Fashion must embrace science-based targets

Joyce Tsoi, head of collective action at the Sustainable Apparel Coalition looks at the need for the fashion sector to embrace a science-based approach to reaching net-zero emissions.

Fashion must embrace science-based targets

At this moment in time, the fashion sector is not on track to hit net-zero by 2050. The latest data from non-profit Textile Exchange shows that the textile industry is set to miss crucial climate targets in line with the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C. Together, we need to follow the latest science and urgently turn this situation around; it’s time the apparel sector embraced science-based targets (SBTs) to ramp up our collective efforts to cut emissions globally, before it’s too late and too costly.

With the Paris Agreement’s 2030 deadline for reducing emissions by 45% looming, the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) Emissions Gap Report 2022 recently issued a dire warning that we are headed for ‘climate catastrophe’ unless urgent and rapid action is taken. Now is the time for the fashion industry to act. We need plans, policy and action to drive real change.

As a sector with large and highly fragmented global supply chains, the challenges are clearly huge and complex. At the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), we believe this should only serve to scale up ambition. We need to lead the change, to redefine our entire industry to solve systematic issues. The transformation must be rapid and radical and rooted in collaboration.

Embracing SBTs to drive decarbonization

SBTs are measurable, actionable and time-bound objectives for reducing greenhouse gases in line with what the latest climate science deems necessary to keep our planet liveable. They are widely recognised as the most clearly defined pathway for companies to reduce emissions.

But the fashion industry has been slow to adopt them: Globally, 259 textile, apparel, footwear and luxury goods companies have committed to set SBTs, and only 98 have approved targets. In particular, the SBT adoption rate is relatively low in Asia (20%) when compared to Europe (55%), or 1244 out of 3944 companies committed to SBTs). This relatively low uptake demonstrates the urgency for much greater and faster progress in this sector, and we have a role to play in this.

While many fashion brands are innovating to decrease their carbon footprint – in terms of things like fabric production, material substitution and fossil fuel dependency – the scale and pace of change is nowhere near enough.

Undoubtedly, external shocks – like ongoing supply chain issues in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and conflict in Europe – continue to impede progress. They affect energy and commodity prices, as well as the latter’s availability. The pessimistic global economic context creates further difficulties.

The reality is that the fashion industry must find ways to innovate around these problems. For a start, it could maximise material efficiency solutions, scale up sustainable fabric manufacturing, shift to 100% renewable electricity and optimize energy efficiency measures.

SBTs are not only the best way to hit essential climate goals, but they also make business sense based on latest climate science. They future-proof growth, boost resilience against growing climate regulation, improve investor confidence, drive innovation and increase competitiveness. They help meet the expectations of increasingly environmentally conscious consumers too.

Industry transformation through collective action

The task before us is unprecedented. Drastically cutting emissions will require support and guidance. No company can do this alone. Only together can the large numbers of companies and suppliers involved in textile raw material manufacture, fashion retail and garment and footwear production address the series of interlinked problems posed by mass decarbonization. Collaboration is key to enable change.

That is why the SAC is working alongside members collaboratively on their decarbonization journey, providing a space where companies can put competition aside to share insights, best practices and even collaborate on shared facilities for their supply chains. Our work in this area in the last couple of months has resulted in 34 more of our members submitting their commitment letters to the SBTi (Science Based Targets initiative). But we need many more to follow suit. And we need them to do it quickly. This is why committing and setting SBT will become a membership requirement for our members from 2023.

Roadmap to Net-Zero

What the industry needs is a clear and ambitious roadmap, supported by harmonized legislations, so that all players can play their part. Without it, we won’t make the headway we need, posing an existential threat not just to the fashion industry, but to life on our planet as we know it.

To facilitate the creation of such a sector wide emissions reduction roadmap, we are rolling out a decarbonization program. It will provide members with the opportunity to input and influence the roadmap’s strategic direction. It will also include peer-to-peer learning groups, so companies setting targets can share problems, solutions, knowledge and experiences.

We are living through a climate emergency. That’s how it must be treated. We cannot carry on as we are. We must change course. Everything depends on it. We have less than seven years to transform the apparel and footwear industry, so it gives more to both people and the planet than it takes. The adoption of SBTs must be universal.

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