“It's now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C”, stated the IPCC authors earlier this year. “Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible”, they continued.
With worsening climate effects all over the world, all eyes turned to COP27 where global leaders, international organizations, civil society and private sector representatives convened to urgently implement the Paris agreement and the Glasgow Climate Pact. Often overlooked as part of the discussions, is the environmental harm caused by the textile and clothing industry. As such, frequently disregarded is the industry’s heavy use of petrochemical products, e.g., polyester, stemming from fossil fuels.
“According to the European Commission, the textile and clothing industry in Europe is the third biggest industry in terms of land use. It's got a huge impact on water use that connects, of course, to farming. ”, stressed Lily Cole, Climate Activist and Advisor to UNECE, in Sharm el-Sheikh.
What’s more: with estimated global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions up to 10%, the industry will need to cut them in half by 2030 and realize abatement opportunities through decarbonization initiatives and process improvements.
Against this background, UNECE co-organized and participated in a number of events and panel discussions at COP27 to shed light on the importance of transparency and traceability in priority sectors, which is crucial to drive sustainable change. Cole represented the UNECE initiative “The Sustainability Pledge”, at events with, among others, The Sustainable Markets Initiative, Global Fashion Agenda and UNEP, the New York Times, the UNFCCC Fashion Charter, Planet Tracker and the UN Secretary-General's Working Group on Transforming Extractive Industries. Experts from governments, international organizations, industry associations, companies and academia gathered there to debate on actions for accelerating the fashion industry’s transition to a decarbonized future.
“We're seeing so many different pledges being made by companies, by cities, by countries. We will have no idea if we are meeting those pledges, if we are achieving our goals – if we don't have transparency. And customers are not able to vote for better business, if they don't have transparency that can honestly and authentically tell them how products and services are being made”, she said.
Discussions also focused on the necessity of collaboration and partnerships along global value chains. During a dialogue between UNECE’s Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova and Cole, both emphasized the shared responsibility among stakeholders to accelerate climate action. While companies play a critical role to commit to net-zero goals; policymakers are required to provide a level-playing field through frameworks and legislations; consumers are asked to act responsibly; and investors should provide increased financing to ESG-compliant actors. According to the Executive Secretary, international organizations “are providing the platform where governments, civil society, private sector and financial institutions can come together. Their voices are heard.”
While the discussions reflected upon the many challenges the fashion industry is facing, the participants also explained the relevance to focus on concrete actions. “Science is telling us that the environmental footprint of the fashion industry has worsened since COP26. We need to be more proactive. Instead of only speaking about catastrophic scenarios, we should speak about solutions”, stressed Olga Algayerova.
In this light, “The Sustainability Pledge” was emphasized as an example that allows practical solutions to be implemented by governments, investors, and industry actors. As part of the initiative, Cole is engaging in a shared ambition with UNECE to tackle such environmental and social harms caused by the industry through the initiative‘s Call to Action. The Call aims to mobilize companies towards increased traceability and transparency in value chains with their pledges through measurable actions. As of now, around 100 pledges with company-specific KPIs have been submitted involving more than 350 partners. Looking ahead, UNECE will establish an Advisory Board for evaluating the criteria for monitoring these pledges, and a Community of Practice for initial testing of the selected KPIs.
More than half of the textile and clothing sector’s emissions lie in upstream supply chains
“When you look at agriculture, for food as well as for fashion, you see that it's a huge part of the problem we're dealing with today in the climate crisis. If we transform how we use the land through agriculture, both for fashion and for food, we could actually galvanize climate action at an extraordinary pace and scale”, Cole highlighted.
Such significant effort is undertaken by UNECE, through its recently kicked-off blockchain pilot with Stella McCartney, and the cotton supplier Söktas, to trace a T-shirt for the brand’s 2023 summer collection through documentary evidence. The pilot is exploring the use of innovative technologies such as Satellite Imagery and DNA testing to substantiate the company’s sustainability credentials, including biodiversity monitoring, water use, crop rotation as well as through other methods to measure carbon capture rate.
So far UNECE blockchain pilots focusing on end-to-end traceability and transparency have been tested in 21 countries with more than 70 partners in 13 use cases. They have shown the importance of reliable information to identify, prevent and mitigate adverse impacts on people and the planet, which is documented in a Proof-of-Concept report for consultation.
The discussions on how to achieve net-zero targets in the industry led to key takeaways, highlighting the need of:
- Significant investments to ensure scalable solutions that can help monitor and reduce GHG emissions industry-wide.
- Collaboration within and across industries to understand the challenges and opportunities of the whole ecosystem.
- Transparency and traceability approaches to help measure, identify and mitigate social and environmental effects along value chains.
- International standards, de-risking fragmentation effects, to effectively communicate the environmental footprint of products.
- Policy actions to ensure responsible business conduct in global value chains, e.g., by pricing in negative externalities or costs to society and the environment, as well as to establish a level playing field for companies in the industry.
- Reconciled objectives among all stakeholders to avoid the exploitation of workers, land use or natural resources.
UNECE has recently established a Team of Specialists (ToS) on ESG traceability to contribute to better and more informed decisions for sustainable production and consumption. It builds on traceability approaches and systems for the exchange of data and information along global value chain in priority industries, including extractive industries and garment and footwear, for the circular transition. This allows to rethink business models, enable circular design, recyclability, reuse and repairability.