The government this month outlined plans for the UK to legislate for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, but this week it rejected industry-backed recommendations including those on reducing emissions. Where does that leave the fashion industry?
The cross-party environmental audit committee (EAC) submitted its Fixing Fashion report to the government in February following a period of intensive consultation with the fashion industry.
Included in the report was the suggestion of mandatory environmental targets for retailers with a turnover of £36m and above – a proposal widely supported in the industry. More than 90% of respondents in Drapers’ recent sustainability survey agreed with this idea.
It is unusual for an industry to welcome legislation, so the government’s wholesale rejection of all the EAC’s recommendations is a disappointment.
EAC chair Mary Creagh said: “The government has rejected our call, demonstrating that it is content to tolerate practices that trash the environment and exploit workers, despite having just committed to net zero emission targets.”
Ulric Jerome, CEO of Matchesfashion, agreed: “If we want the UK fashion industry to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, we have to have greater support and leadership from the government.”
His views are in line with 85% of respondents in Drapers’ survey who said the government is not doing enough to help the fashion industry become more sustainable.
For the fashion industry to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, we have to have greater support and leadership from the government
Ulric Jerome, CEO of Matchesfashion
Although the government’s response is frustrating, Kerry Gwyther, partner law firm TLT who heads its commercial regulatory practice, said he is not surprised: “[The government] believes its Resources and Waste Strategy will take care of most of the recommendations, coupled with existing legislations such as the Modern Slavery Act.
“The practicalities are that introducing legislation to cover the recommendations would involve a major piece of environmental legislation against the backdrop of a parliament grid-locked by Brexit.”
Clare Lissaman, director of content and impact at sustainable business network Common Objective, said the government’s response is “short sighted and missing the mood of the moment”.
That mood is one where fashion brands and retailers readily acknowledge the climate change emergency and accept net zero emissions targets as essential.
The starting point for most brands and retailers is operational reductions focusing on energy efficiency within corporate offices, stores and transport fleets (see box below).
Be part of the solution
Drapers Sustainable Fashion is an unmissable opportunity for the industry to get together and discuss what we can do to tackle the issues facing the industry as it strives towards a more sustainable future. To find out more go to Drapers Sustainable Fashion 2020.
New reporting obligations known as SECR (Streamlined Energy and Carbon Reporting) came into force in April and require businesses with a turnover of £36m or more to assess and share their organisational emissions footprint.
“A fair number of companies are doing this already, so the policy will bring in the laggards,” said Pauline Op de Beeck, client executive of the Carbon Trust.
The greater challenge for UK fashion businesses are emissions created outside their immediate control in their global supply chains. That is also where the biggest gains can be made.
WRAP’s (Waste and Resources Action Programme) 2016 Valuing Our Clothes report found that extraction of fibre during production was the biggest contributor to clothing’s carbon footprint globally.
It’s a hard time for the high street commercially but we do a disservice if we separate sustainability issues from business issues
Susan Harris, technical director at sustainability consultancy Anthesis Group
With future emissions targets likely to include the impact of their supply chains, fashion businesses will need to work with manufacturers to help them become more efficient. This could include helping suppliers switch to renewable energy sources, for example.
As one of the world’s largest fashion retailers working with a huge global supply chain, H&M group has outlined an ambition to achieve a “climate positive value chain” by 2040.
Giorgina Waltier, sustainability manager for UK and Ireland, explained: “This means we will reduce more greenhouse gas emissions than our entire value chain emits. We want to go beyond our own stores to address suppliers, transport and distribution centres.”
New business models
The fashion industry could make progress towards net zero targets by rethinking business models to cover the full garment lifecycle.
When clothing is re-used or recycled, it potentially displaces the sale of a new item and reduces the need for emission-heavy fibre extraction at the production stage. Brands are therefore starting to take circularity seriously, observed Susan Harris, technical director at sustainability consultancy Anthesis Group.
“Different approaches such as ‘take-back and re-use’ schemes, or fibre-to-fibre recycling are all valid,” she said.
The rise of resale apps highlights the appetite among consumers, especially younger ones, for reuse. New research conducted by Fashion Retail Academy revealed that the number of people selling their clothes via resale apps has increased by 113%.
Introducing legislation to cover the recommendations would involve a major piece of environmental legislation against the backdrop of a parliament grid-locked by Brexit
Kerry Gwyther, partner law firm TLT
This bodes well for the fashion industry which lends itself to circularity more than other industries. It even gives it a chance to lead as an industry.
The challenge for fashion businesses is how to rethink the model during difficult trading conditions.
Harris said: “It’s a hard time for the high street commercially but we do a disservice if we separate sustainability issues from business issues.”
Small steps are in evidence. Asos plans for all its designers to be educated in circular-design principles by 2020. So far, 15 members of the design team have piloted a circular-design training programme in partnership with the London College of Fashion.
Barriers to net zero
The reality of price and the challenges of the production are obstacles to achieving net zero carbon emissions. Polyester is responsible for 2% of greenhouse gases globally, as estimated by Common Objective, but is a tempting low-cost option for designers and buyers under pressure.
For UK fashion retailers to achieve net zero targets they need to introduce new metrics across all dimensions of their business, stated Lissaman: “Sustainability-led KPIs should not just be for the sustainable expert, but also design, buying and so on. That’s how to embed sustainability and create a system that supports individuals to make changes because they know they can.”
UK brands and retailers acknowledge the climate crisis and the need to step up their efforts to achieve net zero emissions targets. As such, they are making good progress on reducing the emissions they can control.
Moving beyond that is more challenging and makes the government’s rejection of the environmental audit committee’s recommendations all the more disappointing. Not only does it fail to capitalise on the momentum gathering among UK fashion brands and retailers for action, it delays any plans for an industry-wide system to improve reuse and recycling.
The appetite for collaborative action is encouraging. Brands and retailers are getting more and more involved in a wide range of initiatives, such as the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action set up by UN Climate Change.
In addition, the UK industry has a real opportunity to get ahead of the curve, and come up with new business models that help tackle climate change and respond to a new wave of consumer expectations.
Cutting operational emissions
Burberry is on track to reach its goal to make its operational energy use carbon neutral by 2022. Three quarters of the luxury brand’s direct carbon emissions come from stores so it uses a network of responsibility champions in key locations to encourage energy efficiency among store staff.
A spokeswoman said: “We are now carbon neutral across the Americas region, EMEIA retail stores and our UK operations.”
In March The John Lewis Partnership announced it would reduce its operational greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. It plans to eliminate emissions altogether, without the need to purchase offsets.
Primark, meanwhile, invested in in-store energy efficiency technologies in 2018. These cover lighting, building management systems and real-time data technology to control and reduce energy use.
The Aldo Group became the first footwear and accessories retailer worldwide to achieve climate neutral status in its offices and stores in 2018, five years after starting a carbon and greenhouse gas reduction programme. Alongside in-store energy-efficiency programmes, it offsets 100% of the non-avoidable greenhouse gas emission generated in stores.
Smaller brands are also exploring ways to curb energy emissions.
Cora Hilts, co-founder of Rêve en Vert, said it uses UPS and DHL carbon shipping. “I don’t believe that offsets nearly enough emissions however, so we also donate to the charity Trees for the Future.”