Has the fashion industry truly reduced its carbon footprint, or is it just talk?


The fashion industry's carbon footprint is estimated to be 1.2 billion tons of CO2, or about 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Photo: stocksnap.io

With COP27 currently taking place in Egypt, Nov 6 to 18, it is just the right time to find out whether fashion has truly become greener in the last five years, and whether it's really on its way to carbon neutrality by 2050.

Commenting on the subject is Thomas Ebele, co-founder of the ethical and eco-responsible French fashion certification label SloWeAre and co-author of the guide La Face Cachee Des Etiquettes (The hidden side of clothes labels), who has called out the lack of political action being taken to reduce the fashion industry's carbon footprint, estimated 1.2 billion tons of CO2, or about 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Thomas Ebele, co-founder of the ethical and eco-responsible fashion label SloWeAre, and co-author of the guide 'La Face Cachee Des Etiquettes'. Photo: AFPThomas Ebele, co-founder of the ethical and eco-responsible fashion label SloWeAre, and co-author of the guide 'La Face Cachee Des Etiquettes'. Photo: AFP

COP27 brings together the biggest nations to work on a plan for accelerating the fight against global warming. Agriculture, food, energy, and science are among the topics discussed, but fashion doesn't seem to be on the table. What's that all about?

Since the Paris Agreement in 2015, the subject matter of fashion has taken a bit of a back seat. Some resolutions have been expanded or reworked at subsequent COPs, but overall there has been nothing new.

Looking at the themes that will be dealt with at COP27, whether agriculture or energy, for example, one can see that they are all, in one way or another, related to fashion, but without the subject being directly addressed.

Fashion will not be a major topic at the talks, but a topic that will be treated in a transversal way.

Furthermore, the fashion industry is not subject to any particular constraint – or essentially none – even though it contributes significantly to CO2 emissions.

This is indeed a problem. There has been a lot of talk about the Fashion Pact (a series of ecological commitments signed by fashion and textile companies) when it only concerns three areas of action that were already in the Paris Agreement, namely preserving the oceans, respecting biodiversity, and limiting climate impact.

As long as the fashion industry isn't subject to any constraints, nothing will change.

Does a COP really have the power to change things? It allows for issues to be put on the table, but what are its means of action?

It's apparent that some things, even very basic, aren't changing, like the use of pesticides. And, in my opinion, all this is above all about a lack of political will...

Who is going to enforce measures for ultra-globalised groups or new players like Shein over whom we cannot have a hand? For the moment, apart from raising consumer awareness, the means of action are limited, and that is why we are working on it every day.

Read more: A look inside the fast-paced, ultra-cheap throwaway fashion industry of China

Despite all that, hasn't the fashion industry evolved since the launch of the SloWeAre label in 2017?

Of course some things have changed. From a societal point of view, environmentally responsible fashion was subject to some negative connotations until 2017, and in this regard things have changed considerably.

There was a kind of global awakening to the reality of the situation at that time, with many people becoming aware of the many dramas and scandals that affected the textile industry, like the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, as well as a boom of brands, start-ups, and people who started to develop responsible fashion projects.

The second awakening of consciousness came with the Covid-19 pandemic, starting with the first lockdowns, with massive increases of traffic and sales on the platforms of environmentally responsible fashion brands. It was a moment in which people took the time to see what was going on, to find out more, better understand and become personally interested in the importance of this change...

But the hype died down as quickly as it had sprung up. Even if they had become aware of the issues, consumers quickly went back to their old habits.

However, the signal had been heard and understood by mainstream brands, which have now undertaken CSR or sustainability-related actions, or are at least talking about it on their websites; something which unfortunately contributed to making the genuinely environmentally responsible offer less apparent.

More and more labels and collectives committed to effecting change are emerging, but is it enough at a time when fast fashion continues to gain ground?

Each activist collective and engaged brand will help promote values that are part of an ecosystem, and today a shift is taking place. There is a market, a desire, a genuine model of transformation.

Brands have become aware of this, even fast fashion brands, like H&M, which offers collection points, recycling and repair services. These brands have understood that we need to move towards an economy of functionality and that eventually they will sell fewer products and more services.

Can inflation put a stop to this interest in more sustainable fashion?

It already is and that's been the case now for several months. Almost every day we find out about an environmentally friendly fashion brand's demise, whether it's because of the rising cost of raw materials, falling sales, or other reasons. It's become particularly complicated since September.

That said, the picture is very varied because, at the same time, there are brands that have never done so well... Generally these are the ones that have found their consumer following, their niche, customers who remain faithful to their values, and these brands take the time to grow and expand, without wanting to move too fast.

In the end, the brands that work best are those that are cautious about their ambitions.

Secondhand, upcycling, ethical brands, greener materials... It may seem like a giant step forward has been taken in just a few years, but figures show an increase in clothing production, and just a paltry share of so-called alternative materials compared to those that are highly polluting. Are the objectives set out in the Paris Agreement really achievable?

I don't see how they can be... Without concrete measures, things won't change. What bothers me the most – and we can see it today with the encouragement of heating interiors to [no more than] 19°C [in European countries, editor's note] – is that the consumer is caught in a vice between the "must do" and "what they are allowed to do".

Today there is a semi-incentive policy, but a real incentive policy is needed to really effect change. Collectives, and even companies, are not sufficiently supported or encouraged. It is imperative to highlight the actors with solutions.

To answer the question more concretely, world fibre production continues to increase, just like world clothing production, so it will be complicated in my opinion to reach these objectives.

Again, we need concrete measures, as well as investments, especially in recycling or new materials. We have to get out of oil, stop producing synthetic materials, and integrate natural or artificial materials that are sustainable, that we can mix with existing fibres, when possible, for garments made of technical fabrics, for example.

We need a transition period where we will mix fibers, to reduce the impact of polluting fibres that already exist on nature.

In 2023, environmental labeling will be mandatory for the textile sector in Europe. Will this change the situation?

I don't think so. It will bring consumers some information, but it's important to be aware that not all industry players will be compelled to implement it. Only the big polluters, the biggest brands, will have to comply with this requirement, at first, but smaller players will not be obliged, it will be up to them.

Furthermore the methodologies have not yet been decided on... Today, we don't have public databases with sufficient data and reliable indicators to make real carbon assessments. They are done by firms, at their convenience, and this is very expensive.

Not many people are willing to invest money to have the most reliable data, so we rely on public databases which are rather obsolete and don't cover all methodologies. For example, the same cotton fibres that arrive at a spinner's will not have the same carbon footprint, depending on the ply of the yarn and the production line used.

It can even double – that's saying something! It depends on equipment, solvents, energy... There are a lot of elements that come into play, and that necessarily complicates things.

Read more: How the eyewear industry sees a sustainable future in plant-based materials

Does legislation need to go further to bring about change?

As long as we allow Shein products to be sent in plastic blister packs directly to consumers, not much will change. Today this type of clothing can be ordered very quickly, not to mention the prices, to be received at home, and then if it doesn't fit or doesn't appeal to the customer, it gets thrown away. That's what we have to fight against.

You founded SloWeAre, then published a book to help empower consumers to make more informed choices. What is the next step?

We're working on a reference guide of environmentally responsible stores, because it's important to highlight the players who make products available. The comfort of buying from one's sofa is good, but there is an essential dimension in sales, which is the fit of clothes. This allows for unsold items, waste and returns to be avoided or at least reduced.

This may seem old-fashioned today, but it's essential. And it also allows for a moment of exchange with the salespeople in the store who will be able to provide information about the product, talk about its history, and give advice.

There are stores that have this philosophy, and it is important to us to be able to promote them through this future reference system. – AFP Relaxnews

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fashion , green fashion , sustainability , COP27


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