The facts when it comes to the fashion industry’s impact on the global environment are staggering. From producing vast amounts of cheap, plastic based garments in oil and coal-fuelled manufacturing processes, to transporting them vast distances, to the colossal amount of disposal wastage; it’s an industry in dire need of sustainable reform.
According to a report by environmental consultancy Qantis, the global apparel and footwear industry is responsible for approximately 8 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, which is almost equal to the entire climate impact emission rate of the European Union.
It’s not just the low-cost end of the market that’s guilty either, with the high-end fashion industry carrying a dubious record. In fact, in 2018 it was revealed that Burberry routinely burned unsold stock, with a staggering 33 million euros worth of clothing apparel, accessories and perfumes going up in flames. Other notable brands accused of similar practices include Michael Kors, Louis Vuitton and Juicy Couture.
Why the waste?
The destruction of unsold merchandise by iconic fashion-industry giants has been long-seen as a way to protect the exclusivity of brands, avoiding the market from being flooded with high-end products at discounted prices – something luxury retailers consider could ultimately degrade their labels; adding an even more unsavoury twist.
In response to mounting criticism, Burberry announced it was discontinuing the practise, adding that it would also phase-out the use of real animal fur in its garments. This announcement was followed by the brand’s signing of the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Change, in December 2018 – a highly ambitious plan which sets targets for the fashion industry to achieve net 0 percent carbon emissions by 2050.
43 other leading industry players – the likes of Adidas, Hugo Boss, H&M Group, Inditex, Puma SE, among others – committed to achieving the targets that underpin the Fashion Climate Charter.
France at the fore
France, a major player in the fashion market – and home to many of the world’s most renowned luxury fashion brands – has become an early front runner in coordinating an international response to the damage the fashion industry is causing.
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Recently, they followed up their ban on destroying unsold supermarket food, unveiled last year, with a similar ban on the fashion industry. According to the statement by French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on June 4th, the ban – which means that all garments must undergo recycling – would come into effect by 2023.
With this in mind, French President, Emmanuel Macron, has leaned on the expertise of Francois-Henri Pinault, CEO of fashion conglomerate Kering – which is the parent company of flagship brands such as Gucci, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen.
Pinault has stated that the specific targets the industry could aim for include converting production to renewable sources by 2030, and the ambitious goal of eliminating disposable plastics within three years. Disposable plastics are the source of the scourge of microbeads, which have caused unmeasurable damage to oceans and ecosystems – having even made their way into the human food system.
According to Pinault, there is an industry-wide acceptance of the problem, but the issue now resides in coordination. “All the major actors (in the fashion industry) are working on these issues”, he said, adding that “the problem is that with doing everything separately we don’t have the impact that we should”.
Speaking at a conference in Copenhagen, the French Deputy Ecology Minister Brune Poirson said that too many companies still feel it’s acceptable to dispose of, or destroy, shoes or clothing that haven’t been sold. “You can’t do that anymore, it’s shocking”, stated Poirson, after which she made an open call on brands to double their efforts, or face the threat of sanctions.
In an interview with Vogue magazine at the conference in Copenhagen, Pinault said that many fashion companies were being very proactive in addressing the need to reduce waste and recycle but, taken in isolation, the results weren’t being delivered.
“We really need to define targets together. The first stage is to choose three or four objectives that are a top priority for the industry and commit to working towards them together to find solutions”, he added, saying that leaders in the fashion industry have to put themselves in uncomfortable positions. “You may not meet the targets but you’ll make a difference”, stated Pinault.
A slippery slope
There is still a long road ahead, with the steps taken by the fashion industry to date quickly outstripped by the continuing massive growth of production in the industry. According to BCG Consultants, the global fashion and footwear market is expected to grow at 5 percent per year up to 2030, generating 100 million tonnes of apparel production per year – a rate that European analysts Euromonitor have warned risks “exerting an unprecedented strain on planetary resources”.
For those in the industry, though, there is a changing of the guard, with Francois-Henri Pinault pointing to the new generation of designers coming through that simply won’t work with products such as fur, for example.
Pinault’s own firm Kering has also launched their own animal welfare standards to “ensure and verify the humane treatment of animals across the animal’s supply chains”. LVMH, the parent of giants such as Dior and Louis Vuitton recently announced that they were partnering with the conservation body UNESCO to set distinct targets for products, supply chains and climate change.
On the cosmetics side, Guerlain has created a Bee Respect platform to illustrate the traceability and transparency of their source ingredients.