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Why Didn’t Fashion Show Up for Climate Week?

This week, New York played host to one of the world’s largest climate confabs, but there was little visible presence from fashion’s biggest companies. If the industry doesn’t pull up a seat at the table, it risks getting left behind.
A light display created using drones is performed before the New York skyline and United Nations headquarters as part of a campaign to raise awareness about the Amazon rainforest and the global climate crisis ahead of the UN General Assembly, which runs alongside Climate Week.
A light display in New York City performed ahead of the UN General Assembly, which runs alongside Climate Week. (Ed Jones/AFP via Get)
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Last Sunday, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of New York in the biggest climate protests the city has seen in years.

The demonstration kicked off Climate Week, a frenzy of high-level summits, open panel discussions and closed-door dinners that counts as one of the world’s largest climate confabs.

But for the most part, big fashion companies haven’t had a visible presence.

That’s not entirely surprising. While the industry is estimated to account for between two and eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, it’s historically been overlooked in broader climate discussions.

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Brands for their part are facing a murky economic outlook and in the midst of the hectic chaos of fashion month. It’s reasonable to wonder if there’s value in sending a delegation to what is essentially “Burning Man for climate geeks,” as Oscar Soria, the campaign director for international advocacy organisation Avaas, described it to The New York Times this week.

But while glitzy climate summits are often fairly dismissed as being more flash than substance, there are good reasons for brands to show up.

The first is that New York is one of the world’s fashion capitals and home to many of the industry’s most powerful players; it wouldn’t take much to be more present. The second is the increasingly urgent context; the record temperatures seen this summer are only going to get worse, bringing with them significant business risks. And third is the opportunity to connect with top-level policymakers, financiers, innovators and others from outside the industry to actually implement solutions — many of which already exist and could make a real difference, if only the right players were able to coordinate action.

Climate week, which runs alongside the UN General Assembly and attracts some of the world’s most powerful policymakers and business leaders, is a rare opportunity for that kind of cross-sectoral dialog, said the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s CEO Amina Razvi, who attended the event for the first time this year. “We need to boost fashion’s presence in pivotal conversations,” she added.

Because if the fashion industry doesn’t pull up a seat at the table, it will get left behind.

If only a handful of events on this week’s schedule had an official focus on fashion, many more focused on topics that have a direct bearing on the industry’s future.

On Monday, the Taskforce on Nature-Related Financial Disclosures unveiled its final recommendations for how companies should report to investors on nature-related risks and impacts. The aim is to replicate the success of similar work around climate, which regulators are increasingly incorporating into corporate reporting requirements. Several large fashion brands have actually been among early movers engaging in this emerging space, but efforts to protect nature and how they relate to climate goals are about to become a much bigger part of the conversation.

Climate Week also kicks off the countdown to the UN’s annual COP climate summit, where efforts to arrange a fund for loss and damage related to climate change are expected to come to a head. The economies of many of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries, including Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia, are heavily exposed to the apparel industry, suggesting the industry cannot avoid remaining apart from the political conversation forever.

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Advocacy groups are certainly ratcheting up efforts to draw more attention to fashion’s role in the climate crisis. On Tuesday, 15 organisations including advocacy groups Stand.Earth, Ecoage and Plastic Soup Foundation launched a campaign focused on making the fashion industry part of conversations around efforts to phase out fossil fuels.

“Fashion has almost been able to slip beneath the radar in the broader climate movement’s push,” said Cameren Bullins, a programme associate at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a philanthropic foundation that counts among the organisations backing the campaign. “This was a huge gap for us,” she said.

Many sessions this week focused on climate finance and how to unlock investment in solutions that could quickly deliver real impact — a real blocker to scaling up proven solutions within fashion’s manufacturing supply chain, where most of the industry’s impact takes place.

To be sure, much of the real action takes place behind closed doors. Though not on the official schedule, the Apparel Impact Institute hosted a meeting with 75 of the world’s biggest brands and banks on Friday, an effort to innovate financing solutions that points to the opportunity Climate Week holds to drive broader collaboration.

Of course, none of this matters unless such efforts can be carried forward beyond this week.

“This is a 52-week-a-year thing we need to be doing,” Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert said during an intimate fireside chat hosted by sustainability membership and advisory network NationSwell Monday. “It’s every waking hour thinking about how you can make some small dent.”

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