Friday 26 November 2021

Where Was Fashion at COP26?

By now, we all know that COP26 was a failure. It feels almost astounding how little it managed to achieve apart from the extent to which it highlighted our world leaders are the major climate hypocrites that they are.

But where was the fashion industry in all this?

At the entrance of the Blue Zone, where all the politicians and official representatives attended and took part in events, panels, and talks, the fashion industry was centre stage with an exhibition created by Sustainable Fashion Scotland Beira and ZWD. This installation, titled Generation of Waste, consisted of eight caged pillars highlighting the textile waste created at each stage of a garment’s life cycle, from design all the way through to its end-of-life. Acting as a parallel to the way national growths and economies are often measured and displayed with these pillars acting as a bar chart together to highlight the urgent need for degrowth and the full extent of fashion’s waste problem. And it is a big waste problem: 144 million tonnes of textile waste generated globally every year. That’s enough to fit 2975 Hydro buildings (COP’s venue).

Not only have Generation of Waste put fashion’s waste crisis directly in front of high-profiled COP-delegates from around the world, they have also been sharing more detailed information on their website (which was linked via a QR code on the exhibition) and social media platforms. For example, did you know that $5.6 million worth of textile waste is generated globally every year as a direct result from the distribution of clothes and that that is the equivalent of employing an additional 400 garment workers in the USA every year? Or can you imagine if the money used to manufacture those clothes in the first place was instead used to play the workers who made them a decent living wage? So many problems would be solved. The figure of only 2% of garment workers worldwide being paid a living wage could be radically transformed if brands took ownership of the waste crisis and pumped the money they spend on clothes that ultimately end up in landfill into the wage packets of their workers. The solution are there waiting for us, we just need them to be set in motion.

Credit: Lateral North

The UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Change Progress Report was also launched with updates from its original 2018-iteration at the conference. This pledge signed by +180 brands (notably not by major-offender brands like Boohoo and Shein). One significant part of the pledge includes a commitment for brands to reach net-zeros no later than 2050 and to half their emissions by 2030. As George Harding-Rells highlighted in a recent panel with XR Fashion Action, a lot of brands who have signed the UNFCCC have done so as a means to further greenwash themselves. We see the same brands who time and time again are signing these voluntary agreements but in reality making very little change. Yes, you guessed right, the H&M Group have signed it but are still producing clothes at an astronomic rate. What we’ve not seen with these voluntary commitments is major offender brands like Boohoo and Shein showing any willingness whatsoever to even try to lessen their environmental impacts – and they’re the types of brands we desperately need to be doing more. He also pointed out that many of the signatory brands have made their own net-zero claims in previous years and have done very little to demonstrate their actions are aligning with such commitments, especially around degrowth. If clothing production has more than doubled in the past 15 years, then we need drastic collective action to prevent production rates from escalating even further, let alone reducing them. Even if all the clothes were made using the most sustainable fabrics possible, it would all mean nothing if we continue to produce our clothes at such a high rate.

On the same XR Fashion Action panel, Bel Jacobs looked at the broader greenwashing net-zero pledges allow throughout all industries and government, as a term and commitment which is there to make people feel better about themselves while still emitting carbon at the same or similar levels. We don’t need any more net-zero pledges for 2030 or 2050, we need as little carbon emitted as possible, as soon as possible.

There were also many less formal events organized by grassroots groups all across the city, from information events and open studios, to clothes swaps and mending workshops. Fashion Revolution also had bloc at Global Day of Action March on the first Saturday of the event and were present in the main venue. We know that big fast fashion brands aren’t going to give us the solutions, but the people who were connecting and organising in the outskirts of the venue are the ones who give me hope and energy and who are the ones from whom change will come.

At a recent XR Fashion Action panel event it as highlighted that ‘while some elements of fashion had a large presence at COP, the industry’s enormous reliance on fossil fuels is being consistently ignored by our global political leaders and corporations’. Somehow, COP26 was the first time that the need to put an end to fossil fuels was formally and explicitly recognized by world leaders. Yep, somehow they didn’t think to recognise that at the first COP in 1992. Seems pretty obvious to me but we move. Congrats to world leaders for just managing to realise that fossil fuels are bad. Pat on the back for you.

What we need now is the delegates with power at COP26 to take that now-formal need to dismantle the fossil fuel industry into action – implementing and enforcing legislation around both the fossil fuel and fashion industries and severely limiting how much polyester is manufactured (if any) by fashion brands, as one of the most popular fabrics currently used that just so happens to also be made plastic aka fossil fuels.  At COP, this supposedly came through Textile Exchange Trade Policy Request through which over 50 fashion brands and textile companies called on national governments to take action to encourage the use of environmentally-friendly fabrics and materials, with a particular push against polyester. There is no doubt that we need to cut out polyester from our lives. The fashion industry at the moment uses over 700 million tonnes of oil to go towards the production of polyester – that means there’s more oil used for the production of polyester in fashion than Spain uses as an entire country. However, like the UNFCCC, workers and the people (mostly women) at the heart of the fashion industry are not mentioned. They need to be at the forefront of change.

We have seen time and time again governments ignore calls from campaigners to create change and enforce better workers’ rights standards and take a meaningful stand for the planet. The UK Government has refused to take action in preventing the exploitation of garment workers several times, most recently with Priti Patel claiming that the reason there wasn’t any intervention in the Boohoo sweatshops in Leicester was because of the fear police would be seen as ‘racist’ if they did. Over a year before those allegations came to the mainstream news, the Government failed to implement policy suggestions made in the Environmental Audit Committee’s Fixing Fashion report, published in February 2019. Action then could have prevented further exploitation of marginalised garment workers in Leicester at the very beginning of the pandemic.

In order for true impact to be had on the global stage, governments need to be taking climate justice issues seriously on the domestic level. Host states cannot be preaching about their apparent climate leadership while time and time again proving they are not committed to taking meaningful actions themselves. Fashion needs to be discussed more prominently in conferences like these, and workers’ rights need to be at the forefront of negotiations. The next COP should prioritise unions of workers in previously colonised countries and the voices of indigenous people who are most affected by the climate crisis instead of allowing fossil fuel companies to perpetuate their greenwashing as the largest delegation in attendance.

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If you liked this post you might like: My Experience with #NoNewClothes and Slow Fashion Season

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