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A Review of the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter


 

The fashion industry played a large role in the rapid rise in global warming in recent decades. A large part of the detrimental effects the fashion industry has on the earth’s climate is due to the 92 million tonnes of textile waste that occurs globally every year; a number which is set to soar to 134 million tonnes by 2030. Another cause for concern is that the fashion industry is currently responsible for nearly 10% of global carbon emissions, which is larger than both the aviation and shipping sectors combined.

 

Jointly launched in 2018 by the United Nations Environment Programme and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC, the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action is an international attempt to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 in line with the Paris Agreement. This article seeks to review the Fashion Industry Charter in an attempt to come to the conclusion as to whether or not it has been a success.

 

Context Behind the Charter

The years prior to the publication of the Fashion Industry Charter were crucial in cementing the dialogue within the international system surrounding climate change that is present today. In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously passed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, also known as the SDGs, which was a landmark document in creating the foundation for tackling climate change on a global scale. Both the Paris Climate Agreement (2016) and the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (2018) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acted as a stark reminder that the fashion industry needed to act quickly in reducing its carbon emissions. Clearly, the backdrop was set in Katowice, Poland at COP24 for the publication of the Fashion Industry Charter. The Charter, adopting the climate targets of the aforementioned documents, aimed at uniting the textile, clothing, and fashion industries in reducing their carbon emissions.

 

What is the Charter?

The Fashion Industry Charter shares its annual progress through an event at COP each year in addition to publishing progress reports such as the one in 2023. In order for the Fashion Industry Charter to share its progress, its signatories must first share their progress in achieving the targets set out in the Charter to CDP. As of 2023, the Fashion Industry Charter has 99 signatories consisting of fashion brands, suppliers, and retailers from all over the world. However, in the last 4 years, 31 signatories have lost their membership to the Fashion Industry Charter due to failure to report. Notable signatories include, Nike, LVMH, and Chanel. There are also a further 40 organisations that have joined the Fashion Industry Charter ranging from Vogue, Vanity Fair, and World Wildlife Fund, to support the implementation of its principle

 

What are the principles of the charter?

The Fashion Industry Charter renders its signatories to commit to 5 principles that go beyond existing industry-wide commitments.

 

The first principle of the Fashion Industry Charter is a pledge to drive the fashion industry to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by no later than 2050, in line with the global efforts to limit global warning to 1.5 °C. The pledge also extends to halving greenhouse emissions by 2030 compared to the 2019 levels. Originally, the pledge was to cutting greenhouse gases by 30%, however, the 2021 revision of the Fashion Industry Charter increased the level proposed by the pledge.

 

The second principle is to plan and explain the steps necessary to achieving the goal of net zero emissions. Particularly, the Fashion Industry Charter focuses on the short-term to medium-term length plans which are to be summited to the UNFCCC within 12 months of signing.

 

The third principle is to proceed in taking immediate action towards achieving net zero emissions in line with the aforementioned plans laid out in the previous pledge. Furthermore, signatories should demonstrate that the actions that they have taken on an annual basis.

 

The penultimate principle is for signatories to commit to publishing public reports outlining their progress in tackling the long-term targets set out in the Fashion Industry Charter on an annual basis, via CDP.

 

The final principle is to commit to covering all emissions in reaching the net-zero goal. On top of this, signatories must provide the data outlining how they have cut their emissions.

 

One aspect that the Fashion Industry Charter really focuses on in its call for the fashion industry to become net-zero is the transition to using ‘environmentally preferred materials.’ This term can be defined by the Textile Exchange as “those from certified, verified sources that can be traced from raw material to finished product, and that are connected to data-driven environmental impact reductions.” Examples of preferred materials include organic cotton and recycled fibres according to the Textile Exchange. Materials such as viscose, polyester, wool, and leather must be recycled in a closed loop, and are deforestation-free, land conversion-free, and produced using regenerative practises by 2030. Beyond transitioning to ‘environmentally preferred materials’, the Fashion Industry Charter stresses phasing out of coal from the supply chains of its signatories.

 

Review: Has it been a success or not?

The main achievement of the Fashion Industry Charter is its ability to start to create a culture of accountability within the global fashion industry. One form of accountability that the Fashion Industry Charter has had particular success with is reporting. In the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action Progress Report 2023, UNFCCC identified that 89% of signatories complied with the basic reporting requirement of the Fashion Industry Charter. In 2022, nearly twice as many signatories submitted the findings of their reports publicly in comparison to 2022. Additionally, the number of signatories that have reported their energy consumption has doubled from 35% to 70% in 2020 to 2023. Lastly, the progress report identifies that there has been a 30% increase in signatories reporting that there has been board-level oversight of climate-related issues and nearly every signatory is in agreement that climate-related issues are the responsibility of C-suite level executives.

 

Another success of the Fashion Industry Charter is that signatories are increasingly engaging with the public policy sector on driving positive environmental change. In 2022, a quarter of signatories reported engaging with policymakers on climate-related issues which has resulted in a change to law and regulation. The Fashion Industry Charter has also boosted discourse between fashion brands and their suppliers in a way that is positive to climate change. The Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action Progress Report 2023 found that in the 2022 reporting cycle, 25 signatories recognised that they had included climate-related requirement into their supplier contracts.

 

What undermines the success of the Fashion Industry Charter is the gaps in reporting that still exist. Whilst the Fashion Industry Charter did a great job of sparking the initial engagement in reporting from its signatories, there is still progress to be made if the signatories are to hit the goals of the Fashion Industry Charter. Areas that include a gap of more than 50% of signatories failing to report are: publicly agreeing to a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030, setting a 100% renewable energy target by 2030, and engagement with their suppliers. A representative of the Fashion Industry Charter told Vogue Business in an email that “We’ve seen in our global CDP database that the level of transparency, participation and engagement from the apparel sector at large is far below most other industries.” The lack of reporting can stems from the lack of general mutual accountability that the Fashion Industry Charter inspires. Whilst the signatories are ultimately held accountable to the Fashion Industry Charter, they fail to hold each other accountable, which explains the current gap in reporting that exists.

 

An area of critique that is common to all reporting dependent initiatives is that the Fashion Industry Charter is more concerned on its signatories’ climate goals and disclosure practices as opposed to their actual emissions. One way in which the Fashion Industry Charter could remedy this criticism is by providing higher levels of scrutiny towards the strategies that its signatories are employing to meet their targets.

 

Conclusion

Overall, the Fashion Industry Charter has marked a positive impact on the fashion industry and can be seen as a good first attempt at an international framework promoting sustainability. That being said, the Fashion Industry Charter would do well to recognise the power of policy in achieving the goals it sets out. As time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to make the changes necessary to become net-zero so the signatories to the Fashion Industry Charter must act fast if they are to achieve their goal.

 

Sources Used:

Olivia Lai, “Explainer: What is the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action?”, in Earth.Org, 2022.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Actions, 2021.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Paris Agreement, 2015.

United Nations General Assembly, Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (A/RES/70/1), 2015.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global Warming of 1.5°C, 2019.

United Nations Climate Change, Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action Progress Report 2023, 2023.

Amy Nguyen, “Fashion Industry’s Material Sourcing Under Spotlight At COP26 As UN Fashion Industry Charter For Climate Action Scales Its Commitments”, in Forbes, 2021.

Maliha Shoab, “Fashion is big on Climate Commitments, UN Says, but Action Lags”, in Vogue Business, 2023.


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