COP27: Will the fashion industry finally move from words to action?

28 Nov 2022 Blog

Nusa Urbancic, Campaigns Director, Changing Markets Foundation

First published on Texfash on 28 November 2022:

As the climate conference COP27 taking place in Sharm El-Sheik in Egypt ended, many have deplored lacklustre results and the involvement of over 600 fossil fuel lobbyists in the process. Despite several countries fighting to keep the 1.5 degree temperature goal agreed in Glasgow alive, they still could not agree to the main scientifically-proven strategy that will get us there: rapid phase-out of fossil fuels. Despite the growing support of countries to include this language, “fossil fuel phase-down” was conspicuously absent from all the drafts, and did not make it to the final text.

Fossil fuels are also the origin of almost all plastic, including synthetic fibres, that the fashion industry has become so dependent on. Plastic fibres are the real backbone of fast fashion, accounting for 69% of all textiles produced and this is on an upward trajectory. While people are well aware of pervasive plastic pollution and environmental concerns related to plastic packaging, such as plastic bottles, few realise that the same product is also present in our clothing, causing a significant waste problem, health concerns in the form of microfibre shedding and also contributing to the climate crisis. According to Stand.Earth synthetic materials present around 15-20% of the fashion sector’s emissions footprint. Our own calculations found that polyester production alone is responsible to the equivalent emissions of 180 coal-fired power plants.

Following a series of big announcements made at COP26 last year, when the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action (UNFCC) was updated to phase out coal, commit over 130 signatories to cut their supply chain emissions by half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050, significant fashion developments at COP27 were few. The Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) launched a ‘Fashion Industry Target Consultation’. This is yet another voluntary industry initiative calling on fashion stakeholders to define holistic and concrete targets for a net-positive industry. It will encourage organisations to share KPIs and milestones the industry should strive to meet. The plan is that chosen targets will be included in the GFA report in Copenhagen in 2024, and to provide an ‘assessment’ of the progress towards these targets annually from 2023 onwards. Unfortunately, this reads as yet more of the same voluntary fluff that so far did little to bring the fashion industry further on their ‘sustainability journey’, as we have demonstrated in our report Licence to Greenwash.

However, one of the surprising and unexpected results from COP27 (and a bit of a bombshell) was a UN report on the net zero commitments on non-state actors, which sets a powerful new standard for any companies that set climate targets and commitments. This report is very clear on fossil fuel phase-out, the need for ambitious scientific targets, supply chain transparency and the need to include all emissions within scope, including those in company supply chains, which are often conveniently forgotten. In the case of fashion, over 90% of the sector’s emissions come from the supply chain, so-called Scope 3 emissions. Crucially, Scope 3 emissions include both the end-of-life for clothing, the majority of which ends up landfilled or burnt, as well as upstream at the resource extraction stage, where there is an over-reliance on fossil fuels. As so many fashion companies have net zero targets and yet have been sluggish to address Scope 3 emissions, it will be interesting to observe how fast they will adapt these targets to these ambitious new recommendations.

Stand.Earth published a very interesting analysis of how this affects 10 fashion companies, ranging from luxury to sports and casual brands, comparing their net zero targets to the UN report. It shows that only two out of ten brands (H&M and Kering) have set emissions reduction targets of at least 50% that cover their supply chains, but none of them includes the full emissions from their supply chains (Scope 3). The brands also lag behind on transparency, but the biggest gap is when it comes to phasing out fossil fuels. Only half of the brands have committed to coal phase-out, while only Kering and H&M have committed to 100% renewable energy across their supply chains by 2030. When it comes to synthetics, none of the companies has any commitments to phase out fossil fuels-derived fibre.

This is why it was great to team up with Stand.Earth, Zero Waste Ukraine and Planet Tracker to present a recently released report by the Changing Markets Foundation at an event in the Ukrainian pavilion. The Report ‘Dressed to Kill – Fashion brands’ hidden links to Russian oil in a time of war’ exposed the supply chain links of major fashion brands to Russian oil through polyester production. While many countries have imposed sanctions, and multiple fashion companies have ceased operations in Russia, they are still funding the war through the backdoor, as their reliance on synthetic fibres grows.

As our research  was faced with a significant lack of transparency on fashion’s supply chains, we used shipping tracking, supplier lists published by brands or by the Open Apparel Registry as well as information disclosed to us by brands, in order to piece together the supply chains of numerous global brands to Reliance Industries and the Hengli Group – two of the world’s largest polyester producers. Our research has linked 39 out of 50 (78%) brands and parent companies to the Hengli Group or Reliance Industries supply chains, illustrating how widely polyester-based clothing made from controversial fossil fuels can spread through the global fashion industry. This stands in contrast to the sustainability commitments and high-profile green claims made by many of the same brands, including at COP27.

In addition to conflict oil, these fashion brands are also at risk of further undermining their climate commitments due to the fact that Chinese polyester producer Hengli has invested $20 billion in a project to produce polyester from coal. Our research revealed that over 30 brands are at risk of selling polyester produced from coal in the near future; including Benetton Group, Esprit, New Look and Next. Several of these brands specifically said they would not source from a supplier that produces polyester from coal.

Finally, fossil fashion also presents a huge waste problem, with growing mountains of non-recyclable clothing, often sent as second-hand clothing to countries like Ghana or Chile. In our panel, Iryna Myronova from Zero Waste Lviv pointed out that Ukraine is the fifth biggest importer of second hand clothing, and its waste burden has been exacerbated since the beginning of the war as unsuitable low-quality polyester clothing brought in as part of humanitarian aid piles up in warehouses. She called for people to rethink when they buy fast fashion items, as the industry is not only indirectly fuelling Russia’s war and aggression in Ukraine and beyond, but it also worsens the waste problem. Just donating to charity does not absolve consumers of responsibility, because low-quality used clothing often becomes someone else’s waste problem.

John Willis from Planet Tracker called out the lack of accountability in the sector. He said that Changing Markets’ report highlights why corporates need to implement traceability and transparency. Investors no longer accept, for example, conflict minerals or modern slavery in supply chains – it’s often against the law. If a brand says it doesn’t know where its products are coming from, it’s likely to be because it doesn’t have a system to trace them. It either doesn’t want to tell you, or it doesn’t care. Rachel Kitchin from Stand.Earth called on brands to commit to phase out fossil fuel-derived materials, kick out coal, and strive for 100% clean renewable energy across their supply chains by 2030.

The theme of Egypt’s climate talks was a focus on implementation. The pledges agreed upon in the past must give way to rapid action on tackling climate change and preparing for its effects. This also includes fashion companies, which are experts at talking the talk, but slow to walk the walk. The UN report on Net Zero targets will hopefully hold brands’ feet to the fire, so that they can invest their creativity into cleaning up their supply chains and moving away from fossil fashion.

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