Welcome to the second issue of Cradle, our high level, purpose driven newsletter. Every word of this newsletter is written in the hope that it will drive us forwards, collaboratively and courageously to address the climate and ecological emergency.
As part of our extensive network of determined organisations who are committed to address our industry’s contribution to climate and nature destruction, in this issue we ask what did *that* IPCC report mean to you and what are you doing differently in the light of its publication?
We are using this edition of Cradle to issue a Code Red for Planet Fashion.
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The Cradle Essay
Last month the publication of the devastating sixth assessment from the intergovernmental panel on climate change (the IPCC) delivered a body blow to everyone who assumed were ‘doing their bit’, or on course to halt dangerous global heating. As UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres put it, the report presented a ‘code red for humanity’. The IPCC report essentially states the unprecedented and in some cases irreversible effects that must change everything. It points to an increasingly narrow window of opportunity to decarbonise in order to limit catastrophe.
As one newspaper put it (The UK’s Guardian), referring to the unequivocal fact that human generated emissions are to blame, ‘As a verdict on the climate crimes of humanity, the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report could not be clearer: guilty as hell.’ It was a sobering reminder that we have procrastinated for far too long, and passed opportunity after opportunity. At Eco-Age two things preoccupied us – how do those in our diverse global network feel and how have you been impacted? And how many more opportunities will the global fashion industry pass up to square up to the job that needs doing.
Because when it comes to blame, the global fashion industry must shoulder significant amounts of blame. The extent of the sector’s emissions is contested, but research has shown it to be up to 10 percent of global emissions. But worse, we know that this is projected to grow and that plans to decarbonise are woefully below parr.
But at Eco-Age we are the living embodiment of what climate negotiator, Christiana Figueres refers to as ‘the stubborn optimist’. Remaining purposeful, optimistic and resolute in our determination to fight every degree and indeed half a degree in global heating is the ultimate act of rebellion. That’s why we have decided to dedicated this issue of Cradle (our second) to fashion and climate.
The report’s findings were not of course a surprise to many of us, but they should act as a lightening rod for all of Earth’s ‘stakeholders’, which of course means all of us. Rapid, focused-change should reverberate through all supply chains, especially fashion.
The conclusions we draw from the report at Eco-Age reinforce our resolve. While much of the report acts as a dire warning; a shrieking alarm tells us that the time for procrastination is gone. We can now be very certain about a number of critical issues and this should inform what we do next, especially in fashion.
It is critical now that the fashion industry gets a grip. Right now. No more delay and no more obfuscation. As British scientist, Sir David King, the respected Chair of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group (CCAG) (an independent international scientific body, comprising 15 world-leading climate scientists from 10 nations) put it, responding to wildfires in Southern France days after the IPCC report, ‘There is no safe margin remaining for the continued emissions of greenhouse gas’. On that basis, we have set out four major points giving the Eco-Age perspective. This is where we must drive forwards, acting now, without delay or equivocation.
1. We want deeper and better regulation.
Those who call for greater regulation in this industry are rare, and admirable. At Eco-Age, from a Living Wage to climate targets (and these things are connected), we have a long history advocating for legislative, governmental and international action to underpin a transition in this industry. We know that this sector’s addiction to voluntary targets adds up to greenwashing and delay, exacerbated apparel’s contribution to the climate and nature dual crisis (a UN report highlighting the actions of the fashion industry has shown that these fall way short of mitigating a 2oC increase (in global heating).
It is time to recognise that however high profile, non-binding commitments cannot deliver the cuts and changes needed to stabilise this industry. But well designed, science and fact-led protocols can underpin a shift from a linear to a circular economy, which would drive decarbonisation.
2. Cut coal now.
The IPCC report points to the urgent fact that we must intensify our efforts to draw down greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. If we stopped using fossil fuels tomorrow we would stand a chance of being able to restore some of what has been lost. Rather than relying on unproven technology to suck carbon out of the air or trying to offset what we have used, we must stop using fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, in some areas the fashion industry is deepening its reliance. Sometimes in the global North we assume that coal is over; insurers for example may refuse to underwrite coal projects, however a huge amount of funding is still going into coal projects globally. In global textiles and clothing production coal use is increasing.
Indeed, it appears that the supply chain is doubling down. Reports suggest investment in coal-to-chemicals by global textiles and apparel players. In particular attention continues to be focused on a group called Hengli, where considerable investment has been made in using coal, instead of oil to produce high grade virgin polyester for apparel. According to Reuters, ‘Hengli aims to have (its facilities for coal-to-chemicals for polyester) running by the end of 2025 in Shaanxi province….and will add Hengli to a roster of Chinese companies, including coal miner Shenhua Group and oil refiner Sinopec, which have moved into the coal to chemicals business.’
This should alarm every single one of us. This flies against the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action’s aim to remove the use of coal-derived energy in textile mills in order to achieve net-zero emissions in supply chains by 2050. As we also know, the Paris Agreement and process relies on strategies to achieving the goal of reaching net-zero global emissions, limiting warming, and preventing some of the worst impacts of climate change. In none of the horizons projected modelled is increased use of coal a good climate-scenario. To put it bluntly, this is catastrophic course of direction, and we must do everything we can to stop it.
3. Reverse a ‘dangerous dependency’ on synthetic fibres.
An increasing reliance on coal (see above) for polyester is indicative and fuelled by the global fashion industry’s ‘dangerous dependency’ on synthetic fibres. The recent report published by the Changing Markets Foundation (CMF) and reviewed below in Peer Review, shows the extent of this addiction to cheap synthetic fibres. Predominantly used in the fast fashion sector, according to the report, the share of synthetic fibres will grow from 69 to 73 percent within the next decade (polyester is projected to account for 85% of this growth). While supercharging polyester production suits the business model of fast fashion, externalising environmental costs, including microfibres, but allowing global inventory to increase, the carbon footprint should not be overlooked. According to the report, while the footprint of polyester production in 2015 was the equivalent of 700 million tonnes of CO2, that figure is expected to nearly double by 2030. In short, the fashion industry while planning to expand synthetic fibre production, has failed to demonstrate that it has any viable way of delinking expansion and use from fossil fuels.
Meanwhile global fibre production – which has doubled in the last 20 years – is projected to further increase to 109 million tonnes in 2020 to 146 million tonnes in 2030. At Eco-Age we do not see how this is in any way compatible with a safe pathway for emissions. We cannot pretend that this is viable in climate terms.
4. Challenge methodology that gives fossil fibres a free pass.
At Eco-Age we believe that creative supply chain accountancy around synthetic materials and associated impact including emissions, is on the rise. In Cradle, Edition 1 we cover this issue extensively and explain our work in advocating for the use of fair, fact-based science that reflects accurately the complete impact of fossil fibres (including the drilling of oil). In short, the increase in fossil fibres casts the material as a carbon saviour rather than sinner. Microfibre release across the process (including during palletisation) further compounds the footprint issues.
These are four critical points that we believe must drive our immediate work to delink fashion from emissions. At the same time, we believe that we must employ planetary boundaries science and whole-system thinking to make sure that decarbonisation is real and sitting within other ecological boundaries. We also believe that this is work that we can undertake and progress more easily if we are all working collaboratively. We look forward to hearing from our colleagues across the supply chain and industry. This remains a collaborative and urgent mission.
In the last edition of Cradle we gave you the Eco-Age perspective on an academic paper that gave insight into rental versus reuse. For this issue we’ve taken a look at Synthetics Anonymous; a report from the Changing Markets Foundation.
Spoiler alert: we think this is a brilliant report and one that has caused ripples but should have caused shockwaves. When Extinction Rebellion protested in central London recently during a fortnight of occupations, this was the report that they referenced. Why? Because Synthetics Anonymous reveals that a dependency on ‘fossil fibres’ or synthetic materials is causing this major segment of fashion to be a driver of both climate and ecosystem collapse.
Name and details of research:
Synthetics Anonymous: Fashion Brands’ addiction to fossil fuels
Written and researched by Changing Markets Foundation, published June 2021 the report takes the form of an Executive Summary and full report revealing the results of a brand survey and containing useful boxouts on Greenwashing among others.
Objectives of the report and some history:
The report by Changing Markets Foundation makes no secret that it is out to get behind the curtain of major fashion brands. As with previous CMF reports, including the closely related report Fossil Fashion: The Hidden Reliance of Fashion on Fossil Fuels charting how the use of synthetic fibres, especially polyester, has doubled in textiles in the last 20 years – the gloves are off! Changing Markets Foundation works with NGOs and as the name suggests is focused on the opportunity for substantive system shift within industries. This is important to us, because we often complain that the fashion industry puts too much emphasis on what consumers should be doing to alleviate the climate crisis (funny that!). CMF’s work puts the ball firmly back in the industry’s court – where it should be.
This report builds on the claim that the reliance on synthetic fibres is likely to continue to grow, ‘reaching nearly three quarters of total global fibre production in 2030, with polyester accounting for 85% of this share’. Just a few months on from the original Fossil Fashion report, we are beginning to get closer to understanding how that ascent is aided and abetted. There is no doubt that Changing Market Foundation’s reports are designed to move the needle on an issue through exposition and clear investigation.
How is the research conducted?
The brand survey represents the substantive part of this report and its conclusions. It’s a comprehensive one so stand by for detail! There are two parts. Firstly, Changing Markets along with Clean Clothes Campaign, Ethical Consumer, Fashion Revolution, No Plastic in My Sea, Plastic Soup Foundation and Stand.earth, WeMove Europe, and Zero Waste Alliance Ukraine – contacted 46 clothing brands (via email and letter) asking a series of questions about their synthetic-fibre use and policies. Then secondly, Changing Market researchers analysed 4,028 items from selected brands and retailers for Spring/Summer 2021collections, looking closely at the garments’ compositions. These were set against the claims made to consumers, using the Competition Markets Authority CMA draft guidance on consumer protection law for all businesses making eco claims. In particular we found this a very interesting dimension, and one that is going to become increasingly important.
What were the conclusions?
They are sobering and distressing. The main role of this report (and a critical one) is to join the dots and give climate context to the fashion industry’s dependency on synthetics. The report pulls no punches, ‘The world’s biggest fashion brands are fuelling the plastic pollution and climate crises through continued reliance on synthetic fibres made from fossil fuels’.
Among the standout conclusions, are the fact that while the footprint of polyester production in 2015 was the equivalent of 700m tonnes of CO2, comparable to the total annual emissions of Mexico or 180 coal-fired power stations, that figure is expected to nearly double by 2030. Reflecting on the main essay in this issue of Cradle (above), as an industry it is clear that this has direct climate consequences, that affect the whole of humanity.
Joining the dots, is a major service of this work. We understand for example that plastics in fibre for fashion are shoring up an oil and gas industry that is supposed to be scaling back as we keep fossil fuels locked in the ground to avoid runaway climate disaster. But much of the future growth in demand for oil is projected to come from the production of plastics, with BP estimating the share could be as high as 95%.`
Finally, one of the most important conclusions for us was that this industry is driving microplastic pollution, and that is something that the industry continues to ignore. The report reminds us ‘Every time synthetic clothes are manufactured, worn, washed or disposed of they release microplastics. These tiny particles have already tainted the most remote environments on the planet – from 2,000 metres below sea level to the remote Arctic. They have even been found falling in the form of ‘plastic rain’; a recent study found that 1,000 metric tonnes of microplastics (equivalent to over 120 million plastic water bottles) – mostly from synthetic fibres used for clothing – fall on 11 protected areas in the US every year, deposited there by wind and rain.’
What is the most important point made by this report?
This report is to be commended for asking a question that many others fail to ask: in the case of recycled plastics (a mainstay of many brands’ eco or sustainable collections) what is the feedstock for that recycled plastic? Thanks to Changing Markets we learn that the main feedstock for recycled polyester is nearly always PET bottles. The report makes clear that the sustainability ‘wins’ and circularity gains from this are so limited as to be considered greenwash.
This is so important because the research reveals this is the main way brands ‘are planning to curb the impacts of fossil fashion and embrace more ‘sustainable’ synthetics’. Rarely are brands and retailers making the necessary investments to ensure a future in which clothes can be recycled back into clothes. ‘Instead, downcycling PET bottles to textiles is being presented as the main circular solution’. This will not work, and as we have shown in the main essay, we cannot afford any more missed opportunities or ‘false’ solutions.
What’s the Eco-Age takeaway?
This is a brilliant, brave report that deserves mainstream attention. It raises some very tricky questions for fast fashion but more importantly for us is that it gives clear solutions that must now be implicated. These are similar to our recommendations at the end of the main essay. Points 3 & 4 in Changing Markets Foundation’s recommendations revolve around ‘true circularity’ and legislating against Greenwash. These are precisely the points that we at Eco Age are seeking to address in two major new pieces of work. The first is on ‘true circularity’ and you’ll find more details (and an invite below).
Overall we give this report 4.5 out of 5. It remains very important to our work, and we’d like to see its conclusions taken up more widely.
The full report is open access and available here. As ever, we’d love to know your thoughts!
The Cradle Calendar: Coming Next
Last issue, we gave you a short preview of the forthcoming new short form documentary from our favourite duo, Livia Firth and Andrew Morgan. Today we can issue an invitation. The new Fashionscapes: A Circular Economy will premiere on Monday 20th September during London Fashion Week.
In this edition of Fashionscapes, Livia and Andrew have turned their lens on the quest to shift fashion’s dependency on a linear model and to a circular economy that would also decarbonise the sector. Employing some of the brightest talents in film making (the crew are known for high profile adverts and feature films), the film includes insight from academics Hakan Karaosman, Veronica Bates Kassatly and journalist Lucy Siegle.
For all information about this film, behind the scenes footage and exclusive interviews with Andrew Morgan and Livia Firth please visit www.fashionscapes.tv
The Great Greenwashing Machine: A New Report
Launching TODAY is a report, entitled The Great Greenwashing Machine, written by Veronica Bates-Kassatly and Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, supported by Eco-Age which examines sustainable fashion claims and critically assesses the extent to which fashion’s efforts are contributing to meaningful change, and to what extent they are a distraction.
This report first outlines definition of sustainability, going back it the roots of origin in 1987 United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development – also known as the Brundtland Commission – that underpins the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to this day.
Then the report delves into a critical assessment of how current sustainability claims in fashion deviate from the Brundtland definition, and exposes the vast consequences and outcomes of fashions failure to meet this definition.
SAVE THE DATE: Join us in the virtual streaming of the Make The Label Count launch event in Brussels, 13th October
The Make the Label Count campaign advocates for fair and accurate clothing sustainability labels that will empower EU consumers to make informed choices about the clothes they wear. The label should paint the bigger picture of a garment’s lifecycle and factor in the benefits of using renewable and biodegradable fibres, the adverse impacts of microplastic pollution and the full environmental footprint of fossil fuel fibres. The Make the Label Count campaign brings together an international coalition of organisations who share an ambition to ensure the EU’s clothing sustainability labels are credible.