Last week was Fashion Week in New York City, and Monday Climate Week is coming to the Big Apple. At the intersection of these annual showcases lies a disturbing fact: No one has figured out how to reliably combine climate goals with fashion’s current business model.
Retailers have announced a slew of sustainability measures over the past few years—almost every company in the industry has plans or plans to make plans to change the way they make products, make them more environmentally friendly, and extend the life of those products. These moves have given rise to the buzzword “circular,” aimed at addressing fashion’s huge climate footprint. The industry accounts for 2 to 8 percent of global carbon emissions, according to the United Nations.
But that’s where things get awkward.So far there has been little discussion on how to do it many Commodities the company should produce to meet its environmental goals. Instead, bold strategies abound to keep businesses in expansion mode.
“Many, many companies are starting to realize that their situation seems irreconcilable,” said Elisa Niemtzow, vice president of consumer and global membership at sustainability consultancy BSR. “The concept of de-growth and alternative business models, or alternatives to growth. , it might make people uncomfortable.”
Take H&M, for example. The Swedish retailer has pledged to reduce its emissions by 56% by 2030 compared to 2019 levels, and its 2021 climate disclosure received a “B” from third-party nonprofit CDP. This is on top of H&M reducing water and plastic use and relying on more recyclable materials. But even the best materials can’t offset the production of 3 billion garments a year, or investors’ expectations of beating fast-fashion rivals. Is it even possible to decouple climate goals from such a strategy?
Many scientists working on BSR don’t seem to think so. “Scientists often say that decoupling is not practically possible, or that it may be used for emissions but not for resource use,” Niemtzow said. “Even if it is theoretically possible, it is extremely unlikely to happen.”
Some companies are trying. In the luxury segment, Gucci managed to reduce emissions by 15 percent compared to 2019 levels, while still boosting sales, Business of Fashion reported. Alternative models on offer include limiting growth, focusing on fewer, higher-quality items, and narrowing inventories to climate-friendly options — although it’s unclear how these approaches will scale over time. There are also entire businesses reselling everything from clothing to furniture, or renting out merchandise to avoid new production altogether. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an increase in resale, lease, repair and remodeling businesses, aka more circular businesses, could reduce fashion’s climate footprint by about a third to maintain the 1.5C target.
“I think sustainability folks in fashion have been talking about overproduction and overconsumption for years,” Niemtzow said, adding that companies are at least starting to get involved. “We’re still looking for the right model to guide us.”
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