As 2011 draws to a close, the fashion industry can look back with pride on all that it has accomplished this year – tempered by the knowledge that it is yet to target certain areas. We’ve seen some groundbreaking initiatives from Levi Strauss, Vivienne Westwood and the ITC’s work in Africa and Fairtrade and Fairmined gold, but one issue that the industry is yet to meaningfully tackle is climate change. With COP17 in South Africa having just gone by, the eyes of the world have focused once again on climate change. While not an immediately obvious area of concern for fashion – images conjured up by ‘climate change’ are more likely to be dry river beds or intense city flooding rather than the couture on the catwalk or high street mannequins – fashion and climate change are more closely connected than it might first seem.
At a fundamental level, natural fibres such as cotton and wool – common raw materials for our clothes – depend on agriculture and irrigation for their production. The impact of climate change on rainfall and water levels has a knock-on effect on annual yields of important crops such as cotton, which have recently experienced soaring commodity price rises. Large scale farming for wools and leathers also has a huge carbon footprint, not only in terms of carbon dioxide but also other greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide and methane. And even man-made fibres, such as polyester, pose their own set of problems, as they require intensive energy use for their production. In addition to the raw materials, the entire supply chain of a product can have a giant carbon footprint – manufacturing, shipping, retailing and more. Not to mention the enormous water consumption required for aftercare and laundry, throughout a product’s life cycle.
Forum for the Future’s four visions of the industry at 2025 presented some alarming scenarios as well as the massive potential for change and overwhelmingly positive sustainable fashion futures. So then, what approach should the industry take to tackle the immense problems posed by climate change?
CREATING CLIMATE WEALTH
Put simply, climate change, given its global scale and impact, necessitates a global response. Fashion, a trillion dollar juggernaut of a global industry, is capable of meeting this challenge. The industry would do well to learn from Creating Climate Wealth, the international summits organised by the Carbon War Room, which was co-founded by Sir Richard Branson in 2009. The seriously-named – and seriously-minded – War Room “harnesses the power of entrepreneurs to unlock gigatonne-scale, market driven solutions to climate change.” The US-based organisation, with a global reach including a London presence, unites pioneering business leaders, entrepreneurs, experts in policy and opinion leaders to create market solutions to the carbon problem. “The world needs entrepreneurial leadership to create a post-carbon economy,” says the Carbon War Room.
The world needs entrepreneurial leadership to create a post-carbon economy, says the Carbon War Room
Entrepreneurship is something that the fashion industry does particularly well, and with Creating Climate Wealth’s premise and promise of change and creation within a mere 48 hours – the potential for entrepreneurs to generate solutions and unlock the much-needed capital to fund game-changing initiatives of real promise – I was intrigued to observe the summit take place in London earlier this year. The third of Carbon War Room’s global summits to date, designed to facilitate real change in a matter of days, followed on from the Carbon War Room’s efforts in Washington DC and Sydney in the spring and summer, and is the precursor to next year’s round in DC in March. I witnessed creativity and ambitious plans being hashed out, somewhat wondrously, before my eyes.
What the private sector has in virtual gigatonnes is the efficiency and drive to effect real and meaningful progress in an extraordinarily short space of time. Held in partnership with The Long Run Venture, Creating Climate Wealth (CCW) in London focused on seven key ‘working tracks’ – Financial Innovation; Energy, Efficiency & the Built Environment; Renewable Fuels & Aviation; Ships & Shipping; Land Transport & Service Fleets; Sustainable Agriculture and City Systems – with delegates including big business (Virgin Group, Google to name but a few), NGOs and environmental figureheads (including the legendary Jose Maria Figueres, formerly the president of Costa Rica), researchers from Imperial College and UCL, not forgetting fashion’s own Dame Vivienne Westwood, who herself has donated £1m to help tackle climate change.
I can realistically imagine the fashion industry getting together for such a two-day summit, and coming out with some concrete steps towards a global response to climate change. Defra’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) – now under the remit of WRAP – laudably brought together stakeholders in the industry to improve the sustainability performance of clothing. The RITE group’s annual conference also brings together researchers and industry experts for meaningful discussions – including innovative presentations from the industry; Rapanui’s pioneering eco-labelling wowed the audience this year. Notably, there has not yet been a specific fashion industry initiative dedicated to climate change. 2012, just round the corner, and building on Dame Vivienne’s encouraging donation, seems ripe for an industry-led summit to tackle the issues, and in a market-based fashion. As CCW pithily puts it, “Climate change is the biggest market failure produced by mankind” – and therefore necessitates a workable, market-based, industry-led response.
AN INSPIRING PROCESS
At Creating Climate Wealth, I learned some valuable lessons that the fashion industry could apply. First, dividing the industry into practical working tracks – for instance, Waste & Recycling; Raw Materials & Scientific Innovation; Policy Development; Labour; Eco-Labelling & Standards; Water – to name but a few. Second, getting all the participants to highlight their key skills and what they can bring to the table – CCW did this most effectively with the help of expert facilitators for each working track. Sustainable Agriculture, which I sat in on, was no exception, and benefited from expert guidance of an experienced former director in the cosmetics industry.
Smaller groups within the working tracks suggested ideas to develop further, which were then voted on by the group as a whole, pooled together into themes, and forged into workable paths from which winning ideas were chosen, which could literally be written on the back of a cigarette packet. The working tracks then developed PowerPoint presentations to give to the bigger group as a whole, before Carbon War Room CEO Jigar Shah and COO Peter Boyd neatly wound up the summit.
And the results? Each of the working tracks presented exciting, investable ideas – meaning they had been carefully thought out and planned – and one in particular received attention from a potential investor in audience, who arranged to meet the presenter afterwards to discuss further. This is the beauty of Creating Climate Wealth – creating workable solutions in literally a matter of hours, linking up directly with investors to create the financial means to realise a market-based way forward. And this is precisely where the fashion industry might come unstuck, as it as yet lacks the interest and connections to big business investors for climate change and fashion solutions. Even Dame Vivienne’s donation went to the Cool Earth charity, which protects endangered rain forests, as opposed to a climate change solution that has been pioneered by the fashion industry itself. Fashion simply hasn’t created a meaningful, investable alternative for generous donors keen to tackle climate change. Perhaps joining up with Creating Climate Wealth might be another option to develop a formula – should there perhaps be an eighth working track, Sustainable Fashion, at next year’s CCW summit?
There is no planet B”
For those curious about how the whole process works, CCW is currently accepting applications for its North America 2012 Summit, to be held in Washington DC from 27-28 March. Once again, it will implement its winning formula with a workshop-led approach, high profile speakers and delegates including investors. Amidst the grey cloud of the recession and ongoing economic crises, there seems to be a glimmer of hope in the green economy and alternative, market-based solutions for change. As CCW point out, “In the US alone, the green economy is valued at $500 billion and is poised for growth – there could be between 1.8 million and 2.4 million green jobs.” This is sorely needed growth in a time of crisis, and the area holds potential for the fashion industry as well.
As Jose Maria Figueres memorably puts it, “There is no Planet B.” Let’s hope that in 2012, either with CCW or in its vein, the fashion industry will come together to create its blueprint for action in 2012.
Visit the CCW website for more details on next year’s summit and the London post-conference report, soon to be published.