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Nature Is Fashion’s Next Frontier in Climate Battle

The industry’s contribution to deforestation and biodiversity loss is coming into focus as efforts to tackle global warming look beyond emissions. (This article is open to non-subscribers)
Cotton field in Rio Hondo, United States. Getty Images.
Cotton field in Rio Hondo, United States. Cotton is one of the crops that can contribute to resource depletion and biodiversity loss. Getty Images.

This week, many of the world’s business and political leaders have gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, for the UN’s annual climate summit. This year’s meeting is seen as particularly critical, with global efforts to tackle climate change badly lagging what is deemed necessary to stave off dangerous levels of global warming.

Countries and companies are expected to make new pledges to cut emissions, but focus is also turning to preserving and restoring the world’s forests, animal and plant life as a vital means to address and reverse environmental damage.

On Monday, over 100 nations pledged to halt deforestation, a major contributor to climate change that also makes the planet less able to absorb carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

It’s a significant issue for fashion too. Over 200 million trees are cut down annually to create plant-based materials like viscose, according to 2020 data from forest conservation campaign group Canopy, though the organisation said the environmental standards of suppliers is improving. Large proportions of the forest space cleared in the Amazon are now used to rear cattle whose hides are used for leather bags, shoes and belts. Cows are also a significant emitter of the greenhouse gas methane.

The issues extend to later stages of the supply chain too: a recent report by Royal Holloway University of London found that 32 percent of garment factories in Cambodia use wood linked to illegal deforestation to fuel at least some of their operations.

Elsewhere, cotton production has been linked to the unsustainable use of water and pesticides. The Aral sea in Central Asia, once the fourth-largest lake in the world, almost completely dried up in 2014 as a result of thirsty cotton production in the region. Growing demand for cashmere over the last two decades has contributed to a vicious cycle of degradation, drought and desertification in Mongolia’s grasslands.

Tackling these issues is an area of growing engagement within the industry. The Fashion Pact, a coalition of 60 companies representing roughly one-third of the global fashion sector, has made biodiversity one of three core environmental issues its signatories must address. Its participating companies pledged to establish individual biodiversity blueprints by the end of 2020, with a view to ensuring zero deforestation in their supply chains by 2025. The organisation will provide an update on its strategy in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, brands and retailers from Walmart to luxury rivals LVMH and Kering have invested tens of millions of dollars to restore millions of hectares of land, forest and water by the end of this decade in the last 18 months. Alongside others, like Ralph Lauren, Allbirds and Timberland-owner VF Corp, they’ve also launched programmes to support regenerative farming practices in their supply chains, aiming to not only reduce their environmental impact but also improve the overall quality of ecosystems so they can absorb more carbon than they emit.

“Agriculture is one big driver of nature loss as well as greenhouse gas emissions, so regenerative agriculture across the spectrum, both for fashion industries [and] beauty and cosmetics, is extremely crucial,” said Akanksha Khatri, head of nature and biodiversity at the World Economic Forum.

Regenerative agriculture across the spectrum, both for fashion industries [and] beauty and cosmetics, is extremely crucial.

But the vast majority of fashion’s supply chain still relies on conventional agriculture and environmentally damaging manufacturing processes, and the industry is still getting to grips with how to fully understand and address its impact. A report published Tuesday by non-profit Textile Exchange found nearly 60 percent of the 157 fashion and textile companies examined had made commitments to address biodiversity risk in their operations, but just 8 percent already have an explicit biodiversity strategy in place.

“The reality is, at the moment we don’t really know exactly what a good biodiversity strategy will look like,” said said Liesl Truscott, corporate benchmarking director at Textile Exchange and co-author of the report. One positive move is the number of companies committing to source materials that have been certified as less environmentally damaging, like organic cotton.

To be sure, measuring — let alone addressing — biodiversity and nature loss at scale is complicated: healthy soil and water levels for a cotton farm in India will look very different to one in China or the United States. But it’s an area gaining attention beyond fashion, as regulators and investors look to better understand the climate-related risks facing businesses over the next decade.

The G20′s Sustainable Finance Working Group is looking at introducing financial reporting guidelines for nature-based risks. Similar guidelines for climate risk have already been drawn up and are likely to become a regulatory requirement for public companies in the UK, US and European Union, helping to move sustainability considerations onto the agenda of top executives.

While companies across all sectors will need to up their commitments and engagement with nature-based risks — and solutions — fashion and beauty’s role in this crisis is particularly open to scrutiny, said Khatri.

The food industry can just about “still justify why [they] are polluting the planet and soils...[because] you need to feed people,” she said. “How do you justify [that for] a cream that you need to put on your face?”

Related articles:

What Fashion Needs to Know About COP26

What Will It Take for Fashion to Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

The Sustainability Goals Chanel, Kering and H&M Could All Agree On

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