H&M, Zara, Levi’s, and Gap are among some of the big name signatories of a new climate change pledge under the United Nations that aims to reduce the fashion industry’s impact on the climate.
The document, called the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, includes concrete goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It also marks the first time that the UN has created an industry-specific charter, signalling a shift in how the intergovernmental agency plans to fight climate change.
“They haven’t done this type of industry charter before,” Nate Aden, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, an environmental research nonprofit, said in a phone call. “Generally, the UN focuses on working with countries and all the negotiations are with governments. But there’s clearly a need to work directly with companies, stakeholders, and emissions producers, too, so this is a really good development.”
Despite a worldwide commitment under the Paris Climate Agreement to prevent global temperatures from surpassing two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, national governments have been slow to implement change. The United States withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement altogether and when governments do make changes, it can backfire. The massive “yellow vest” protests in France this month were initially sparked by outrage over a carbon tax on gas, for example.
Aden said that this novel charter indicates a new tactic: working directly with the industries that are producing the greenhouse gases, rather than waiting on governments to enact laws that regulate these industries.
“It's much more effective than waiting on policymakers to do the right thing because obviously that’s not going to happen any time soon,” Aden said, adding that the fashion industry was probably the first choice because it’s an industry that’s particularly sensitive to consumer demands, which have been swaying towards pro-climate decisions in recent years.
The charter includes a commitment from all signatories to reduce their individual greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2030, against a 2015 baseline. For example, H&M reported that it emitted 151,753 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2015, so by 2030 it aims to produce no more than 106,227 tonnes of CO2, under the charter.
The charter also puts in place a goal for all the companies to achieve net-zero emissions—meaning for every ounce of carbon they produce, they balance it by investing in carbon sequestering, like planting forests—by 2050. There is no enforcement of these goals from the UN, but Abel said pressure from financial institutions and consumers to meet the targets will help keep the industry in check.
The fashion industry, while not the worst polluter, is notoriously hard on the environment, contributing an estimated 5 percent of the total global emissions every year. It takes 10,000 liters of water to grow the cotton needed for just one pair of jeans, for example, and textile production produces 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 a year, more than international flights.
By working directly with major companies, as well as lesser-known entities along the industry’s complex supply chain, the UN may have found a more effective strategy for creating real impact, especially when such a public pledge will likely be carefully policed by consumers who want to support green companies.
“It’s demonstrating that companies can not only survive economically, but survive economically by doing the right thing,” Aden said. “This presents example for other sectors that this kind of sector-wide approach can be effective, and we really need that now because a lot of companies are dropping the ball.”