SHOULD THE FASHION INDUSTRY DECLARE A CLIMATE, ECOLOGICAL AND SOCIAL CRISIS?
REAL Sustainability and Business Declares hosted this online event on 13 May with panel members discussing whether a crisis, or emergency, should be declared. The event was introduced by Ben Tolhurst of Business Declares and REAL’s Safia Minney.
Ben opened by setting out the current state of affairs in terms of carbon emissions, water and food scarcity, uninhabitable land, loss of biodiversity and frequency of extreme weather events. A striking statistic is that the global South represents 88 percent of the world’s population but has contributed only 8 percent to global emissions. Stark predictions include that, for every degree of heating, one billion people will have to migrate to a cooler region or adapt to extreme heat and the yield of staple cereal crops will decline by around 10 percent. The Committee on Climate Change has advised the UK government to prepare for a 2-4oC warmer world and yet we know that a 4 degree world is untenable. Ben then gave an overview of the work of Business Declares and talked about the rise of the Declares movement worldwide.
Mike Barry (Strategic Advisor and previously Director of Sustainable Business with Marks and Spencer)
Mike’s answer to the question was a definitive yes. The reasons he gave were the significant contribution of fashion to global emissions (Mike quoted the figure of 4 percent but figures of up to 8 percent are reported) and the unsustainable level of consumption with 130 billion items of clothing consumed in 2019. He stressed that business model disruption is coming – it is happening rapidly in the energy sector – and there are increasingly voices amongst employees demanding that their companies take urgent climate action now.
Debbie Luffman (Product Director, Finisterre / ThinkCircular / Hubbub)
Debbie’s response was also an emphatic yes. She called for a bottom-up movement in an industry which is such a big polluter in terms of energy, chemicals and water. She talked about the importance of simplifying supply chains and the need to work in close partnership. Debbie was clear that the fashion industry has a responsibility to act now. Finisterre is seeking to make a difference by the use of low impact materials, accelerating the shift to circular systems and investing in fibre recycling and product repair.
Mariusz Stochaj (Head of Product and Sustainability, Continental Clothing UK)
Mariusz advocated the need to declare as a matter of urgency. Important is action rather than words. There are huge obstacles ahead such as the commercial paradigm (cutting prices, growing profit, race to the bottom) leading to over-production and over-consumption. We need legislation to counter the un-level playing field (the fact that exploitative, polluting companies don’t pay a penalty). The need to change our objectives and strategy requires leadership. Mariusz asked that at the forefront of our minds we need to think about the impacts on people. Planet earth will survive the climate crisis, mankind may not.
Anannya Bhattacharjee (President, Allied Workers Union and Asia Floor Wage Alliance)
Anannya is at the front line of climate impact and worker exploitation. She agreed with the premise that the industry faces a climate, ecological and social emergency. Current business models predominantly work on extremes with no regard for what the planet or fellow humans can bear. She talked about how fast fashion is an extremely unbalanced business model with profit as its exclusive motivation. This is causing a humanitarian crisis particularly in terms of poverty-level wages and violence against women, which is used in the workplace to drive production. Contracts are unilateral and unfair in a culture where brands dictate the cost of goods. This is unprecedented. Anannya stressed the urgent need to put the emphasis back on the people producing the garments. She believes there is momentum developing for people to come together and address these issues.
Safia Minney (Founder and NED People Tree, Founder REAL Sustainability)
Being optimistic, Safia commented that fashion can be a tool for positive social impact and livelihood promotion. The incredible climate activist movements have meant that we now have a strong call for business to take action. Safia asked how we can meet the sustainable development goals and make trade fairer based on Fair Trade principles and brands paying a living wage. She talked about the importance of regenerative agriculture and textile crafts to promote livelihoods. Safia believes we need a bottom-up movement tapping into the great creativity and communication skills in fashion to bring about behavioural and mindset change and to bring in hand crafts, to localise and to end exploitation. People in the global South are bearing the brunt of our consumption in the North and we urgently need to address climate justice in the fashion industry’s transition to net zero.
Sally Bailey (Purpose driven Non-Exec, Chairwoman, board advisor and mentor)
Sally strongly supported developing a Declare movement. She talked about the need for individuals to advocate for change at every forum at which they speak and ask questions of boards and senior leadership about moving away from business as usual. Good businesses are making changes not only because it is the right thing to do, but because their customers and staff are demanding it. Sally talked about some of the changes being made by the companies she works with including the use of sustainable and ethical materials, reducing polluting travel, payment of a real living wage and shared ownership. Sally gave a call to action arguing that everyone in the fashion world has a voice and agency and must put them to good use.
There was limited time for discussion. Munib Nawaz (luxury fashion designer in Pakistan) suggested the importance of looking at things from a very basic perspective – humanity, happiness and the planet.
William Skeaping (Culture Declares, Music Declares) was concerned that a Fashion Declares group could simply be a get-out-of-jail card for the industry giving the perception that action was being taken. Safia responded that company’s claims would have to be transparent and accountable. Ben described the action taken by Business Declares to hold businesses to account to commitments made.
Mike sees the importance of a Declares movement as being to provide a voice to people who work in the fashion industry and who are currently unheard. Just declaring is not enough but he sees a Declare movement as being a powerful tool to galvanise action. Mike referred to the critical importance of the social and humanitarian crisis. Debbie believes that fashion, as a form of expression, is a powerful tool for activism.
For Anannya, the issues which resonate most strongly are a living wage and the ability of workers to unionise and therefore have a strong voice.
Ben suggested that the fundamental issue in fashion is over-consumption and addressing this, whether by “degrowth” or doughnut economics, is central to many of the environmental and social justice issues.
Polling of the 108 attendees at the webinar indicated just under half were from the fashion industry. At the end of the event, a poll indicated that 99% of respondents supported the fashion industry declaring a climate, ecological and social emergency.