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Fashion

Fashion brands using carbon-offsetting may as well be rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic – renewables are the only option

The fashion industry must phase out coal by 2030 if they really want to avert the climate crisis and we need the legislation to back this up, writes Sophie Benson

Friday 21 August 2020 18:19 BST
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We are, without a doubt, in the midst of a global emergency, but a quick glance at how the fashion industry is operating and you might be convinced otherwise.

This year, approximately 100 million items of clothing, 13 for each person on the planet, will be produced. To make those garments, the industry will rely heavily on coal for electricity and heat, and two-thirds of the fabrics used will be derived from fossil fuels. Almost all material (97 per cent) will come from virgin sources and, once manufactured, the clothes will be shipped or flown to their destination, the plane or ship burning fossil fuels as it goes.

A new report from environmental non-profit Stand.earth has revealed the urgent need for fashion brands to go fossil-free. With a number of non-negotiable steps, the organisation provides a roadmap for brands to cut their ties with fossil fuels, and it’s about time.

In 2018, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that “global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030” in order to limit global warming to 1.5C. If we fail to hit that target and global warming reaches 2C or more, scientists predict we could see an almost total loss of coral reefs, an almost ice-free Arctic Ocean, increases in extreme temperatures, water scarcity, food shortages and many more life-threatening environmental changes.

Because of its resource-heavy, high-volume model, the fashion industry is responsible for between 5 and 10 per cent of global greenhouse emissions, with emissions expected to grow by 30 per cent by 2030.

But fashion, with all its smoke and mirrors, is pretty great at painting an eco-friendly image of itself. In February, Burberry (the brand infamous for previously burning its unsold clothes) declared its AW20 show would be certified “carbon neutral”, while back in September 2019 Gucci announced it is now “entirely carbon neutral” as a brand. Gucci’s claims of being carbon neutral are somewhat more impressive than others because its calculations include the whole supply chain while many focus solely on stores and offices, steering clear of notoriously complicated supply chains.

All too often fashion reports and advisories are vague and leave too much wiggle room for brands to move the goalposts and claim successes where there are none

“Twenty-three years after the negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol, there are really no excuses for not having a handle on the amount of carbon or other GHG pollution in your supply chain,” says Gary Cook, Stand.earth’s global climate campaign director. It’s a refreshingly tough stance when we’re so often placated with promises of brands “working towards” transparency goals.

While Gucci does include its supply chains in its calculations, the brand depends on carbon offsets to reach its carbon neutral status, something the report spotlights as a wrong turn because they “do nothing to displace demand for fossil fuels or displace the pollution they generate”.

Offsetting is just one of several wrong turns listed in the report. Others include switching to gas (“coal to renewables, not coal to gas,” the report says), planting trees while carrying on emitting as usual (“tree-washing”) and relying on the “scrubber loophole” for shipping which allows brands to keep using highly toxic High Fuel Oil by installing a scrubber which removes the sulphur from the exhaust – but then dumps it in the ocean instead.

London Fashion Week AW20: Sustainability

All too often fashion reports and advisories are vague and leave too much wiggle room for brands to move the goalposts and claim successes where there are none. Commitments such as “making a positive impact throughout supply chains“ or “ensuring materials are responsibly sourced“ are purposefully opaque and don’t reveal any actions or targets which can later be investigated or criticised.

Thankfully, this report does away with wishy washy statements. The industry must phase out coal by 2030, and it must do so by investing in renewables, sourcing low-carbon, plant-based fibres, utilising renewable materials and circular production and investing in green – not greenwashed – shipping.

An emphasis within the report on brands absorbing costs and responsibility is vital, especially after so many brands left suppliers to shoulder the financial burden of the pandemic. “Fashion brands need to rethink their relationships with suppliers, shifting away from extracting the lowest cost/unit price as the primary strategy,” Cook says. “Global brands should partner with their suppliers in sharing costs and work together to change national energy policies.”

Stand.earth’s report is thorough, and firm in the action brands must take to cut their ties with fossil fuels. Because we need realistic solutions that are likely to be implemented, it understandably focuses on making achievable changes within the parameters of the current global fashion system. But, as author and academic Devon Powers wrote in her recent essay Pandemic Futures, “A truly open-minded approach to the future would entertain that maybe one’s company shouldn’t continue,” and reports such as this can inadvertently give brands permission to make select adjustments then forge ahead, rather than questioning their place and culpability within a global future.

However, short of ripping up fashion and starting again, independent action plans such as this – backed up by legislation – can pave the way to a less damaging industry.

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