What does the War in Ukraine Mean for Fashion’s Sustainability Goals?

What does the war in Ukraine have to do with the climate crisis? Plenty, say climate scientists and sustainable fashion advocates.

A switch to renewable sources of energy has taken on new urgency. Before the war in Ukraine, Russia accounted for 35 per cent of gas supplies in Europe and 12 per cent of the world’s oil. Coupled with the highest rates of inflation seen in decades, the conflict is causing energy prices to skyrocket. “As conventional energy prices spike higher, the relative economic attractiveness of renewables continues to grow,” analysts at Schroders, an asset management firm, wrote this month. “The situation in Ukraine adds further credence to the argument for transitioning our energy system to one based on cheap, clean, reliable power.”

Ukraine is already feeling the effects of climate change — including heavy flooding in the Carpathian mountains and milder winters. The water scarcity crisis in Crimea has been an ongoing source of tension between Ukraine and Russia. “The war itself has exacerbated the effects of climate change, with oil and gas being dumped in Ukraine, and forest fires damaging the country’s carbon sink,” says Svitlana Krakovska, a member of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Climate advocates say the transition to renewable energy isn’t happening fast enough, and the war in Ukraine is a symptom of that. According to asset management group Schroders, fossil fuels still account for 85 per cent of the global energy mix, despite companies and governments making renewable energy and net zero commitments.

Beyond the widespread human suffering, Ukrainians are also recognising the long-term impact on their nation and the broader environment of the Russian invasion. “We cannot ignore the destruction happening in Ukraine right now, especially since some of the battles are being fought on nuclear ground,” says Olya Kuryshchuk, the Ukrainian founder of magazine 1 Granary. “It might not appear to be a priority — less urgent than the lives of civilians — but the impact of this war on the natural environment will have the most long-lasting impact, indirectly affecting the lives and health of many.”

Accelerating the energy transition

Ukraine has invested in nuclear power, which now accounts for more than half of the country’s energy, but the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 in Ukraine highlighted the risks of this form of energy. “I was a child when the Chernobyl disaster happened and I still see the consequences in my children’s health,” IPCC’s Krakovska says. “We can speak about nuclear power as a rapid solution, but it shouldn’t be a long-term solution.”

Lucy Shea, CEO of change agency Futerra, urges companies and countries to invest in small-scale renewables and mass electrification instead. “We need a diverse grid where everyone is their own supplier, decentralised from powerful people colluding to drive war and exacerbate climate change,” she says.

“In light of Russia’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine, it’s right that we move away from dependence on Russian energy, increase our self-reliance and diversify supply,” a spokesperson for the UK government tells Vogue Business. The UK is hoping to supercharge its renewable energy and nuclear capacity, while supporting the oil and gas industry in the North Sea, a move that has received some negative backlash from environmentalists.

The European Commission aims to reduce reliance on Russian gas by two thirds by the end of 2022, and become fully independent from all Russian fossil fuels well before 2030. “We cannot be in this situation where we depend on Russian energy that comes with strings attached,” European Commission executive vice president for the European Green Deal Frans Timmermans said in a statement this month.

The fashion industry has a role to play in increasing public awareness of the climate crisis and its potential solutions, says Krakovska. “Fashion is very powerful to change the minds of many people,” she explains, adding that the war should be a provocation for individuals in fashion to reflect on how much of its production and activities are unnecessary. “Try to put yourselves in our shoes. What would you take with you when you flee your homes? What really matters?”

Brands can use their “brainprint” or influence over consumer sentiment to shift popular behaviour, says Shea. “Many creative directors would consider themselves to be artists, and artists have a key role to play in driving progress. As we’ve seen on climate, fashion hasn’t played as much of a role as it could yet.”

Sustainability beyond renewables

For the fashion sector, as oil and gas prices rise, production of raw materials is likely to become more costly, says a spokesperson for the Clean Clothes Campaign. The risk is that brands push these costs onto suppliers, leaving garment workers to suffer the consequences.

Brands should ensure living wages and human rights throughout their supply chains, says Shea of Futerra. “The risk is that we bake the same problems into a more climate resilient world, instead of distributing power and ownership more evenly,” she explains. “Climate change, inequality and the war in Ukraine all come from the same corruption in the system and we need a shakedown of power to address that.”

Céline Semaan-Vernon, founder of non-profit Slow Factory, urges brands to reconsider their geopolitical relationships, and reflect on how their supply chains link to the continuing legacy of colonialism — with trade routes mirroring those of slavery, and countries in the Global South often suffering to meet the Global North’s fashion industry demands.

The war is a wake-up call to the world. “We have a very narrow window to put our civilisation on a climate resilient pathway and build a sustainable future. With this war, that window is becoming even narrower,” Krakovska says. “We really need to pay attention to this, because climate change will not stop and it will not wait.”

Source: Vogue Business