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fashion waste

Discarded textiles are piled up on the river banks near some industrial buildings in the northern part Dhaka, Bangladesh on September 30, 2018. (Photo: Andrew Aitchison/In pictures via Getty Images)

'The Future of Fashion Looks Bleak Unless We Step Up': Industry Targeted at COP26

Though the sector used the climate talks to make new emission pledges applauded as "signs of encouraging progress," experts continued to raise alarm about practices that wreck the planet.

Jessica Corbett

While welcoming the global fashion industry's new climate commitments unveiled Monday as part of the United Nations summit in Glasgow, Scotland, campaigners urged bolder action that more adequately addresses issues with the full clothing supply chain.

"In a time when the climate crisis is accelerating to unprecedented levels, we need the real economy to lead on climate action."

The new targets under the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action include halving the industry's planet-heating emissions by 2030—more ambitious than the previous goal of a 30% reduction—and achieving net-zero emissions no later than 2050.

Signatories to the charter—including 130 companies and 41 supporting organizations—also aim to shift to 100% renewable electricity by 2030, use environmentally friendly raw materials, and phase out coal from the supply chain by the end of this decade.

Muhannad Malas, a senior climate campaigner at the international environmental advocacy group who is attending the ongoing COP26 summit, applauded the sector's latest pledges but also raised some concerns.

"The renewal of the U.N. Fashion Charter marks an important step breaking the industry's addiction to coal and bring[ing] its emissions in line with goals to limit global warming to 1.5°C," said Malas, referencing the lower temperature target of the Paris climate agreement.

However, the campaigner noted, the clean power target only applies to owned and operated facilities. As he put it: "While the charter misses the mark by not committing the industry to transition to 100% renewable energy in its supply chain by 2030, which would be critical to achieving its goal, the new commitments to phase out on-site coal usage by 2030 and pursue zero-emission shipping solutions are some signs of encouraging progress."

Signatories to the charter include major brands such as Adidas, Burberry, Chanel, H&M Group, Kering, Nike, PUMA, and VF Corporation. PUMA's Stefan Seidel, who co-chairs the charter's steering committee, celebrated the new commitments in a statement Monday.

"This is an important milestone for the Fashion Charter, as it increases the ambition level in an effort to align the industry with 1.5 degrees," Seidel said. "It is a signal that we need to work closely together with our peers, our supply chain, policymakers, and consumers to get on the track to net-zero."

"We have realized [the charter we launched at COP24] is not enough and we need to make it stronger, more concrete, and call for companies to halve emissions by 2030," Niclas Svenningsen, manager of Global Climate Action at U.N. Climate Change, reportedly said at an event Monday. "The science is clear, we have to do this. We do not have a choice."

"In a time when the climate crisis is accelerating to unprecedented levels, we need the real economy to lead on climate action," Svenningsen added. "The strengthened commitments of the Fashion Charter signatories is an excellent example of such leadership."

The industry commitments came as critics within and beyond the fashion world continued to expose its negative impacts on the planet. British designer Stella McCartney told a COP26 audience on Monday that "the future of fashion looks bleak unless we step up."

Agence France-Presse reported Sunday on how Chile's Atacama, the driest desert in the world, has become a "dumping ground for fast fashion leftovers," highlighting that "the social impact of rampant consumerism in the clothing industry—such as child labor in factories or derisory wages—is well-known, but the disastrous effect on the environment is less publicized."

According to AFP:

Some 59,000 tons of clothing arrive each year at the Iquique port in the Alto Hospicio free zone in northern Chile.

Clothing merchants from the capital Santiago, 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles) to the south, buy some, while much is smuggled out to other Latin American countries. But at least 39,000 tons that cannot be sold end up in rubbish dumps in the desert.

"The problem is that the clothing is not biodegradable and has chemical products, so it is not accepted in the municipal landfills," Franklin Zepeda, the founder of EcoFibra, a company that makes insulation panels from discarded clothing, told AFP—which noted that such clothing "can take 200 years to biodegrade and is as toxic as discarded tires or plastics."

The Guardian on Saturday drew attention to greenwashing related to the growing number of brands that make clothing from recycled materials, noting that not only do synthetic fibers such as polyester come from fossil fuels, but they also "continue to have an impact long after production, shedding plastic microfibers into the environment when clothes are washed."

George Harding-Rolls, campaigns adviser at the Changing Markets Foundation, and Maxine Bédat, executive director of the New Standard Institute, outlined to the newspaper some issues with using polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles to produce clothing:

"If you are recycling synthetics, that doesn't get rid of the microplastics problem," said Harding-Rolls. Fibers continue shedding from recycled plastic yarns just as much as from virgin yarns, he said.

PET bottles are also part of a well-established, closed-loop recycling system, where they can be efficiently recycled at least 10 times. The apparel industry is "taking from this closed-loop, and moving it into this linear system" because most of those clothes won't be recycled, said Bédat. Converting plastic from bottles into clothes may actually accelerate its path to the landfill, especially for low-quality, fast-fashion garments which are often discarded after only a few uses.

The clothing industry "is one of the most lightly regulated industries in the world," added Harding-Rolls, suggesting that legislation is needed to force systemic change. "What we need now are mandatory measures. We see it working in the plastics space, and it's time for the fashion sector to follow."

Though reporting on the fashion sector's impact often features statistics—including articles about the new pledges at COP26—journalist Alden Wicker detailed for Vox last year that "only one out of the dozen or so most commonly cited facts about the fashion industry's huge footprint is based on any sort of science, data collection, or peer-reviewed research."

The rest, including a U.N. claim that the sector is responsible for up to 10% of global emissions, "are based on gut feelings, broken links, marketing, and something someone said in 2003," Wicker explained, while noting that "it's clear that the fashion industry is a big, stinking mess."

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