The Fashion Industry’s Participation and Impact on COP26 Climate Talks


Photographs courtesy of Fashion Revolution; Stella McCartney; Nick Heyman


Over the course of October 31st, 2021 to November 12th, 2021, the United Nations Climate Change Conference discussed various issues that would serve to be make-or-break opportunities to avoid a climate catastrophe. Within this conference, fashion’s impact and contribution to overall climate change were highlighted to be around two to 10 percent of the global total according to a 2020 Report by Global Fashion Agenda and Mckinsey. If left unchecked, fashion’s emissions are expected to grow by more than 50 percent by 2030 (Kent). As fashion touches all corners of the world, its involvement in reducing global climate change is extremely crucial, especially with its growing consumption. However, some initiatives have been set into place to work towards this goal.

At its November 8th meeting, the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action and its 130 signatories pledged to cap global warming at no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (Deeley). Most notably, industry giant LVMH also joined the fight against climate change with the rest of many fashion brands. Overall, all 130 signatories emphasized the need to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 while cutting emissions in half by the end of the decade or setting science-based targets within the next 24 months to combat climate change (Kent). Furthermore, brands are also required to submit action plans within the next 12 months to describe how exactly they will be achieving such quotas. However, fashion’s contribution to overall climate change goes beyond its emission levels as its sourcing of materials causes massive deforestation and devastation of local land.


According to 2020 data from a forest conservation group Canopy, over 200 million trees are cut down annually to materialize plant-based viscose into fabrics. The Amazon has also experienced great deforestation, as its forest has been wiped to rear cattle for hides that are later used for leather bags, shoes, and belts. Beyond deforestation of areas in the Amazon, the cost of rearing cattle yields methane emissions as well. In other areas, sourcing and production of materials like cotton has promulgated unsustainable use of water and pesticides. Due to such aggressive cotton production, the Aral Sea in Central Asia had almost completely dried up in the region. Meanwhile, growing demand for cashmere within the fashion industry has spurred severe degradation, drought, and desertification in Mongolian grasslands. Seemingly, there is no corner of the Earth that fashion’s devastating impacts haven’t touched in conjunction with regards to climate change.





However, some companies and organizations are actively pursuing changes within their practices to reduce their contribution to the overall dismantling of the environment. Ralph Lauren has pledged to invest $5 million in regeneratively farmed cotton to eliminate one million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2025 while improving the carbon-capturing properties of the crop and soil (Deeley). The non-profit Textile Exchange along with the support of 50+ fashion and textile companies has requested changes to trade policies to encourage the use of preferred materials like organic cotton and recycled fibers. The organization points towards incentives of lower tariffs and import duties to address price concerns rather than reducing wages for farmers. Despite all of these promises, many question the fashion industry’s ability to maintain its word. According to the October 26th report by the Textile Exchange and the Climate Board, ⅔ of fashion companies are not on track to meet their own targets to cut down on third-party emissions.


Moreover, nearly 60 percent of a pool of 157 fashion and textile companies had committed to combat biodiversity risks in their operations while a meager 8 percent have actually instated a biodiversity strategy (Deeley). To what extent are these “environmental measures” taken by fashion companies purely performative and how can consumers actually keep them accountable?


The main answer remains in the choices made by consumers. Recently, the Sustainable Markets Initiative Fashion Taskforce (led by HRH The Prince of Wales and entrepreneur Frederico Marchetti) has launched a “Digital ID” to inform customers of the sustainability of their purchases. Brands such as Burberry, Chloé, Zalando, and Stella McCartney will be participating in partnering such technology with its products in the near future. With technology like this, consumers can keep brands accountable regarding their sustainability commitments while making themselves aware of how they contribute to the overall environmental change through their fashion consumption. Using combined efforts from both the beginning and end of the supply chain, fashion brands and consumers will be mutually motivated to ensure that these environmental commitments are being maintained.