Fashion at COP26

Model twins Brett and Scott Staniland explain why fast fashion must change if we want to reach net zero

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Published: 5 November 2021

This Article was Written by: Contributor

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This article first appeared in our COP26 issue of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 05 November 2021. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Lots of industries have been represented at COP over the years, and at this month’s COP26 fashion will, for the first time, be given a significant seat at the table.

We already know that Stella McCartney and other fashion-climate activists will attend the climate change conference, where they will use their voice to call for positive change.

For the most part, the focus will be on making sure we reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and limit warming to 1.5ºC.

So where does our fashion industry sit in all of this? Why has it taken until now for us to be in the conversation and, most importantly, what can we aim to get out of it?

A polluting industry

In previous articles, we have discussed how the fashion industry is an extremely large contributor to global emissions and produces excessive waste with, in the case of fast fashion, little to no concern for the planet.

From production to consumption, this all has an impact on the environment; our ability to meet essential climate change targets will be limited without drastic change in the sector.

Even the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) website has the fashion industry down as the world’s second-most polluting industry (we don’t quite believe that, but still – it’s bad!).

Where are the fashion police?

In other industries there’s a strong focus on legislation around permitted advertising, the resources used and goals for the future – like we see in the automotive sector, for example.

The fashion industry isn’t so tightly moderated; there are various ways brands can advertise and essentially greenwash us about their products. There’s no real cap on how many products are imported and there are loopholes that allow brands to use false terminology when describing the composition of their garments. They can also make fairly free use of statements like ‘made in Britain’, ‘made from recycled materials’ or even simply ‘ethically made’.

Fashion needs leadership

Earlier this year, COP26 President Alok Sharma wrote that immediate action is required in the fashion and beauty industries. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards a sponsor slot was filled by a company whose track record doesn’t inspire us with much hope.

If government wants to drive real change, subsidies should be made available to small businesses that want to switch to more sustainable and ethical practices, and business grants should come without so many conditions attached.

We also need more educational resources that consumers can easily digest, as currently we’re responsible for a lot of self-education. In our eyes, brands should take a ‘build it and they will come’ approach – they shouldn’t wait for consumers to tell them what they want. 

Accountability in fashion

Ahead of COP26, the government provided sustainability guidance as part of its Together for our Planet campaign.

Frankly, the six pieces of advice are hardly groundbreaking. Instead, we’d like to see more being done to hold brands and execs to account. How about making people take responsibility for exploiting garment workers on our doorstep, rather than telling us to stop printing receipts?

Something that actually is getting us excited is Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Open Studio, the designer showcasing and mentoring initiative. It will present a series of digital events in response to the themes of COP26.

Regulating fast fashion

To be realistic and authentic about the fashion industry achieving net zero, stricter guidelines must come into place for the biggest (and worst) players in the industry – and that means the fast fashion conglomerates.

The women in particular who lead this conversation must be given access to the biggest platforms and have seats at these tables. We need conversations to become mainstream and to take place more regularly inside people’s households; this is the greatest opportunity for people to pay attention to the real risks the industry brings.

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