black friday protesters

Extinction Rebellion protests against Black Friday in Warsaw, Poland on November 25, 2022. (Photo: Piotr Lapinski/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

On Cyber Monday, Climate Activists Take Aim at Fashion Industry

"The fashion industry is one of the largest polluting industries globally. We can all do better, but it's on companies to make this industry better for workers, the planet, and consumers alike."

As Black Friday and Cyber Monday shoppers have spent the past few days taking advantage of deals for holiday gifts, climate activists and reporters worldwide have highlighted the negative impact that the clothing industry--particularly fast fashion--has on the planet.

"The 'fast fashion' model we're in is an endless cycle of companies forcing people to spend more money and sell more products--all while they make huge profits off their exploitation."

In a series of tweets Monday, the youth-led Sunrise Movement pointed out that in addition to its planet-heating emissions, "as a whole the fashion industry has been criticized for everything from blatant racism and exploitative factories to water pollution."

"Clothing production often happens in countries where brands can underpay people, materials are cheaper, and with less factory regulations," the group said. "That can mean more water pollution, environmental degradation, exploitation, and unsafe conditions for workers."

"Clothing is getting produced faster, fossil fuel-based clothing (like polyester) is growing, and more and more is thrown out. And unfortunately, it's not that easy to recycle our clothing," the movement continued, adding that a sizable amount is burned or sent to landfills.

Sunrise stressed that "we're not blaming consumers for buying what they can afford. But the 'fast fashion' model we're in is an endless cycle of companies forcing people to spend more money and sell more products--all while they make huge profits off their exploitation."

The group concluded by calling out both fast fashion and luxury brands, and advocating for companies "to make this industry better for workers, the planet, and consumers alike."

Other critics shared a Friday New York Times opinion piece by Rachel Greenley, a graduate student working on a memoir about cultural divides. She's also a seasonal warehouse worker paid $18.75 an hour to determine which returned clothing should be resold--a job she took "to study how the company's focus on speed and scale affects the warehouse worker."

"Even when the item passes my evaluation," Greenley wrote early in the piece, "embedded in the fabric is a deeper thread to unravel: Why do we buy disposable clothing that is made by low-wage workers and that tax an overtaxed environment?"

Sharing some details about the industry and her experiences, she argued that "brands point to sustainability efforts, but fast fashion is simply incompatible with sustainability. We operate under an economic belief that growth is unlimited. Our natural resources are not."

"I'm still trying to answer my initial question," she added. "What I've learned in the meantime is that, whether I'm in the office tower or the warehouse, I'm part of a pattern sewn together with overseas garment workers, cargo ship crews, delivery drivers, corporate managers trying to explain data points, and warehouse workers. We support a system of throwaway clothes that didn't deserve their trip around the world or the number of hands that touched them."

The Guardianreported Monday on tips and tricks from four people "who've forsworn fast fashion," featuring suggestions like browsing Pinterest instead of online shopping sites and never buying anything new "without mulling it over for a few weeks or months first."

Meanwhile, Nusa Urbancic of the Changing Markets Foundation wrote for about fashion industry efforts, noting the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt--and how it differed from the 2021 summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

As Urbancic noted:

Following a series of big announcements made at COP26 last year, when the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action (UNFCC) was updated to phase out coal, commit over 130 signatories to cut their supply chain emissions by half by 2030, and reach net-zero by 2050, significant fashion developments at COP27 were few. The Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) launched a "Fashion Industry Target Consultation." This is yet another voluntary industry initiative calling on fashion stakeholders to define holistic and concrete targets for a net-positive industry. It will encourage organizations to share [key performance indicators] and milestones the industry should strive to meet. The plan is that chosen targets will be included in the GFA report in Copenhagen in 2024, and to provide an "assessment" of the progress towards these targets annually from 2023 onwards. Unfortunately, this reads as yet more of the same voluntary fluff that so far did little to bring the fashion industry further on their "sustainability journey," as we have demonstrated in our report License to Greenwash.

However, one of the surprising and unexpected results from COP27 (and a bit of a bombshell) was a U.N. report on the net-zero commitments on nonstate actors, which sets a powerful new standard for any companies that set climate targets and commitments. This report is very clear on fossil fuel phaseout, the need for ambitious scientific targets, supply chain transparency, and the need to include all emissions within scope, including those in company supply chains, which are often conveniently forgotten. In the case of fashion, over 90% of the sector's emissions come from the supply chain, so-called scope 3 emissions. Crucially, scope 3 emissions include both the end-of-life for clothing, the majority of which ends up landfilled or burnt, as well as upstream at the resource extraction stage, where there is an over-reliance on fossil fuels. As so many fashion companies have net-zero targets and yet have been sluggish to address scope 3 emissions, it will be interesting to observe how fast they will adapt these targets to these ambitious new recommendations.

Urbancic pointed to Stand.Earth's analysis of how the report from the U.N.'s High Level Expert Group (HLEG) applies to 10 fashion giants: American Eagle, Gap, H&M, Kering, Levi's, Lululemon, Nike, Uniqlo, VF Corp, and Zara.

"If companies want to prove they're not just greenwashing they need to follow the net-zero guidelines set out by the HLEG and be the carbon reduction leaders they pretend to be," said Gary Cook, corporate campaigns director at "We're seeing a lot of greenwashing from the fashion industry because they know consumers want sustainable and ethical products, but they need to show how they are moving off fossil fuels, and prove they're not just all talk."

Maxine Bedat, director of the New Standard Institute, a think tank working to transform the global apparel industry, similarly toldFortune on Monday that "you would have to look at the specific data for each campaign or tack... Generally speaking, though, the marketing is often way ahead of any actual capability to shift things. It's greenwashing."

"As it stands today, fashion is a very opaque industry that's still largely unregulated," she noted. "And we can't expect consumers to take it upon themselves to change it, because they simply aren't educated enough to do so. The system just has to step up, starting with better ways of keeping itself in check."

However, she also acknowledged that "this is a profit-driven industry," so "whatever these retailers are spending on their 'sustainability efforts' always has to have a bottom-line benefit." Considering the profit motive, Bedat warned that fashion giants aren't likely to make big changes without being forced to do so.

"Most large retailers will keep not doing enough until tighter policies are in place," she said. "Better legislation and more stringent regulations are key. Governments need to realize how important the fashion industry is to their climate goals and act accordingly. But I can't say we're there yet."

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