Why Is Fashion Still Dragging Its Feet On Sustainability?

Photographed by Hunter Abrams | @hunterabrams

Currently, most brands aren’t doing enough to tackle climate change—despite the targets that have been set.

Fashion has embarked on a series of initiatives to reduce its impact on the planet in recent years. In 2018, major brands including Chanel, Gucci-owner Kering and H&M committed to net-zero emissions by 2050, as part of the United Nation’s Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action. A year later, Gucci announced that it was already carbon neutral, thanks to the help of carbon offsets (a flawed, yet arguably necessary practice that involves investing in environmental projects outside your supply chain). Then, Burberry took the ambition level a step further, by announcing its aim to be carbon positive by 2040.

But is fashion actually doing enough to address its impact on the climate? A new report from UN Climate Change and CDP suggested that only 45 per cent of Fashion Charter signatories have actually set targets that are in line with 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, many targets – including those approved by the Science Based Targets initiative, one of the two target-setting options outlined by the Fashion Charter – are relative to growth, particularly when it comes to indirect emissions in the supply chain (otherwise known as scope 3 emissions).

Considering the vast majority of fashion’s impact is in the supply chain, this means that it’s possible for absolute greenhouse gas emissions to go up, even if emissions have gone down per product sold, or in relation to growth. For example, Chanel has set a target of decreasing emissions by 40 percent by 2030 across its supply chain per unit sold, but is clear that this represents an absolute reduction of only around 10 percent. Meanwhile, Gucci-owner Kering’s emissions actually rose by 12 percent in 2022 compared to 2021.

“While some progress has been made on scope 1 and 2 [emissions that are owned and controlled by a company], we certainly need to see significant action in the supply chain,” Lindita Xhaferi-Salihu, the Fashion Charter lead at UN Climate Change, tells Vogue. It’s not all bad news though. “There are examples of companies doing well for example: 32 signatories reported achieving reductions in their scope 3 emissions with 13 and six achieving at least 30 percent and 50 percent respectively. These signatories demonstrate actionable ambition with ample opportunity for increased emissions reduction.”

However, it is worrying that the majority of brands still aren’t setting targets to reduce absolute emissions. The Science Based Targets initiative confirmed that its approved targets are only aligned with the 1.5 degrees Celsius pathway for scope 1 and 2 – the emissions owned and controlled by a company—but not scope 3. “We are reviewing our scope 3 methods to ensure that they align with the latest climate science,” a spokesperson added, while noting that scope 3 efforts do still have to be consistent with the “well below 2 degrees Celsius” pathway.

In March, Kering became the first major player to commit to reducing its absolute emissions, by ​​40 percent by 2035. Importantly, the goal includes indirect emissions created across the supply chain. “At the end of the day, when you have a lot of growth, you continue to emit more and more greenhouse gas emissions,” Marie-Claire Daveu, Kering’s chief sustainability officer, says. “You really need to reduce [the] absolute value.”

Kering plans to do this by focusing on three pillars: curbing overproduction using AI technology, improving raw material sourcing, and growing new—and more circular—business models. “Of course it will be challenging, but we think we will be able to do it,” Daveau continues.

When it comes to adopting lower-impact materials, fashion as a whole is still lagging behind. A report published by Textile Exchange in October found the industry is not on track to reduce the footprint of raw materials and fibres by 45 percent by 2030, which is what’s needed to keep in line with the 1.5 degrees Celsius pathway set out by the Paris Agreement. Definitions around sustainable and lower-impact materials also remain vague, leading to brands often overstating the progress that they’re making.

Still, brands like Chloé show that dramatic progress can be made in a relatively short period of time. When Gabriela Hearst took the helm, her first collection—autumn/winter 2023—contained four times the lower-impact materials compared to the previous year.  “Materials represent 58 percent of our total emissions, so it’s a key policy to decrease our impact,” Aude Vergne, global sustainability director at Chloé, explains.

The French fashion house has set a target of using 90 percent lower-impact materials, including recycled and organic cotton, recycled and regenerative wool, and regenerative leather, by 2025. Others are still falling behind on this front, though. The Fashion Pact, signed in 2019, has a commitment to use just 25 percent low-impact materials by 2025, while other major luxury brands lack any targets in this area. (The UN Fashion Charter does include a commitment for 100 percent of “priority materials” –  such as cotton, viscose, polyester, wool, and leather – to be low-impact by 2030.)

In recent years, there has been an appetite for more circular business models, such as resale and rental. Gucci unveiled its Continuum initiative in March, which gives young designers the opportunity to upcycle its deadstock and previous-season pieces, as well as offering vintage as part of its Vault hub. Meanwhile, Valentino launched its vintage initiative—allowing customers to consign their pre-loved pieces at select vintage stores – in 2021, rolling out the project further this month to include stores in London, Paris, and Seoul. Currently though, these initiatives are at pilot stage, and will be a challenge to scale. They are add-ons to businesses’ usual way of working, rather than offsetting the amount that is produced to begin with.

Ultimately, the industry is still dragging its feet when it comes to sustainability. “Fashion is not doing nearly enough to address the climate crisis,” Maxine Bédat, director of New Standard Institute, says. “Companies need to be working toward achieving absolute reduction targets. Until there is legislation that requires that these goals are met, we should have no reason to be confident that these targets will be met.”

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