Welcome to The Relationship Issue.

A cursory glance through the headlines of our trade media suggests that this sector is very far from fixing fashion. There is much pearl clutching: cotton standards have turned out to be untrustworthy, brands and retailers are falling short on climate goals, and the collapse of a great new material saviour in Renewcell has caused panic and despair. In times of crisis on all fronts, tradition dictates you need something to blame. Now, should we blame the crazy business model based on overproduction for overconsumption, the greenwashing, or should we blame sustainable action? Oh dear. Yes, you guessed it; in some quarters, the response (which is not that surprising given the tendency of the fashion sector to cling on to defunct models like a life raft in tempestuous seas), is to proclaim loudly that sustainability should be ditched or watered down. *Face Palm*  
In response, this issue of Cradle is dedicated to staying with the trouble (to borrow a phrase from the great scholar and writer Donna Haraway) of deep sustainability, because we are morally and pragmatically committed to sorting out the dual crisis of soaring climate emissions and nature loss. Because as we know, there is no fashion on a dead planet! According to recent research published by McKinsey, two thirds of fashion brands will not meet their sustainability targets unless they miraculously accelerate emissions reduction. But therein lies the problem: 40% have seen their emissions increase since making the commitments.

Fashion remains wildly off-piste, decisively adrift from the Paris climate pathway, or any other pathway in the realm of reality.

Because guess what? You cannot greenwash and obfuscate your way out of a glut of fashion waste, or lower emissions via wishful thinking. It ain’t gonna happen. For all those on that ‘journey towards a circular economy’ – when do you estimate you’re actually going to arrive? To put it succinctly, it is high time to stop listening to fairy tales and engage in deep work with great people.

Sorry if I sound enormously frustrated, but this is important to me. For millions of people on the frontline of climate disaster, this is real life. We have a moral obligation to pull every lever to cut emissions and ramp up equality. We need to act in the name of climate justice. At Eco Age we have spent 15 years guided by this framing. We do not tinker at the margins, or pretend to act, or do performative (but meaningless) action; we cut through the noise, we drive forward, bringing a coalition of the willing (and the courageous) with us. We call it real sustainability.

This edition of Cradle is called ‘the relationship issue’ because honestly that’s what it comes down to. The company you keep has never mattered more. Many years ago, we took the opportunity to branch out and source opinion from other parts of the sustainability community. We are indebted to indigenous leaders and young climate activists [LINK TO GCFA], to lawyers and architects of sustainable communities, and those with ideas on developing democracy. Rather than roaming around trade fairs for dyes with slightly less plastic in them, I always thought the real exchange of ideas was probably in a community somewhere.

GCFA Young Leaders

Sometimes this approach loses us friends and influence – not everyone comes with us on a real mission. We are creative, mischievous, and inclusive, and sometimes irreverent on the way. We excel at producing bewitching events that draw people in, such as the Sharing the Table platforms and our famous Green Carpet Fashion Awards [LINK]. But our real USP is that we remain mission-driven and evidence-led.

Livia firth, mary robinson, Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq at sharing the table
law roach, vanessa nakate, zendaya at the gcfa 2024

Most importantly of all, we know who our allies are, and we stand with them. That means often we shun the company of industry trade alliances, which are prone to watering down legislation. Instead that leads us into the company of NGOs, experts, and those who are rarely acknowledged in these value webs. What we try to create are real partnerships built on respect, economic viability, and future-proofed values which embed resilience.  

I’m sharing this, not so I can say ‘I told you so’ as there’s little social capital in that (rightly!). But rather because when I scroll through the discontent and bickering and manoeuvring in our industry, I recognise so many of these recycled struggles, and I know that they can be sorted by asserting real values and real sustainability. Our fourteen years creating and implementing responses that make a difference to the climate and nature crisis has taught us so much. We’ve distilled our top ten governing values in a handy list below. These are not exhaustive, but good reminders on how we should set the course of change in a world where you cannot do everything, but you must be effective. What are your sustainability tenets? How do you stand by your values? As always, we love to hear what you think and feel (I don’t think we should be afraid to feel on this issue, by the way!)

In this edition of Cradle, we also offer more insight on a critical issue in the industry (the wobble over science-based targets), and some celebratory news demonstrating change in action. I hope it offers compelling food for thought. If it chimes with you and you think we’re the type of courageous, creative, committed sustainability experts you’d like to team up with, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

 Livia Firth

Top Ten Governing Values

1. Complicated standards will never replace trust and knowing your farmer, factory manager. This must be about human relationships.

2. Certifications, while useful if they are truly independent from industry interference and bias, are always prone to lobbying.

3. The greatest standards can buckle in response to industry pressure and the oil and gas lobby

4. Virgin fossil-based synthetic textiles must be stopped.

5. There are no quick fixes, just deep work and high ambition.

6. The business model must change radically. The idea that you can keep all R&D and clever stuff in rich countries and devolve all the messy polluting exploiting parts of the supply chain to developing countries is OVER.  

7. It’s a value web, not a chain, with equitable relationships between each part.

8. To those who are obliquely moving ‘towards circularity’ with ever-growing plastic inventory, we ask: ‘when are you planning on getting there?!’

9. CO2 ‘savings’ are not actual cuts that will help to end the climate catastrophe. You must work doubly hard for those!

10. The glut of fashion waste, visible from space, cannot be reduced by a miracle plastic material.

(Bonus: Do not let size dictate change. The giant retailers and brands can be part of the conversation, but we need a biodiverse ecosystem of change, not a monoculture).

Cradle’s deeper dive….

Panto season may have finished some time ago, but there is still plenty of ‘oh yes you did!’ and ‘oh no we didn’t’ going on. A recent controversy over Science-Based Targets in fashion and textiles caused a wave of confusion across the sector. It was reported that the SBTi was changing to allow the use of carbon credits to mitigate Scope 3 carbon emissions, with Carbon Market Watch reporting that this was an example of succumbing to pressure from carbon market players and corporate interests to allow companies to meet scope 3 targets with carbon credits. It appeared that this was later retracted by SBTi.

However, this highlights several issues, including the pressure frameworks for change are under, given the near constant lobbying. The first thing to understand is why this is happening? The big brands and retailers will soon arrive at their emissions targets and be seen to be falling short, prompting a lot of conversations about how to decarbonise quickly. This is where Eco-Age has a lot of experience and insight. We have long made the case that it is a fool’s errand to pursue cuts while ramping up the use of fossil fuel fibres. If you are not divesting from fossil fuel fibres, you are not going to make it. 

This is not the only impact, as we know plastic and synthetics are problematic throughout their life cycle and end up as waste. There is no such thing as ‘away’. How do you solve a problem like intense fossil fuel fibre use quickly, and without changing the business model – even if that very model is driving you to destruction? The answer: you look for a quick fix and end-of-pipe solution. Fortunately, there are a number doing the rounds, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), which is unproven yet well-resourced, and other solutions involving hydrogen. In fashion, we have our own suite of displacement and distraction solutions involving the rapid turning of old plastic fibre into new plastic fibre (I mean really, how is that going?). It’s not to say that some of these solutions won’t be needed or have an application, it’s just that it is folly to use them as silver bullet solutions.

With our experience at Eco-Age, we know that it suits the major players to push faux solutions. We are experienced at scrutinising the playbooks of super-fast fashion empires right through to the oil and gas lobby (increasingly interconnected). It is, of course, the way that these entities ensure continuity or ‘business as usual’, as we refer to in retrograde, environmentally harmful landscapes in sustainability. For those invested deeply in fossil fuel fibres and the externalisation of the ‘true cost’ of fashion, it makes huge sense to press and lobby for programmes of reforms to water down standards and to permit unproven abatement techniques. We know why they are doing it! But the question we often end up asking progressive fashion businesses is – why are you supporting this (often unwittingly via trade associations)?! Nine times out of ten, they acknowledge this is the last thing they want to do.

At Eco-Age, the most rewarding part of our jobs is to be able to help our clients form longstanding real alliances and uphold higher standards, shifting the dial on sustainable action, including decarbonising the value web equitably. This is surely what is meant by purpose-driven business in our sector?

We will continue to work with SBTi and other programs to resist lobbying and watering down for the convenience of unsustainable fashion business models. We will continue to help our clients and the broader regime to divest from fossil fuels.

Course correction for industry leaders….

At Eco-Age, we scan the legislative ebb and flow, but we also think it is imperative to key into the wider role of democratic action. Creativity doesn’t just happen in design, and growth isn’t just about market share. To embed sustainability these days means that you don’t just watch environmental and social change and try to copy it afterward, you need to feed into the heartbeat of change. That’s why in our work on fossil fashion, we also work on non-proliferation strategies for oil and gas.

We’re happy to report in this issue of Cradle that our influence with the fossil-free fashion movement is spreading! Following the launch of the FOSSIL FUEL FASHION Campaign, industry body Textile Exchange just issued a report calling for the end of the use of PET bottles as a feedstock for recycled synthetics, something Eco-Age has led on for a long while, and issuing the challenge to end the use of virgin fossil-based synthetic textiles by 2030. We welcome this move, and we look forward to hearing from businesses who see the opportunity of first-mover advantage and could benefit from our steadfast experience and insight. Now that some of the industry bodies are catching up, it is time for deep, solid work (with that sprinkle of Eco-Age magic and creativity of course)!

Let’s hear it for the KlimaSeniorinnen!

A group of senior Swiss women have changed the course of history, made a stable climate more likely in our lifetime, and busted through barriers for climate litigation. How could we not be inspired?

Our Eco-Age allies have long included climate legal heroes. Our friend and mentor Jessica Simor KC has long been our go-to for rights for garment workers many times. This includes through The Circle foundation; you might remember that Jessica was able to define a living wage for garment workers as a human right, see Fashionscapes: A Living Wage for more on this. Recently, Jessica Simor KC, acting for the Association of Swiss Climate Senior women, scored the most incredible victory which should have a major trickle-down effect on climate litigation. A group of retired Swiss women challenged their national government over its failure to take sufficient action to protect their lives and health from climate change. The case became one of the first environmental rights cases to be selected by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, and very happily, the claimants won their case!

Image: https://en.klimaseniorinnen.ch/

In some cases, the ruling from the European Court of Human Rights has been described as a ‘bombshell case’. It certainly catapults fossil fuel litigation into a new realm. Case law in this area has developed over the last five years. You’ll no doubt be familiar with the work of entities such as Client Earth who are using the law to hold fossil fuel polluters to account, especially where governments roll back on commitments. In 2019, the Netherlands-based Urgenda Foundation took the Dutch State to court to force the Netherlands government to increase its climate action. The Dutch supreme court ruled in favour of the climate claimants and the Netherlands had to up its game; in reality, the government was saved by a drop in emissions from the global pandemic and a warm winter, but the precedent was set.

The KlimaSeniorinnen victory builds on this, but is also very exciting as it has established a clear link between the science of climate change and the infringement on the welfare of an individual. Specifically, the court found a violation of Article 8 (right to private and family life). This might seem technical, but in legal terms it’s a game-changer! So how might that impact other climate cases in the UK, for instance?

Experts seem to agree we should be braced for more cases holding the government to account on sloppy climate action.

While there have been several test cases in the UK, a key principle in UK courts has been that they don’t go further than the European Court of Human Rights. Now that the ECHR has made this ruling, those brakes are off! To some, climate litigation can seem a bit remote, and it may not be immediately clear how it benefits us all. A good way to think of it is to observe the pushing effect it has. So, a government might agree or state climate action (net zero is enshrined in UK law for example), but behind closed doors and thanks to lobbying those rules are watered down, targets are missed.

If you want to learn more or discuss any of these issues, get in touch with the Eco-Age team.

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