What Fashion Needs to Know About This Week’s UN Climate Report

Against a backdrop of deadly floods, wildfires and extreme heat waves that have made some parts of the world virtually uninhabitable, climate scientists issued a stark warning earlier this week: The planet is rapidly headed for catastrophic levels of warming “unequivocally” caused by human activity.

Some changes are already irreversible; and unless things improve, and fast, it’s going to get much worse, according to a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations’ climate research group.

The findings draw on thousands of scientific papers to provide a comprehensive overview of the causes and trajectory of climate change. Even in the best-case scenario, global temperatures are expected to continue to rise at least until the middle of this century.

The report concluded that humans have already heated the planet by around 1.1 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century and the rate of warming has accelerated in recent decades. Internationally agreed targets aim to limit the global rise in temperatures to no more than 1.5 degrees to stave off the worst effects of climate change. Without drastic, transformative action to slash greenhouse gas emissions, that level is likely to be breached within the next 20 years.

UN secretary general António Guterres dubbed the findings “a code red for humanity.”

So what does it mean for fashion?

The report ratchets up pressure on the industry to demonstrate tangible progress in tackling its environmental impact. Studies have found fashion is responsible for anywhere between 4 and 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but the industry isn’t moving anywhere near fast enough to cut its footprint.

Earlier this year, the inaugural BoF Sustainability Index found that actions are lagging commitments, even within the industry’s most highly resourced companies.

“Many make it look as if the fashion industry is starting to take responsibility, spending fantasy amounts on campaigns portraying themselves as ‘sustainable,’ ‘ethical,’ ‘green,’ ‘climate neutral’ or ‘fair.’ But let’s be clear: This is almost never anything but pure greenwash,” teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg posted to her five million followers on Twitter this week, after gracing the first cover of newly launched Vogue Scandinavia.

The IPCC report sets the scene for a major gathering of world leaders, business executives and climate advocates in Glasgow in November. The Conference of Parties, or COP26, is a make-or-break opportunity to take action.

1. Secure a Seat at the Table

Top items on the agenda at COP26 include phasing out coal, protecting and restoring natural ecosystems and financing plans to achieve net-zero emissions. Global initiatives to take on these challenges will inevitably impact fashion, which is already facing mounting regulatory scrutiny.

Among the events due to take place over the course of the conference, the UN-backed Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action will host a discussion on increasing climate ambition and goals. Designer Stella McCartney, who earlier this year told world leaders at the G7 that the industry needs stronger regulation and incentives to reduce its environmental impact, will be speaking at an event on the sidelines hosted by The New York Times.

Pursuing such engagement with policy makers and cross-industry stakeholders will become increasingly important for fashion if it is going to substantively drive down emissions. Government policies in consumer markets and manufacturing hubs will be vital to remove barriers like subsidies for fossil fuels and limited infrastructure for renewable energy sources that make it harder to decarbonise the industry’s supply chain.

2. Set More Ambitious Emissions Targets

The IPCC report makes clear that the window to avoid dangerous levels of global warming is narrow. Big fashion companies are setting increasingly ambitious targets to curb their emissions, though progress is less clear. One major challenge is that the bulk of the industry’s impact takes place in the supply chain, where brands have less direct control.

But expectations for the targets corporations should set are tightening. The Science-Based Targets Initiative, which guides businesses in setting emissions goals, will require targets to align with efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees from next year.

Meeting more ambitious emissions goals will be expensive. It will also require greater collaboration between brands and suppliers to shift fashion’s manufacturing supply chain away from fossil fuels. Those relationships have been badly tested during the pandemic, highlighting how much work will be needed to forge partnerships to progress.

3. Invest in transformative change

“There’s no way of getting around the fact that transitioning to a low-carbon supply chain is going to take investment and brands historically have not been willing to pay for that,” said Michael Sadowski, an independent sustainability consultant.

But the need for more spending isn’t limited to emissions reductions. Tackling the industry’s impact will require billions of dollars to develop and scale new technologies and new business models.

The good news is there’s a growing roster of promising solutions that range from regenerative models for farming to recycling innovations and biomaterials. Rental and resale, which hold out the prospect of an industry less focused on constant newness to drive growth, are also gaining traction. But companies need to start to commit beyond pilot projects and capsule collections and work with others both within and outside the industry to build markets and infrastructure that will support transformational change.

“Everybody’s just going to have to take a deep breath and start to make decisions that maybe, conventionally, 20 years ago would have seemed very risky,” said Laila Petrie, chief executive of sustainability consultancy 2050. “Now, I think if you don’t take the risk and start to pivot in earnest, you’re going to suffer, either through your consumer really being concerned about your behaviour, or [being] left behind when people jump on these new innovations.”