One thing that I’ve come to realize, about fashion’s sustainability discourse, is that a critical error is to report what is said, to the exclusion of what is not. It’s easy to get caught up in the dozens of daily news stories about textiles made from waste, plant-based plastics, and the ‘resale revolution’, which collectively suggest the planet is being saved. However, the associated impact reductions (at a brand and sector level) are often not known, not calculated, or not communicated.
There are more sustainability initiatives, products, and business models than ever, creating an illusion of ‘rising sustainability’ while there is scientific proof that fashion’s climate impacts are worsening every year, as they have done since mass production ratcheted up in the 2000s after brands outsourced their production to Asia.
Stated more plainly, the strategies and actions deployed by the industry so far, in a cumulative sense, have not worked. Perhaps this is because climate commitments have either not been set or actioned (they are all voluntary, in any case) or they have not prioritized the biggest impacts decisively enough. Or maybe those steering fashion’s sustainability narrative don’t have the ownership or vested interest in solving the biggest problems where they exist: in the supply chain.
Upon entering this year’s Global Fashion Summit (previously Copenhagen Fashion Summit), I was primed to report on the status of sustainability efforts with one large and looming question: What evidence is there that the industry’s impacts will reduce in line with sector-wide targets, when they have only ever increased, every year across the industry’s entire history? Furthermore, the illusion of climate and sustainability action is a powerful smokescreen—a cloud of inertia—that risks suffocating the flames of discontent, fear, and analysis that stoke demands for conclusive proof of impact reduction, rather than commentary and anecdotes.
These reflections served as a benchmark for my summit coverage, acting as a filter for all things intangible and without urgency. Here’s what made it through that filter:
Ganni says goodbye offsetting, hello insetting
On the summit’s Action Stage (the little sister of the main stage) case studies were presented in an interactive panel format, followed by audience Q&A—a welcome relief from the arms-length rhetoric on the main stage. Women’s fashion brand Ganni, represented by Founder Nicolaj Reffstrup and Environmental Responsibility Manager Jade Wilting, presented a biodiversity and renewable energy case study from within their supply chain. Along with their suppliers in Portugal, Ramil and Rodrigues, the brand has invested in solar infrastructure based on emissions assessments by Plan A, and flora and fauna surveys being conducted by biodiversity consultants Strix.
Together with their suppliers and expert advisors, Ganni is conducting carbon insetting (the implementation of nature-based solutions such as reforestation, agroforestry, renewable energy, and regenerative agriculture) instead of carbon offsetting.
For audience members silently pondering how Ganni managed (and was inclined) to launch such an initiative, which benefits every brand working with Ramil and Rodrigues, Reffstrup plainly and simply stated: “We shifted the money we were spending on offsetting to insetting”. No fuss. No excuses about cost. No bleating about the need for collective action between brands. No waiting for someone else to do it first–just channeling funds to where they need to be to achieve climate targets and build supply chain resilience.
The story here, though, isn’t just the insetting, but rather the dialogue it initiated between competitors. During the Q&A, an employee from Finnish brand Marimekko announced that they too were working with one of the suppliers Ganni mentioned and asked the panelists if they would be willing to meet and share their strategy, particularly regarding biodiversity—to which Reffstrup and Wilting obliged. This moment sailed through the aforementioned filter because it demonstrated to the hundred or so people in the room what collaboration between brands to unlock investment in supply chain solutions looks and sounds like. It also showed that competitors can win within a collaborative framework and that the simple act of Ganni naming their suppliers on stage allowed the Marimekko representative to make the connection and pursue collaborative action.
A landmark sector-wide sustainability initiative: Net Zero Pakistan
Also announced on the Action Stage during the summit was the first country-level initiative to transition an entire textile and garment industry’s operations to net zero. Net Zero Pakistan is an official accelerator of the UN-backed Race to the Zero campaign. The initiative was created by the Pakistan Environment Trust (PET), a non-profit quantifying and communicating the cost of climate change to Pakistan and its people, and modelling the route to net-zero as both an urgent climate risk mitigation strategy, and as a business opportunity for Pakistan and the companies sourcing from the country.
PET Executive Director Talha Khan explained during the panel discussion that for Pakistan, achieving net-zero is the difference between sustaining life (economically and environmentally) and utter devastation. “Pakistan ranks among the world’s most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change” he explained, and this is despite contributing very little to global emissions. Pakistan is also experiencing increasingly severe weather including droughts, floods, and heatwaves, which impact food and water security and threaten the agricultural industry, which employs 40% of Pakistani workers. “Climate change has happened in Pakistan already,” he declared.
But on the ground in the textile and apparel supply chain, investment in infrastructure to fight climate change is too expensive and incremental for the majority SME sector. For brands, their ambitious climate targets are pipe dreams without impact reduction in their supply chains (where up to 90% of environmental impacts occur). Simultaneously, for impact fund investors, they are seeking opportunities to invest in the growth of the green energy sector; and from a shareholder perspective, supply chain resilience and climate risk mitigation must now be quantified alongside all other fiduciary risks–expanding brands’ ESG data collection and analysis to stave off supply chain disasters. Net Zero Pakistan answers all these needs by uniting stakeholders whilst recognizing the motivations and priorities of each and securing Pakistan’s future in the process.
If successful, the initiative would ensure that sourcing from Pakistan offers net-zero emissions production from raw material to the final product in its leading material and product categories (for example cotton and denim). This panel was cause for collective, sector-level hope in the face of the siloed, introspective brand talk on the Main Stage about individual targets and non-binding pledges. The Action Stage format allowed audience engagement, interaction, and deeper probing into key environmental and social issues, and was a standout addition to the previous summit format.
I engaged with several investors during the summit and their inclusion in this summary signals growing access to capital for promising technology and materials, but comes with the recognition that such investment is still governed by delivering profit to investors–not solving the climate crisis.
When investors place their money in an impact portfolio, often the investment duration is short (compared to material innovation timelines, for example) with hard exit dates, and diversification based on ‘risk’ rather than impact potential. Of course this is the case, you might say—investors want to make money, not lose it. But determining financial ‘risk’ is a less than perfect science (look no further than Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow to find out why). Many manufacturing countries (where impact reduction is critical for the industry and livelihoods) are deemed exceedingly risky due to (wait for it) climate impacts, economic volatility, and lax governance—a barrier that must be addressed if the industry is to reduce emissions and ecosystem damage.
Right now, investors are prioritising the sustainability pain-points of brands, rather than the investment in infrastructure needed in the supply chain. Based on the industry’s sustainability track record, it seems that manufacturers and innovators at the coal face of climate change may be better placed to advise on where investment should be channeled to deliver the environmental impact reductions the sector is chasing.
A step forward was made during the summit when the Apparel Impact Institute announced a $250M Fashion Climate Fund. It’s lead investors are Lululemon, H&M Group, H&M Foundation, and The Schmidt Family Foundation, forming a “collaborative funding model between philanthropy and corporate entities”. The mechanics and criteria of the fund’s investments have not yet been announced, but its remit is “to drive collective action to tackle fashion’s carbon emissions by identifying, funding, scaling, and measuring verified impact solutions in fashion industry supply chains”.
Allbirds on the SBTi intensity target ‘loophole’
“We have a carbon intensity reduction target of 95% per product and an absolute emissions reduction target of 42% by 2030” Hana Kajimura, Head of Sustainability at Allbirds explained during an interview. Her comment refers to two very different, but equally acceptable, emissions reduction metrics in the science-based targets initiative (SBTi). Within these metrics lies a fundamental problem.
Companies can elect to set both or either type of target, but only the absolute target addresses the total volume of products made and thereby commits to reducing emissions even if sales increase. Simply put, intensity targets alone are a red flag, because they aim to reduce emissions per product, with no accountability for growth in production volumes. For example, a brand could halve their emissions per product, but double their sales, effectively standing still whilst ‘achieving’ their emissions goals and claiming a victory on impact reduction.
Allbirds’ absolute reduction target keeps them honest because no matter how much their business grows between now and 2030, they must find a way to reduce their total emissions by 42%, or they’ll miss their (very public) targets. The message? Beware intensity in place of absolute targets, particularly if set by global brands with high production volumes.
Revelations, both public and private
There were some interesting revelations during the summit sessions and private networking events outside the official schedule (which is where the summit offers tremendous value and insight, in my view).
I took objection to Kathleen Talbot stating on the Action Stage that “Reformation is carbon neutral already” given that this is a purchased badge of honor. The Chief Sustainability Officer’s declaration prompts the question: If the brand is carbon neutral, haven’t they achieved sustainability (in emissions terms, at least)? Well, no, because ‘carbon neutral’ is a marketing term (not a real or absolute term) that adds to the sustainability smokescreen I explained earlier.
Carbon ‘neutrality’ is typically achieved by purchasing offsets, which rely on carbon accounting rather than actual emissions reductions, and this goes some way to explaining how the ever-increasing number of ‘carbon neutral’ brands are contributing to the sector-wide increase in emissions levels every year.
A similar comment was made on the Main Stage by Leo Rongone, CEO of Bottega Venetta, and reported to me by a fellow journalist. His statement suggesting the brand’s products are sustainable because they last a lifetime (I sure hope so, given the price tag) demonstrates the gulf between sustainability marketing and sustainability measurement: time is not an offsetting mechanism, nor does it safeguard biodiversity or ensure social equity.
During a private conversation, the Head of Sustainability at a European SME brand shared concerns that specific SME-related sustainability challenges were being overlooked. The European textiles, fashion, and footwear sectors comprise 176,000 businesses which are mostly SMEs with less than 50 employees, representing 90% of the overall industry workforce. Small and micro-businesses with less than 10 employees are seen as key change-makers for the industry, due to their agility and overall control over their operations.
The vast potential for SMEs to adopt more sustainable business models and embrace the circular economy is also outlined in a recent EU report authored by the Centre For Sustainable Fashion, but it seems as though this outsized opportunity was not leveraged at the summit, with SMEs underrepresented on the Main Stage. Crucially, SME sustainability solutions are not simply downsized versions of global brand solutions, so targeted discussions and solutions are needed. Hassan Pierre, Co-Founder, and CEO of Maison de Mode, presented a sustainability case study for SMEs on the Action Stage, but there is a demand for more of this tailored content at future summits, and an unrecognised potential for SMEs to drive the urgent changes the industry needs.
In summary, tangible sustainability progress was in short supply at the summit, despite the myriad conversations applauding rising awareness of climate change and brands setting science-based targets. The individualistic approach of sustainability reporting and communications looks unfit to steer the industry towards sector-wide goals. Instead, sector-level initiatives like Net Zero Pakistan offer a more unified approach that stands to benefit all stakeholders, from farmers to investors and shareholders. Add to this the impending regulatory changes regarding environmental impact reporting, extended producer responsibility (EPR), and ESG business risk assessment, and the supply chain is where the action, and opportunities, are and will continue to be.
For next year’s summit, a supply-chain-centric approach would capitalize on the Action Stage discussions from this year, and deliver wider representation from manufacturing countries, for whom extreme climate change has arrived. Farmers, mills, and garment manufacturers are the textile and fashion industry’s experts regarding the environmental and social impacts in the supply chain and have likely identified viable solutions already; but they lack the financial resources and commitment from purchasers of their goods (brands and retailers) to implement these impact reduction opportunities, and investors continue to focus on the ‘lower risk’ Global North.
Furthermore, to put the summit’s scope in context, China is the biggest manufacturer of apparel (43.5% of the total market in 2020) and is the world’s largest textile exporter, yet there was no representation from China on the schedule. This fact hits at the summit’s ‘global’ title because the speakers did not represent the global industry in a balanced way. Addressing this in the European edition of the summit is critical, in my view, if the industry is to face challenges and exploit opportunities. Ganni and Marimekko found a way to collaborate within their supply chains during a live Q&A on the Action Stage, so imagine the power of bringing suppliers into these discussions, too.
Finally, balanced Asian representation must not be siloed to the upcoming Asia edition of the summit, lest it reinforce the division and fractured dialogue between stakeholders in the Global North and those in the Global South. Achieving this truly global representation must be a focus for next year’s European edition if the industry hopes to change its current trajectory of overshooting all its climate targets.
Full disclosure: I sat on the Net Zero Pakistan panel as an independent journalist and commentator. I have no involvement in the initiative.