A reflection on how the fashion industry has evolved over the past 12 months.
This article is a contribution from Next Gen Assembly 2023 Member, Sanjana Pimoli.
As we ease into a new year, it is important to pause and reflect on how the fashion industry has evolved over the past 12 months and ask the most important question, as an industry, are we collectively moving towards a net positive, circular, and regenerative economy?
In 2023, we witnessed the Earth’s hottest year ever recorded in human history. The fashion industry not only significantly contributes to climate change but is also highly susceptible to its effects given fashion’s relationship to raw materials, infrastructure security, and labour productivity. The past year has demonstrated glimpses of hope that our industry can abate its environmental footprint and lead important conversations on the enablers and challenges on our journey towards decarbonisation.
Discover an annual industry sustainability wrap-up through the lens of a Next Gen voice:
Policy efforts globally, particularly in the European Union and the Americas, have materialised as enablers to deliver change in the fashion industry. From the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles and the upcoming Chilean Circular Economy Strategy for Textiles (2023), to the New York Fashion Act, the forthcoming legislations are aiming to uphold human rights and environmental sustainability in the industry. The impact of these policies could have a ripple-effect, crossing national boundaries and impacting manufacturing countries. It is essential to work in parallel with these manufacturing countries to support the policy transition.
In March 2023, the EU Proposal for a Directive on Green Claims was set out, in a bid to prevent companies making unclear and unsubstantiated environmental claims i.e. ‘greenwashing’. The proposal shows that it is necessary to find a balance between compelling storytelling and accurate facts while building communication outreach for any sustainability initiative or project. During this critical time, resources such as the Sustainable Fashion Communication Playbook, co-published by UNEP and UN Climate Change, provide guidance on how to align consumer-facing communication across the global fashion industry with sustainability targets.
The fashion industry is a major employer, the majority of which are women, racial minorities, and other historically marginalised groups. Pay inequality is common throughout the global economy and the fashion industry is no exception. While many brands are making strides to promote fair compensation and living wages throughout their value chains, often in collaboration with NGOs and multi-stakeholder initiatives, the wage gap between average minimum and living wage estimates is increasing – up 3.5% since 2022 to 48.5% in 2023 according to The Industry We Want’s wage metric. The global economic crisis and price competition at supplier level have likely acted as factors to this increase.
Several legislative initiatives are shaping the path toward a more transparent and equitable future when it comes to wages. The proposed ongoing federal legislation in the United States, the Fashioning Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change Act, will not only seek to enforce hourly wages for garment workers, echoing California’s Garment Worker Protection Act (2022), but also to introduce joint liability and transparency measures. Meanwhile, the also ongoing NY Fashion Act will promote ethical practices and supply chain transparency, aligning with the goals of better wages. Furthermore, the recently adopted Pay Transparency Directive (2023) mandates transparency in pay levels, career progression, and workers’ right to pay information. Though despite these legislative efforts, many workers still lack fair compensation and a living wage. Key obstacles include but are not limited to the reluctance to raise wages due to price-competition, limitations of current legal and voluntary measures, and slow adoption of fair labour costing. Collective action on better wage systems will be crucial to ensure a just and equitable future for millions of garment workers.
The fashion industry and biodiversity are intrinsically linked. Cotton for our t-shirts and dyes that colour our clothing all stem from the Earth’s natural resources. Yet, the industry’s growth has led to unintended negative consequences such as deforestation, soil degradation, and water and microfibre pollution.
The launch of Science-Based Targets for Nature (SBTN) marks a crucial turning point. SBTN sets ambitious, measurable objectives for businesses to conserve and restore our natural world. Kering and H&M Group are among the 17 global companies piloting the first science-based targets for nature, which aim to align corporate efforts around nature conservation with business strategies to secure a healthy and resilient world. This could be a pivotal point in redefining fashion’s relationship with nature. For our industry, this translates to concrete steps like embracing lower impact materials, supporting regenerative agriculture, and minimising water and chemical footprints.
Decarbonisation, phasing out coal, and incorporating renewable and carbon neutral sources of energy is a priority for the fashion industry. In 2023, Global Fashion Agenda (GFA), Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners (CIP) and international fashion companies BESTSELLER and H&M Group announced their intention to develop the first offshore wind project in Bangladesh, a project with the potential to significantly increase the availability of renewable energy in one of the fashion industry’s most important manufacturing countries. To meet the growing demand for renewable energy, we need strategic collaboration, risk sharing, and long-term commitments between brands, suppliers, non-profits, governments, and research organisation. A future where fashion thrives in harmony with the planet is a future worth pursuing and a future we envision.
As we step into 2024 and reflect on the last year, we’ve seen glimmers of hope – regulations taking root, innovation scaling, and successful projects materialising based on collaboration.
However, as an industry, now is the time to act together. Later is too late. We need to ensure that a just transition is central to our decarbonisation strategy so that all stakeholders across the supply chain, such as farmers, garment workers, innovators, policymakers, brands, suppliers, waste handlers, are involved. Each stakeholder brings a unique perspective which should be leveraged to create cross functional sustainability initiatives focusing on strategic collaboration, equitable purchasing practices, and risk sharing. We are looking forward to utilising our learnings in 2024 and supporting the industry in collective transformation.
Applications for the Next Gen Assembly 2024 Programme are now open. Deadline for Applications is 22 January, 2024.