What does the IPCC report mean for the fashion industry?

By Anvita Srivastava

1 month ago

The fashion industry has long been unregulated, opaque and unaccountable, operating to the detriment of the environment. In this guest blog post by  Anvita Srivastava, explore what’s next for fashion and climate action.

Amid the constant news of record-breaking heatwaves, raging wildfires and unpredictable widespread floods in the past month alone, the evidence of climate change has seldom felt so crystal clear and undeniable. In the latest report published by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), scientists warn that the human race has dithered for too long and done too little. 

Since industrialisation, human activity has indisputably altered the climate in such unprecedented ways that we now face the possibility of breaching the 1.5 degree limit as soon as the 2030s. The report calls upon world leaders, governments, and businesses to take more stringent actions fast and take them now. As our social media is inundated with the call to reverse the code red climate change emergencies by these very stakeholders, what do the findings practically mean for the biggest emitters?

According to the World Bank, the fashion industry accounts for 10% of the global carbon emissions, which is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. It is estimated that at the current pace, the fashion industry would miss the 1.5 degree pathway by 50% by the end of this decade. And with global clothing and footwear demand set to increase by 63% in the next decade, the statistic doesn’t look very optimistic.

Despite the Global Fashion Agenda highlighting climate change action as one of the CEO’s core commitments for the decade and the UN Fashion Charter releasing their progress report, the effort being put in is simply not enough. Experts say the fashion industry’s actions lack urgency and focus. As the president-designate of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, Alok Sharma said of the fashion sector: “We need a fundamental shift. Sustainability cannot be the preserve of certain brands or discreet collections. Nods to climate action are absolutely not enough. We need the whole sector to embrace the goals of the Paris Agreement”

 

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A compelling case for urgent and stringent action

The fashion industry is the third-largest manufacturing sector and emitter globally with operations distributed across the globe. But where are these emissions actually coming from? To find the answer we have to zoom into the supply chain and work backwards from our wardrobes, through retail, to transport and shipping, to production and processing, right back to the beginning of the line: to the raw material. More than 70% of emissions are from upstream activities such as the fabric production stage, due to our over-reliance on synthetic fabrics derived from fossil fuels and energy-hungry manufacturing and processing facilities. 

Improvements in energy efficiency and a transition from fossil fuels to renewable-energy sources could deliver about 1 billion metric tons of emission abatement in 2030 across the fashion value chain.” -McKinsey & Co. and Global Fashion Agenda, Fashion on Climate

But switching to sustainable materials is not good enough if there is no change in the status quo for the rest of the operations. The Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, launched in December 2018 under the auspices of UN Climate Change, has declared the vision of achieving net-zero emissions in the sector by 2050. In the past two years alone, a lot of major brands have responded to stakeholder pressures to make net-zero commitments and grand reduction targets. However, it is unclear how they will actually achieve them. The current measures are too narrow and the minor tweaks may reduce the impact of the individual garments but are far from sufficient to transform the business model. The focus cannot be limited to materials and has to take into account the full life cycle of the garment. However, this is unfortunately not very straightforward.

The complex nature and involvement of multiple stakeholders result in upstream operations and emissions where brands have limited control and influence. In fact, the industry is so fragmented no single-player accounts for more than 1% of the market. However, the IPCC report makes it clear that brands need to step up and take ownership of the whole value chain if they are to make any significant difference. 

So what can the brands do? First, they need to move away from marketing-influenced decisions and adopt a science-based approach to identify baseline, set 1.5-degree targets, measure and regularly monitor emissions. Secondly, they should create synergies between different stakeholders in the supply chain, whether it is incentivising supply chain partners to use renewables or investing in capability building and create forward-looking impact. Fashion brands and retailers must also measure, mitigate and communicate its environmental impacts to tangibly reduce their climate impact. Lastly and most importantly, the industry needs to work together and shift from a culture of fast to slow fashion, linear to the circular business model and piecemeal to cohesive efforts. 

The IPCC report makes it abundantly clear that urgent and aggressive action is necessary for the fashion industry’s survival. There are abundant opportunities for accelerated decarbonisation across a garment life cycle. These include decarbonising material production through regenerative agriculture, minimising waste, decarbonising garment manufacturing in the upstream operations and using sustainable materials, improved packaging, decarbonised retail systems, regenerative end-of-life ecosystems, and reduced over-production from brands’ own operations. Collective action and unequivocal commitments are a necessity to reach net-zero value chain emissions by 2050.

 

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Ownership of the workforce

As is often the case when discussing climate change, we tend to focus on the numbers and overlook the most important consideration: people. The fashion industry has to take into account the climate change impact on the world’s most vulnerable, as they form the backbone of the supply chain workforce. 

The garment sector has been historically notorious for taking zero accountability of the supply chain workers. A lot of western big brands have been occupied with mergers, acquisitions and divestments as they reconcile with the economic shockwave of 2020. While the industry is recovering faster than expected, the workers – many of whom at present are unemployed and unprotected – have been left to fend for themselves. The brands have merely been attempting to pass on the responsibility to the next party while the impoverished literally struggle to survive. 

“Around 21% of accelerated abatement potential is directly related to consumer actions in the use-phase and end-of use phase, enabled by conscious consumption and new industry business models”.  -McKinsey & Co. and Global Fashion Agenda, Fashion on Climate

A similar trend can be observed in the climate change discussions. No brand wants to take ownership of ensuring the safety and well-being of the people responsible for the existence of their products. Along with the production, the big brands have mastered the art of outsourcing all the negative social and climate change impacts on the millions of workers to third parties. This is unacceptable and calls to establish a clear link between the climate agenda, workers rights and labour practices. 

Whether 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees, these commitments are meaningless if they fail to protect human life. A USD 2.5 trillion industry, employing roughly 430 million workers, fashion not only has the resources but also the moral obligation to ensure the safety of each and every person part of their value chain.

Influencing sustainable consumer behaviour

The fashion industry, including both brands and e-commerce retailers, have enough influence to not only change their own operations but also support decarbonisation efforts in the industry and help consumers make more sustainable purchasing choices.

The main drivers would be a reduction in overproduction and overconsumption and investment in the scalability of circular business models. If companies provide consumers options and facilities to rent, resell, repair and refurbish clothes, it would move the industry closer to the closed-loop system and potentially avoid around 143 million tonnes of GHG emissions by 2030. According to McKinsey’s Fashion on climate report, currently, less than 1% of used products are recycled back into the garment value chain and increased recycling has the potential to abate almost 18 million tonnes of emissions annually.

Circular fashion companies like resale, rental and swapping give consumers more sustainable buying options andpush the conversation in the right direction. Creating an ecosystem that fosters this new way of thinking and adopting circular fashion principles is an indispensable and vital instrument in the fashion industry’s arsenal of tools to combat climate change.

Looking ahead for the future of fashion

The IPCC report is a massive red alert that after spending the last 30-40 years ignoring the warnings of scientists, we have nearly run out of time for climate action. The fashion industry has lost the privilege of taking slow reactionary actions and needs to aggressively pursue proactive strategies to shift away from the current trajectory which misses the 1.5 degree pathway. However changing the trajectory requires mass cross-border collaboration throughout the value chain involving active dialogues between brands, governments, regulatory authorities and non-state actors. 

Progress has been made in the area by a number of forums such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Textile Exchange, and Fashion Pact, which bring together key industry players to support low carbon emission efforts. VC funding for circular innovation and decarbonisation technologies in Asia by Good Fashion FundFashion Charter’s Policy Working Group’s policy engagement across the Southeast Asian region and perhaps most importantly, the development of the Milestone Document by COP 26 High-Level Climate Champions Fashion sector team. The document represents the industry’s decarbonisation targets and initiatives and provides a mechanism for promoting and amplifying existing initiatives on the road to COP26 and beyond.

And when all is said and done, the success of the fashion industry’s efforts won’t be measured by the grandiosity of the commitments or the mere acknowledgement of the crisis but by how fast these leaders utilise their massive resources to offset years of damage and recalibrate the trajectory of the industry. We need urgent legislation to force brands to act. Science has left no room for ambiguity – change is imperative.

 

Image: Christain Boltanski’s ‘No Man’s Land,” composed entirely of 30 tons of discarded clothing, on display at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City, May 2010.