Why were fashion insiders at COP26?

It was quite a whirlwind experience to be able to attend the 26th Conference of the Parties in Glasgow, Scotland. In truth, I am still processing it. I learned so much while there and I was able to observe so many things. It is an experience that I wish every student interested in international environmental policy could experience. It is truly like no other experience to be able to be at an event where so many great minds come together. 

As a dual Masters’ student at the School for Environment and Sustainability and at Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, I have a plethora of interests within environmentalism. However, one interest that I always get drawn back to is the fashion and apparel industry. Fashion is a major contributor to climate change. Some environmentalists might dismiss fashion as unimportant. I would argue that fashion and apparel are an everyday facet of life. People pick the clothes and shoes everyday without thinking about the impact the process to make them might have had on the environment. Yet, fashion has historically been left out of COP discussions. This started to change in Copenhagen during COP15 (but not as an official part of the formal COP15). The fashion industry and advocates created the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in 2009. 

Bjorn Gulden, CEO of Puma; Helene Valade, Environment Development Director of LVMH Group; Lucy Shea, panel moderator; and Jerome Le Bleis, Chief Supply Chain Officer of Burberry.

There has been progress into incorporating the industry into formal blue zone events. Fast forward to 2018, the United Nations Environment Program created the fashion charter. Today, it has over 130 companies committed to its pledge. The updated charter has goals that include to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2050. At COP26, I attended a blue zone panel called: “Fashion industry on the race to zero,” which was hosted by the UNFCCC in the action hub. Designers and fashion executives explained how a brand or company’s success is often defined by its growth. The need to make more products every year and in turn sell more. There is a need for a paradigm shift. Fashion labels can be successful without being wasteful and growing. This might seem obvious but the fashion industry is very competitive. This change in way of thinking is what started discussions around the idea of degrowth. 

Degrowth is a term that was first used in 1972 by Andre Gorz to examine the relationship between growth and capitalism. Gorz was an Austrian and French social philosopher and journalist. Degrowth theorists advocate for environmental justice and a good life for all global citizens. They believe that growth causes environmental destruction, human exploitation, and prioritizes corporate profits. The fashion insiders at COP26 advocated for using degrowth as a principle. How they will use this principle is unclear. 

Bjorn Guiden, CEO of Puma, said that he plans on putting more money into materials and creating more circular products. He believes that this is where the biggest opportunities in sportswear lay. Other executives discussed making less products. Stella McCartney discussed the need for better sourcing of materials. She provided the statistics that sourcing the right way equates to 60% of positive impacts.

In regards to COP26 and fashion, it’s clear that discourse surrounding fashion and climate change is becoming more mainstream.

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