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Fashion’s Climate Challenge: From Marketing to Risk Mitigation

As the UN warns the world is on track for dangerous levels of warming, companies must treat climate change as a real business risk, not just a marketing opportunity.
A farmer holding cotton in his hands.
Drought in Texas is one of several extreme weather events to hit the global cotton supply chain this year. (Getty Images)

In 2015, world leaders agreed to try and cap global warming at a level that scientists believe could stave off the worst effects of climate change. In the intervening seven years, the fashion industry has treated the issue more as a marketing opportunity than a real business risk.

As the UN warned this week that countries have still set “no credible pathway” to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown, it’s increasingly clear that the consequences of that inaction will have very tangible consequences for business.

The world is on track to be a full degree warmer by the end of the century than the target of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, according to a grim report published by the United Nations Environmental Programme Thursday (one of several released this week with similar warnings). Even incremental increases drastically worsen the prospect of life-threatening weather extremes.

The findings set the stage for the UN’s annual Conference of Parties, or COP, climate summit, due to kick off on Nov. 6 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. The two-week long gathering is typically a staging ground for splashy corporate climate pledges. But consumer-friendly marketing messages (fashion’s default) are not going to help companies survive a climate crisis. Some changes are already irreversible, even if drastic action is taken to slow rising temperatures.

“We had our chance to make incremental changes, but that time is over,” said UNEP executive director Inger Andersen.

Extreme weather linked to global warming is already making fashion’s supply chain challenges worse. This summer, devastating floods in Pakistan, drought in Brazil and the US and rainfall and pests in India hit cotton crops in four out of the world’s five largest producers.

Rising sea levels are expected to threaten thousands of garment factories in the coming years and drought linked to rising temperatures pose an ongoing threat to raw material crops, according to a working paper published last year by Cornell University’s New Conversations Project in the School of Industrial and Labour Relations.

Volatility and uncertainty associated with climate disruption creates a cloudy picture for long-term consumer demand.

Addressing these challenges requires industry-wide transformation that shifts supply chains to renewable energy, sourcing to regenerative practices and design to enable recycling. Infrastructure investment is needed to safeguard manufacturing communities particularly vulnerable to climate change and build out new supply chains that can support circular systems.

Tracking and managing companies’ exposure to climate needs requires investment in people and processes and should be part of board-level strategic discussions.

Interest in projects that could shore up brands’ climate resilience is gaining ground, with companies feeling out regenerative agriculture and infrastructure projects. But investment isn’t happening at nearly the pace or scale required, said Cliodhnagh Conlon, associate director at consultancy Business for Social Responsibility.

“Honestly, the best time to be investing in [resilience] is yesterday,” she said.

For more BoF sustainability coverage, sign up now for our Weekly Sustainability Briefing by Sarah Kent.

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