage and living wage in most of the underdeveloped countries. Brands need to go beyond due diligence and paperwork. Depending only on the current regulations has never been and will not be enough. These issues require unprecedented industry coordination to set and maintain standards guaranteeing basic human dignity and safety to every person in their value chain.

3. Circular Systems

The third pillar aims to challenge the linear product lifecycle in the fashion industry. The traditional ‘take, make and dispose” has lead the industry precariously close to pushing past the planetary boundaries. The move towards circularity has been particularly slow due to regulatory, logistical, technical and economic challenges. Up until now, garments were not designed with durability and recyclability in mind. 

Despite the hurdles, it is a huge innovation opportunity for brands to create clothes with longer user and post-user lifespan. However, changing the way we perceive clothes is too big a challenge for an individual organisation to solve on its own. This requires industry-wide collaboration and investment to conduct a thorough analysis of the obstacles, restructure linear pathways, build capability and shift towards circularity.  

The agenda stresses that, while focusing on innovation, businesses must not forget the impact such large-scale transformation would have on garment workers. They should engage with suppliers to equip, protect and train the workers in this transition. Working with policymakers would also be critical to incentivising the infrastructural and mechanical processes.  

As consumers, we should support brands pioneering circularity in design, manufacturing and disposal processes. As individuals, we should change our mindset to focus on closet longevity. We should keep a close eye on developments in this space and question brands if they fail to be part of this necessary transformation.    

4. Efficient Use of Resources

Consumer industries have recklessly strained natural resources and impacted biodiversity for profits since their inception. They now face the very real possibility of ecosystem collapse devastating for humanity and the survival of their business. The threat of the climate crisis and the unprecedented urgency to avoid “runaway climate change” in the next decade sets the tone for the fourth pillar. 

In the textile industry, the biggest environmental impact occurs during the processing stage, which makes it a high priority area. Several industry leaders have attempted to make more informed decisions and implement measures to improve operational efficiency at this stage. However, studies estimate that the current pace and efficacy of decarbonisation strategies would lead to double the maximum emissions required to meet the Paris Agreement by 2030. 

The agenda again stresses the need for collaboration between peers, manufacturers, government and financial institutions to implement and scale efficiency programmes. Setting science-based targets and investing in nature-based solutions are some of the exciting opportunities highlighted. The most important point raised is the need to set industry-wide standards and baselines to focus on the industry’s resources efficiently.  

Climate change has turned into such a buzzword that often practical solutions are buried in a sea of fancy acronyms and catchphrases thrown at us every day. Moreover, the challenge of resource management is too massive to be resolved in a fragmented manner by individual companies. Brands need to come together and work collaboratively towards a comprehensive systematic change.  

5. Smart Material Choices

The material mix is responsible for up to two-thirds of the brand’s impact on water, energy and land use, as well as its air emissions and waste. However, addressing this hotspot is not very straightforward. The debate around the environmental, social and ethical impact of raw materials, such as fibres, has always been very complicated and oftentimes contentious. There is also a general lack of data on the environmental impact of existing fibres and the development of new fibres. 

Despite the challenges, progress has still been made but potential long-term impacts of the new fibres remain to be seen. The agenda rightly points out that companies should be aware of tradeoffs as purely switching material mix is not a solution. They should consider fabrics with properties suited for several applications. Industry frontrunners should set industry-wide standards o enable joint action. Working collaboratively with raw material suppliers, manufacturers, researchers, and industry associations is necessary for a holistic shift towards sustainable material. 

At the launch ceremony, in her opening remarks, Dr Kristen Dunlop of EIT Climate-KIC stressed that the textile industry needs to urgently start innovating and transforming business models if they intend to survive the current climate emergency and move towards a more equitable society. She urged them to “think of possibility, not plausibility or probability.” Fashion industry leaders have taken the first step in fixing the problems by accepting them. With the support of many forthcoming EU legislation targeting green procurement and safeguarding human rights issues, we might be at a turning point in history. 

Most importantly, let us not forget our role as consumers to constantly question and demand answers to #WhoMadeMyClothes? and #WhatsInMyClothes?.