Industry Should Get This: COP’s More than Just a Fashion Show

16 Dec 2023 Blog
Photo of Urška Trunk

Urska Trunk, Campaign Manager, Changing Markets Foundation

First published on Texfash on 16 December 2023:

COP28 in Dubai wrapped up with a sense of mixed emotions. While expectations for a decisive phase out of fossil fuels weren’t fully met, the conference carried a significant historical victory. It marked the first time a COP acknowledged the need to shift away from fossil fuels. The COP calls on countries to contribute to “transitioning away” from fossil fuels and for the first time delivering unmistakable message that the time is running out on the use of coal, oil and gas.

The fashion industry shifted from the side-lines to a more prominent role in the discussions at this climate conference. Panels, interactive events, sustainable fashion show and Stella McCartney’s pavilion exhibiting sustainable and innovative fashion materials signalled a growing recognition of fashion can play in mitigating climate change. The fashion sector, despite lofty promises and green ambitions, remains deeply entwined with the fossil fuel industry the world is desperate to leave behind. The sector itself is responsible for up to 8% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Not only does fashion heavily rely on fossil fuel for energy to produce their garments and transport them across the world, but a staggering 69% of all textile fibres are derived from fossil fuels, with projections indicating a potential for further expansion in the future. Our own research found that in 2015, polyester production for textiles alone was responsible for emissions of over 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent – similar to the annual GHG emissions of Mexico or 180 coal-fired power plants. This is projected to nearly double by 2030, reaching twice the GHG emissions of Australia.

Yet, some discussions at COP failed to grasp the gravity of the fashion industry’s detrimental impacts on the climate. A fashion panel on innovation and sustainability in fashion held at COP’s prominent venue, the Green stage, featured Naomi Campbell as a key speaker on sustainable fashion. Campbell, known for her recent collaboration with the fast fashion giant Pretty Little Thing, a brand churning out low-quality garments at a rapid pace for prices as low as £1.50,  presents a stark contradiction to what conversation on sustainable fashion should be about. According to the recent Bloomberg investigation, 89.3% of garments sold by Pretty Little Thing contained some type of plastic fibres, produced from fossil fuels.

While other panels, such as that of the Global Fashion Agenda Assembly provided more substantial insights into what companies are doing, possible sustainable solutions, and what is still needed to transform the sector, it was disappointing that they did not open the floor for questions or comments from people in the room, who travelled from around the globe to be part of these discussions.

Another unfortunate attempt to embracing sustainable fashion during COP28 included the entire staff wearing outfits made from plastic bottles, produced by DGrade through its initiative Simply Bottles. Turning plastic bottles into clothes is a well-documented greenwashing tactics, and even deemed a false solution in the EU Textile strategy. While brands can reduce emissions in their supply chains by opting for this option, we have always seen this as a sticking plaster solution, as it breaks the potentially closed-loop cycle of bottle-to-bottle recycling. Also, clothes made from these bottles continue to create microplastic pollution and cannot be efficiently recycled back into clothes and are more likely to end up landfilled or burned.

Some notable announcements at COP indicated a step in the right direction. Bestseller and H&M Group pledged to invest in a major offshore wind project in Bangladesh. While the project is still at the very early stages of development, it underscores that fashion brands hold immense power to support their suppliers in a just transition away from fossil fuel, provided they follow through with substantial investments. HSBC committed $4.3 million to the Apparel Impact Institute’s $250 million Fashion Climate Fund, which received an initial $40 million from lead funders, including Lululemon and H&M Group. The aim of the fund is to identify and scaling tools to reduce carbon emissions in the supply chain. However, in light of the estimated $1 trillion is needed to finance the fashion industry’s decarbonization by 2050, these efforts represent a drop in the ocean of what’s necessary. The industry still has a long journey ahead to achieve substantial change.

This is why it was great that Changing Markets Foundation teamed up with Stand.Earth, Planet Tracker, and a Ukraine youth delegate to host an event in the Ukrainian pavilion about unveiling fossil fashion. We presented our latest report, Crude Couture: Fashion Brands’ Continued Links to Russian Oil, which reveals that major polyester producers increased the use of Russian oil in 2023, while the majority of fashion brands and retailers continue to turn a blind eye to the problem, despite being warned about it over a year ago.

Our last year’s investigation revealed Russia’s pivotal role as a primary oil supplier for key polyester producers India’s Reliance Industries and China’s Hengli Group. These companies produce polyester used by garment manufacturers worldwide and numerous fashion brands. This year we went back to 43 fashion companies with a questionnaire to see if they have cut ties with these suppliers. We discovered a troubling reality: Only two companies, Esprit and G-Star Raw, confirmed cutting ties, while Hugo Boss committed to phase out polyester and nylon by 2030. Despite our outreach, most brands remain silent or downplay the issue. Even those known for ethical claims and environmental commitments, such as Patagonia, ASOS and Kering, have stayed silent or pleaded ignorance. In 2023, some companies still cite supply chain opacity as an excuse for inaction, which is starting to look more and more like an intentional strategy to avoid accountability.

In the meantime, the biggest polyester producers supplying major fashion brands have not only continued to profit from importing discounted Russian oil amidst ongoing war but are doubling down on their reliance on fossil fuels. In early 2023, Reliance Industries purchased over half of India’s total crude imports from Russia, together with another firm. Reliance reportedly draws a third of its crude supply from Russia. The company ramped-up its revenue from the oil-to-chemicals business, including polyester production, since the war started and is investing in expanding Reliance’s polyester capacity, further fuelling the fashion industry’s addiction to synthetics. Similarly, China’s Hengli is receiving significant Russian crude shipments this year. The company has invested $20 billion in a project to produce polyester from coal, while we are in the midst of climate emergency.

This points to an industry stuck in not only outdated, but unethical practices and sheds light on the fashion industry’s perpetuation of fossil fuel dependence, when they should start phasing out fossil fuels. It showcases fashion industry’s lack of action on climate change and humanitarian crises—all in pursuit of profit. These actions also directly oppose recommendations set out at COP27 in the UN High Level Expert Group “Integrity Matters” report, which calls to halt expansion of fossil fuel including coal, and concrete plans for fossil fuels phase out.

Ana Bohushenko, a Youth Climate Delegate added to the panel debate by revealing that Russia accumulated more than EUR 550 billion in revenue from fossil fuel exports from the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine until November 30, 2023. In 2024, the Kremlin is set to allocate nearly a third of its total expenditures to the military and military-industrial complex, revealing the substantial funding sourced from the oil business towards ongoing war.

Moreover, while fashion brands tout their plans for decarbonizing supply chains, Rachel Kitchin from exposed a disheartening truth: many of these global fashion companies are destined to miss their 2030 climate targets, according to their latest research. Even though nine out of fourteen brands reported a reduction in emissions between from 2018/2019 to the end of 2022. However, if the current five-year trajectory continues to 2030, only Levi’s, Kering, Ralph Lauren and Gap are projected to reduce emissions enough to meet or exceed their commitments to keep warming under 1.5C. The remaining nine brands will fail unless serious action is taken in their supply chains to phase out fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy. Moreover, most brands’ emissions increased again in 2022, casting doubt on fossil fuel phase-out prioritization. Perhaps surprising, but the report found that fast fashion brands are outperforming luxury and athletic brands in decarbonization. Rachel’s findings painted a dire picture of an industry where green pledges too often end up as mere lip service.

Lastly, Peter Elvin from Planet Tracker highlighted a critical issue within the apparel industry: investors’ funding is predominantly concentrated in the garment manufacturing and retail segments of the supply chain, away from the areas causing the most significant environmental damage. Peter underscored that to have a sustainable fashion industry, this mismatch of financial investment and environmental harms needs addressing. This means retailers need to work with suppliers to improve their environmental footprint.

In summary, our event at COP, alongside the broader discussions, resonates with a clear message: it’s time for the fashion industry to match its green rhetoric with robust measures to decarbonize, invest in renewable energy and phase-out reliance on fossil fuels. As climate talks signal a global shift, the fashion sector’s reluctance to break free from fossil fuel dependence not only damages its credibility but also perpetuates a crisis that demands immediate, meaningful action. It’s not just about showing up for climate talks and setting lofty climate goals— it’s about taking action, supporting their suppliers and mobilising finance to achieve these goals. Anything less is a distraction strategy and a setback for the future we all aspire to build.

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