How Fashion Brands Are Facing the Climate Politics Challenge

The fashion industry is one of the most influential and profitable sectors in the world, but also one of the most polluting and wasteful. As the global climate crisis intensifies, fashion brands are facing increasing pressure from consumers, regulators, investors and activists to reduce their environmental and social impacts. However, the path to sustainability is not straightforward, as it involves complex trade-offs, conflicts of interest and power dynamics.

One of the main drivers of change in the fashion industry is the growing awareness and demand from consumers for more sustainable products and practices. According to a survey conducted by McKinsey during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, 67 percent of respondents consider the use of sustainable materials to be an important purchasing factor, and 63 percent consider a brand’s promotion of sustainability in the same way. Moreover, the conversation around sustainability in the media has increased by 54% during the first semester of 2022 compared to the first semester of 2021, accountng for $2 billion and $1.3 billion in value, respectively.

How Fashion Brands Are Facing the Climate Politics Challenge
How Fashion Brands Are Facing the Climate Politics Challenge

Consumers are becoming more informed and critical about the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry, such as greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, waste generation, deforestation, biodiversity loss, human rights violations, labor exploitation and animal welfare. They are also seeking more transparency and accountability from brands about their sourcing, production, distribution and disposal processes. As a result, consumers are demanding more sustainable alternatives, such as organic, recycled, vegan, circular and fair trade products, as well as more ethical and responsible business practices, such as carbon neutrality, living wages, diversity and inclusion, and stakeholder engagement.

The Role of Regulation and Policy

Another factor that is influencing the fashion industry’s sustainability agenda is the role of regulation and policy. As the world faces the urgent need to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, as agreed in the Paris Agreement, governments are implementing more stringent and ambitious policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and foster a low-carbon transition. For instance, the European Union has adopted the European Green Deal, a comprehensive strategy to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, which includes measures such as carbon pricing, renewable energy targets, circular economy initiatives, green public procurement and sustainable finance.

These policies have direct and indirect implications for the fashion industry, as they affect the availability and cost of raw materials, energy, transportation, packaging and waste management. They also create new opportunities and incentives for innovation and collaboration, as well as new risks and challenges for compliance and competitiveness. Furthermore, these policies reflect the expectations and preferences of the society and the market, which can influence the reputation and value of fashion brands.

The Power Dynamics and Conflicts of Interest

However, the transition to a more sustainable fashion industry is not without obstacles and controversies, as it involves multiple actors with different interests, values and perspectives. The fashion industry is characterized by a complex and fragmented value chain, which spans across various countries, regions, sectors and stakeholders. Each of these actors has a different degree of power, influence and responsibility in the system, as well as different motivations, incentives and barriers to change.

For example, fashion brands have to balance the trade-offs between profitability, quality, innovation, customer satisfaction and sustainability, while also managing the expectations and demands of their shareholders, employees, suppliers, customers, regulators, competitors and civil society. Similarly, fashion suppliers have to cope with the pressures and requirements of their buyers, as well as the challenges and opportunities of their local contexts, such as labor conditions, environmental regulations, social norms and cultural traditions. Moreover, fashion consumers have to reconcile their personal preferences, needs, values and budgets, while also considering the wider impacts and implications of their choices and behaviors.

These power dynamics and conflicts of interest can create tensions, disputes and resistance among the actors, as well as gaps, inconsistencies and inefficiencies in the system. Therefore, the fashion industry needs to adopt a more holistic, systemic and collaborative approach to sustainability, which recognizes and addresses the interdependencies, synergies and trade-offs among the various dimensions, levels and stakeholders involved.

The Way Forward for Fashion Brands

As the fashion industry continues to be challenged by geopolitical and economic headwinds, fashion leaders in 2024 will look to strike a careful balance between managing uncertainty and seizing opportunities. With cost-saving tactics mostly exhausted, companies may focus on growing sales, underpinned by new pricing and promotion strategies. However, this growth will have to be aligned with the global climate goals and social imperatives, as well as the consumer demand and regulatory pressure for sustainability.

To achieve this, fashion brands will have to take more concrete steps to embrace sustainability, a process which goes beyond brand image and campaigns. True sustainability should ensure that the creation process is environmentally and socially sound, from materials to manufacturing all the way to workers’ conditions and fair pay. This will require fashion brands to:

  • Assess and disclose their environmental and social impacts, risks and opportunities, using credible and comparable metrics and standards, such as the BoF Sustainability Index.
  • Set and implement ambitious and science-based targets and action plans to reduce their emissions, water consumption, waste generation and other negative impacts, as well as to increase their positive impacts, such as social inclusion, community development and biodiversity conservation.
  • Innovate and invest in new materials, technologies, processes and business models that enable more sustainable production and consumption, such as renewable energy, circular design, digital transformation and shared economy.
  • Collaborate and engage with their value chain partners, industry peers, policy makers, civil society and consumers to create a common vision, agenda and roadmap for sustainability, as well as to share best practices, challenges and solutions.
  • Communicate and educate their stakeholders and customers about their sustainability efforts and achievements, as well as the benefits and challenges of sustainability, using transparent, authentic and inspiring stories and messages.

By doing so, fashion brands can not only improve their environmental and social performance, but also enhance their competitive advantage, customer loyalty, brand reputation and long-term value.

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