The apparel and textile industry must find common ground on three crucial issues in 2023

We are at a critical moment in history. The world feels increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. A series of intersecting global crises is impeding business operations. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, simmering geo-political tensions, social unrest, climate catastrophes, rising costs, and disrupted supply chains are making it challenging for companies to navigate. Mounting scrutiny and regulation from policymakers around the globe are further exacerbating issues.

No company, country or even region can fix these problems alone. Collaboration is the only way forward.  At last month’s World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting meet in Davos, Switzerland, world leaders were endeavoring to respond collectively to the complicated and interlinked challenges we face. Convening on the theme of ‘cooperation in a fragmented world’, they know such systemic problems require coordinated solutions.

In the same way, the fashion sector must unite to address its particular social and environmental challenges. As one of the planet’s most polluting industries, it has much work to do. For apparel manufacturers, retailers and brands this must be a year of collaboration, not conflict, of progress, not platitudes.

Seismic changes are coming our way. In response to the climate emergency, new public policies will put increasing demands on all aspects of operations. In these circumstances, the only way we make progress is if companies set aside their differences, listen to each other and find common ground towards shared solutions that benefit all, and not just some.

In 2023, we have three pressing challenges to overcome together:

Collective action to cut emissions

First, we need to agree on cutting our emissions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement and commit to taking action. In practice, this means the entire fashion industry should set Science-Based Targets (SBTs). They are widely recognised as the most clearly defined pathway for companies to reduce emissions. Unfortunately, the fashion industry has been slow to adopt them.

To date, only 24% of our members have approved SBTs in place. As our membership organisation represents around half of the fashion industry – including some of the world’s biggest brands – and exists to enable positive social and environmental impacts at scale, this low uptake demonstrates the urgent need for much faster progress. In an effort to tackle this, we launched a new Decarbonisation Program to support and drive the sector to work towards urgent, and necessary emissions reduction. The Program will focus on collaboration, member support and delivering tools and guidance to make achieving these targets possible.

Strategic partnerships to address the data gap

Secondly, brands, retailers and manufacturers must collaborate to fill the current gaps in sustainability data. Without it, there is no credible way forward. To reach crucial climate and human rights goals, each company must first understand its current status. Otherwise, there is no way of knowing what action to take. That’s why independent, scientifically accurate and standardised data is essential.

Over the last decade, the SAC, together with our members, has gathered a wealth of verified data to measure the cradle-to-grave environmental impacts of textiles, materials, accessories, and final products. This increased transparency has enabled those within the industry to make informed decisions. The data isn’t ever complete, but it is evolving. Some crucial gaps remain that must be urgently filled; we want to see NGOs, data specialists and leading industry brands and manufacturers coming together to solve this.

Harmonised legislation for a common approach

Finally, we need harmonised legislation for the materials, textiles and accessories used to make garments and footwear, as well as for final fashion products. As a highly complex international industry, with supply chains typically crossing continents, the apparel sector can only drastically reduce its social and environmental impacts within a clear, robust and standardised framework.

We need a common language to describe sustainability, alongside a method for calculating environmental footprints that are recognised worldwide. It’s the only way organisations can undertake reliable sustainability measurements that provide the foundation for trustworthy sustainability claims. It’s how we combat greenwashing.

We are living through turbulent times, but we are in this together. Massive systemic change only happens when we are all involved. Our industry – with its immense creativity, innovation, knowledge and ability to collaborate pre-competitively – has the capacity to be an example for others.

There is still so much to be done and time is running out. The decisions we make together in the year ahead will have profound impacts for generations to come. To ensure a greener, cleaner and fairer future, they must be the right ones. For apparel, I believe that means setting SBTs, filling crucial sustainability data gaps, and harmonising global legislation. Those are this year’s crucial steps towards creating an industry that leaves the world in a better place than when we arrived, and it’s clear to me that we must tackle this together.

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