Ahead of the G7 meeting in France this weekend, 32 major global fashion and textile companies, from H&M and Gap to Burberry and Chanel, signed a Fashion Pact, promising to lower the industry’s negative impact on the environment.
The initiative, led by Gucci parent and French luxury house Kering, targets a net-zero carbon footprint by 2050 and invites the industry to come up with “regenerative” approaches to agriculture, including eliminating sourcing from intensive feed-lot-based farming.
To protect the oceans, the pact urges cutting the use of single-use plastics by 2030 and reducing micro-fiber ocean pollution created through consumers’ washing of synthetic materials. It also asks the industry to embrace the trending “circular economy,” including recycling and “upcycling,” to come up with new designs using old clothes.
That signals that the wave of traditional retailers announcing their own clothing rental subscription services, including Banana Republic and Bloomingdale’s, or getting into fashion resale like Neiman Marcus will likely only grow bigger.
The pact admits a big unaddressed part of the industry’s environmental impact lies in the “first mile” of fashion supply chains, such as at the farm level and where raw materials are sourced.
The industry “should have the power to play a pivotal role in leading the shift towards a more sustainable future,” the pact says, adding that the companies want top players, making up at least 20% of the industry measured by product volume, to sign on to the pact. The pact adds that this is the first time some major fashion players are joining forces.
Companies that have signed on include Burberry, Zara parent Inditex, Nike, Adidas, Coach parent Tapestry, retailer Nordstrom, and Calvin Klein parent PVH.
Fashion is one of the worst-polluting industries. According to a United Nations Environment Programme study in November, the industry produces 20% of global wastewater and 10% of global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Textile dyeing is the No. 2 polluter of water globally, and it takes around 2,000 gallons of water to make a typical pair of jeans, the study said.
The equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned each second while laundry releases half a million tonnes of microfibers into the ocean every year, the UN agency said.
The industry knows it has a problem. It has been embracing sustainability as a key discussion point in various industry gatherings especially as it’s faced with increasingly environmentally conscious shoppers who are more than willing to ditch brands that don’t align with their social values.
According to 2018’s Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report, 52% of industry executives polled said “sustainability targets acted as a guiding principle for nearly every strategic decision they made,” up 18 percentage points from 2017. The study also showed that a heightened sustainability focus translates to a positive impact on profit.
However, even as companies have pushed ahead with their various environmentally friendly initiatives—for instance, Levi’s is using lasers to finish its jeans, and designer Eileen Fisher is giving new life to old and damaged clothes—the industry as a whole may still not be doing more fast enough.
The Fashion Pact itself is not legally binding and is meant to serve only as a set of guidelines.
According to this year’s Pulse of the Fashion Industry update published by Global Fashion Agenda, Boston Consulting Group and Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the industry’s improvement on its environmental impact has slowed.
“Although the continued progress is encouraging, its decreasing speed is concerning,” the report says, adding that the industry, driven by demand in Asia and other developing countries, will grow to 102 million tonnes in volume by 2030. “Fashion companies are not implementing sustainable solutions fast enough. The industry can’t wait for the consumer to lead this movement—it is up to fashion leaders to take bolder moves today to transition to a sustainable industry.”