With so much focus on individual action, the fashion industry is burying its head in the sand to avoid structural change. Yet by signing up to Science Based Targets, there are fast and powerful wins for companies to help stop the destruction of nature and halt climate changesays Martin Ebeli
Young people make up 40 percent of the global fashion industry’s consumer base but we are also disproportionately affected by the environmental destruction the industry creates. The climate crisis that the fashion industry is helping to drive, is our future.
Much of the messaging around sustainable fashion places a larger burden on the consumer to “spend responsibly”. But this is self-defeating against a system that is constantly pushing products into our faces.
We can check that our clothes have been manufactured ethically, and we can opt out of buying clothes manufactured using fossil fuels, but there is only so much that buyers can influence.
This becomes especially difficult because of how obsolete our clothes are made to appear. We can always look more attractive or there is something trendier, right? This creates a constant drive by the industry to consume and consume. The effects of this are externalized on the lives of workers and on fragile ecosystems worldwide.
With so much focus on individual action, the fashion industry buries its head in the sand to avoid structural change. Much like the consumer, it must look itself in the mirror and acknowledge the flaws of the system.
Amidst global water shortages and increasing droughts, the fashion industry consumes one-tenth of all of the water used industrially to run factories. On top of that, textile dyeing produces untreated wastewater which contaminates ecosystems.
The production of fashion apparel also drives the degradation of the global commons in a huge way. Structural change in this case has to be industry-led and future-centric.
Remember the Science Based Targets (SBTs)? They offer a truly systemic solution because targets are only defined as ‘science-based’ if they are aligned with societal goals and stay within Earth’s limits.
And fashion companies are more than capable of showing leadership here. Simply by setting actionable targets, they can align with global goals for sustainability based on the best available science on Earth’s limits. And without swift action to halt and reverse the loss of nature through climate change, projections of economic growth and better quality of life are impossible.
Before setting SBTs, fashion apparel manufacturers and retailers have to assess their impacts and dependencies on nature. This can partly be done through conducting a value chain assessment, for example, on polyester production, or the cultivation of cotton. Companies will need to assess both the sourcing and sale of commodities and goods.
This should include the use and reuse of the fashion items and their end-of-life; recovery, recycling, and final disposal. Importantly, it must also cover the broad corporate influence that drives damaging overconsumption in the first place. After taking stock of their dependencies on nature, fashion companies should prioritise key areas for action in order to have a positive impact on nature.
To prioritise where to act, companies must consider the state of nature in locations throughout their value chain to include factors like current levels of water scarcity and pollution. They can also consider how other stakeholders directly or indirectly influence the state of nature where they work or have value chain activities, for example, the petroleum industry.
The key areas where the fashion industry should set Science Based Targets include:
Resource exploitation, specifically water quantity and quality. Targets can include developing a plan that all wastewater is safely treated, or reducing wastewater discharge into local water bodies and developing an absolute water use reduction goal.
Land use change, specifically deforestation for wood-based fibres and conversion. Targets can include commitments through land management, sourcing, and supplier engagement practices that are protective of forests and other natural ecosystems.
Climate change with specific targets on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the value chain. The fashion industry can make targets to reduce the use of synthetic textiles like polyester and adoption of clean energy technology during production.
Lastly, there is strength and speed in solidarity. Action to meet targets will be far more effective, if all stakeholders in the industry are streamlined in their target setting to address interconnected issues. This joint action must drive real structural change because nature cannot wait. Now is the time for the fashion industry to step up and lead this charge, giving inspiration and hope to its consumers. Consumers can adapt; we always do, and sometimes that is the price of staying fashionable.
Martin is a co-founder of Equal Aqua Uganda, a community-based organisation that seeks to tackle issues related to water inequality and the restoration of water-related eco-systems impacted by plastic pollution. In addition, he regularly supports local governments in Eastern Uganda draft and update their natural resources management by-laws. This is because he believes that effective change starts with local solutions. Martin holds a Bachelor of Laws degree from Makerere University and has extensive experience in environmental law regulation and policy.