This issue of Cradle is dedicated to the latest highly critical campaign we’re leading at Eco-Age – fossil fuels in the fashion value chain. We simply call this the Fossil Fuel Fashion Campaign. It exposes the connection between the fossil fuel industry and fashion.
As you will know, I have been campaigning against overproduction and overconsumption of fashion for many years. It is hardly revelatory to state that the Earth simply cannot sustain this system. It deprives our industry of the chance to work within safe ecological limits (sometimes referred to as the safe operating space drawn out by the Planetary Boundaries theory), externalises impact, has an unacknowledged catastrophic social cost and creates mind boggling levels of waste. We know this and articulate these issues often.
Curiously, what we don’t often state is the driving force behind this catastrophe system that powers today’s fashion industry: fossil fuels.
Through our closets and the clothes we wear every day, Big Oil is drowning the world in fossil fuels. If this is not a burning platform of an issue, I don’t know what is. And yes, all puns intended.
In other industries and other sectors, the role of oil and gas is said out loud. In fashion, it is not. Instead, we often focus on ways of decarbonising. You can see why that would be a problem.
So, in this edition we spell out the deep connection, the future unless we take a stand and explain to you the framework of our campaign. Through the campaign, we aim to leverage policy interventions, innovation, business solutions, and grassroots campaigning to drive a phase-out of fossil fuels from the fashion industry. As you know, at Eco-Age we are intensely collaborative, working with the best brains and most committed researchers who truly understand impact and what is needed for a just transition. (This issue also serves as a guide to some of the most important partners and organisations to work with to address fossil fuels in fashion).
We recently joined some of our partners and allies at two important events on the reliance of fashion on fossil fuels for energy and materials. In the first, we took advantage of the fact that New York Fashion Week this autumn came just before New York Climate Week. At NYC’s Morgan Library, I had the honour of chairing a panel with Ugandan climate justice activist Vanessa Nakate, Harjeet Singh from the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, Rachel Kitchin from Stand.earth, Cameren Bullins from The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Eco-Age Policy Director George Harding-Rolls.
A few short weeks later the campaign went to Brussels, with a round table discussion on the EU’s role in a fair fossil fuel phase out from fashion. We were fortunate to attract a group of very strong and knowledgeable participants, including our host, Saskia Bricmont MEP; Barbara Trachte, Brussels Secretary of State for the Economic Transition and Scientific Research; Bettermen Simidi, founder of Clean Up Kenya; Yayra Agbofah of The Revival, Ghana; Phil Bloomer of Business & Human Rights Resource Centre; Oslo Metropolitan University Professor of clothing and sustainability, Ingun Grimstad Klepp; Emily MacIntosh of the European Environmental Bureau; and Ecodesign Rapporteur, Alessandra Morretti MEP. The main findings and themes are summarised in this issue. The meeting was held under Chatham House Rules, so we have not attributed any conclusions to any individuals.
By the time you’ve read this edition, I hope that you feel as fired up as we do and ready to join us in the call for a fair phase out of fossil fuels from fashion. I acknowledge, that this issue asks a lot of you, at a time when many people are working at full tilt and the geopolitical backdrop is grim to say the least. In the UK we have also encountered political headwinds on Net Zero that have been demoralising. Reading this issue, you may well have some of your assumptions tested, and you’ll possibly be introduced to organisations and ideas that have been held outside of fashion’s sustainability brief. (To my mind this has been an avoidance tactic). But I truly believe that by focusing on the real substantive issue of oil and gas exploitation and impact in fashion, we achieve clarity. That clarity means that we can set a real course of action and cut through the greenwash that plagues our industry and its plethora of sustainability targets. It is high time fashion stepped up and became a real part of the global climate regime. The way to do this is to address its dependency on fossil fuels before it is too late.
Following NY Climate Week and the Brussels roundtable, the FOSSIL FUEL FASHION Campaign plans to carry forward its mission through a series of activations, including events at COP28, and the World Economic Forum in Davos. We look forward to you joining the action!
How dependent is fashion on fossil fuels?
Fossil fuels lurk in every stage and at every turn in the fashion supply chain. George Harding-Rolls, our Head of Policy and Advocacy here at Eco-Age, drew on his deep understanding of the topic gleaned from his previous role at the Changing Markets Foundation. For the seminal Fossil Fashion series of reports, George was part of the team that traced fossil fuels reliance from wellhead to waste at the end of life (you can read Changing Markets’ research here). He observed that, despite being so dependent on the most problematic forms of fossil fuels (see coal, below), fashion has been able to slip under the radar in terms of broader climate scrutiny, namely keeping fossil fuels in the ground and adjusting to an equitable transition.
In fashion the saying goes that we always think of the consumer. But do we? As many of our panellists pointed out it’s getting hard to find clothes that don’t have petrochemicals in them, and that don’t have oil in them.
This is getting worse. When our experts looked at the policies of companies, they found major brands to be doubling down on fossil fuels. Our experts were able to cite companies making 90% of their clothing using oil and gas in the supply chain. In an age when we are supposed to be providing enhanced sustainability and more transparent supply chains for concerned customers, this dependency transfers to the customer until they are effectively buying from one of the most devastating supply chains imaginable. Other studies cited by our panellists trace the mainstream clothing lines back to Russian crude oil, imported at discount rate into two major polyester producers.
What the panellists were clear on, and what we are focused on through the campaign is that unless we stop this, it will continue.
There is no off switch when it comes to fashion production. We need to change the rules.
Electrification in the energy and transport sectors are causing an existential crisis to the fossil fuel industries. While it is still heavily subsidised (to the tune of $7 trillion USD a year), and while license to drill and explore are still being given out at the 11th ecological hour, oil and gas will merely find other outlets. The petrochemical industry is pushing into plastics and synthetics at a disturbing rate. Analysis by Carbon Tracker of BP and IEA scenarios assesses that up to 95% of future growth in oil demand will come from plastics, of which synthetics is one.
In addition, many consumers are being tricked. They think they are buying natural materials at very low cost, but the material is acrylic or polyester, just with a linen or wool look. Synthetics are seeping into our wardrobes and lives from every direction. The end of the line for synthetics is equally grim. Changing Markets research with Clean Up Kenya found that 37 million pieces of plastic clothing enter Kenya annually from the EU where they are dumped or burned.
A truth that is not often acknowledged (but was aired by our panel) is that irrespective of your fabric choice as a fashion consumer, you are still wearing clothes made with fossil fuels. An investigation of clothing from different territories looking into the grid mix and energy intensity of each origin country, by campaign partner Stand.earth, found that only 5% of clothes on sale were made using renewable energy. The rest? Fossil fuels, of course.
On the FOSSIL FUEL FASHION campaign panel in New York, Rachel Kitchin represented Stand.earth, a climate NGO which needs to be on your radar if it’s not already. Stand.earth has deep supply chain expertise and huge experience in moving corporations along the road to just transition, helping to set stronger, more ambitious targets. The organisation also boasts a well-respected research arm which can take businesses on a very deep dive into the supply chain (much deeper than many fashion corporations realise they must go). This is where you can unlock ambitious change.
During the panel we were able to flesh out the background of fashion supply and zone in on why a phase out of coal use in fashion is so critical. Even those in the industry may not know the extent of coal use in their supply chains.
For example, one of the major causes of both pollution and carbon emissions in the supply chain is from coal burned on site to produce heat for dyeing, drying, steaming and other processes.
These processes broadly fit under ‘tier two’ of manufacturing, reckoned to account for between 50% – 52% of emissions on average. In Bangladesh alone, our experts estimated there were 10,000 such coal burners. Without action and focus here, what is the plan on this pollution and its impact globally and locally?
Rachel clearly sees opportunity, as do we. After all this is a multi-trillion-dollar industry, with supply chains heavily located in the global south in parts of the world where coal dominates the electricity grids. These companies don’t only use a lot of power (indirectly) – they also have a lot of purchasing power, and a lot of what Rachel calls ‘presence’, necessary to catalyse new development of renewable energy and lead on a global shift away from fossil fuels.
Vanessa Nakate characterised fashion’s reliance on fossil fuels as ‘such a serious situation.’ She called on the fashion industry to step up ‘and be part of this climate movement. “Because we can’t talk about a just transition, we can’t talk about a better world, a cleaner world, when we know how much harm fast fashion is causing to our communities in terms of pollution, waste and labour exploitation.” She drew a parallel with the lack of respect shown to farmers who grow the food we eat.
Vanessa pointed out how alert she now is to fast fashion greenwashing ‘I think we must collectively stand up to fashion companies and tell them they must address the injustices within their industry. I think we can have transformative change if we do that, not just for our planet, but for the people who make the clothes that we wear’.
Why the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty matters to fashion:
Harjeet Singh, Strategic Advisor to the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, left us in no doubt that to tackle this issue, fashion needs to engage with the global initiative to end new development of fossil fuels and phase out of existing production as a matter of urgency.
Harjeet, a global expert on climate impact, made the point that many institutions swerve mentioning fossil fuels explicitly, despite the fact that fossil fuels are the root causes of the climate crisis we all face. In fact, the Paris agreement does not explicitly refer to fossil fuels, preferring to talk about reducing emissions. The Convention does not mention coal, oil, and gas. This is one of the main reasons the non-proliferation treaty exists.
Engage with the treaty and you’ll be in good company. So far, 100 governments from around the world, including the bulk of the Pacific Island nations, and recently the European Parliament have endorsed the Treaty’s goals. At the beginning of October, the state of California announced it was joining too – effectively becoming the largest economy to endorse the call.
A question many will have, is what should the fashion industry do and how should it engage with the treaty and related movements? In short, we need the fashion industry to be courageous and proactive in terms of engaging. Talking about how the fashion industry is using fossil fuels is the first step. Next fashion needs to come on board with the treaty and understand the underlying pillars.The treaty is designed to stop expansion and phase out of fossil fuels equitably, respecting a just transition. Fashion needs to follow these principles.
Some organisations, such as the Changing Markets Foundation have made recommendations on scale and scope of a fossil fuel phase out by fashion. The CMF recommendation is based on a 2021 baseline, a 25% reduction in fossil fuel based materials by 2025, and a 50% reduction by 2030. Some brands are well on their way to this. Meanwhile, on the supply chain side, the UN Net Zero integrity goal recommends a 55% reduction in supply chain emissions by 2030, to keep below 1.5 degrees.
But through the FOSSIL FUEL FASHION campaign we are very much focused on another part of that jigsaw – Policy. Our rationale being that we’ve tried voluntary sustainability for as long as sustainability has existed as a term, and we have not been successful. Now we need mandatory, real sustainability that is written into the rulebook through legislation. In the fashion industry we have a ‘tidal wave’ of legislation coming down the pipeline, including the Fashion Act in New York. As George Harding-Rolls put it in our last issue, we’re seeing the ingredients of a new system coming into play with policy being a key enabler. It is incumbent on all of us now to support that new system and push it to be as ambitious as possible, not to distract through old arguments formed around the status quo or to lobby to water down legislation.
During our discussion at theEuropean Parliament in Brussels, we added to the work begun in New York. The pervasive theme was one of social justice and people. This is all but excluded from the fashion conversation, which prefers to discuss sustainability in terms of broad and indistinct decarbonisation goals. As we know, fossil fuel production impacts developing countries and so-called fast fashion textile production hotspots twice, if not three times. We burn the fossil fuel in situ along with other degrading pollution, we then dump the product at its early end of life and the host community is often on the frontline of the climate crisis geographically and geopolitically. Hit by extreme conditions, workers already robbed of wages (wage theft remains endemic in fashion production) have little financial resilience. As many have commented, this system represents abuse after abuse heaped on those who shoulder most of the burden of the supply chain, and none of the reward, of a highly profitable industry.
With this backdrop, to plan and supposedly work towards a just transition when the system is built on inequality is akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. In Brussels it was clear that the only clear way of making fashion fit for purpose is through a phase out of fossil fuels and the implementation of living wage for the millions of garment workers in this system.
The participants identified the following:
That fast fashion’s two key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are fossil fuel and exploited labour. The apparel industry has been designed and built on inequality.
The single greatest obstacle to decarbonisation is social inequality given fashion is a people-centred industry involving 70 million workers, 80% of whom are women.
The impact on workers has not been properly analysed and there is a clear and present danger that the industry will take the wrong course of action, focusing on self interest for the few.
The approach to solution and legislation should be holistic and orchestrated.
Action should be taken now rather than by 2030 or 2050 as there is no more time.
The real issue is about the need to reduce the quantity and not increase the quality of garments. Products don’t fail materially, but because people lose interest in them.
Data we use is old. Most recent data for fashion industry fossil fuel dependency is from 2017 (this predates an influx of brands that might be usefully termed rapid fast fashion).
For a country like Ghana, whereas Kantamanto used to receive 15 million garments a week, that level of waste is now probably more like 23 million garments a week and rising.
We need policy to restrict and regulate what leaves the Global North.
From new frontiers, to old battlegrounds and messaging. A recent spate of articles shows that many fashion brands are still firmly invested in preserving the status quo. Rather than facing up to the fossil fuel and inequality problems, the emphasis is on sowing confusion and division. Is fast fashion being scapegoated for luxury? Should we even use the term fast fashion? It’s important to see these arguments for what they are: old and distracting. This is the messaging that certain fashion brands have been pushing for a number of years. Change is uncomfortable, particularly when policy makers start to push in a more ambitious and urgent direction. You can tell who really has climate ambition because they are the ones pushing for more legislation, further and faster rather than defending their corner.
With the launch of the FOSSIL FUEL FASHION campaign, I hope we have helped you to plug into the wider climate agenda and shown that fashion is not separate from that. We can play a very useful and important role. But just as in the wider climate agenda, many of the solutions and science are there – we just lack on implementation, the same is true in our industry. I’d like to sign off by reiterating that the social justice piece is pivotal to real sustainability in this industry. There is noway forward without addressing a living wage. In 2017 with The Circle NGO and an expert team of global lawyers we published the first report on Living Wage.There are now three fully costed, worked out pathways to a living wage, enshrined in law and by law. It is now time to review them and implement them. This campaign is long-term, and the course of direction is full speed ahead.
Please visit www.fossilfuelfashioncampaign.com and come on board.