Supply chain strategy | Opinion

How fashion can get to net-zero

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Net-zero by design

Originally published as a podcast, Pauline Op de Beeck, sustainable fashion lead with the Carbon Trust, and Innovation Forum’s Ian Welsh, talk about what net-zero means for the apparel sector, and why circular economy models and robust offsetting are essential for success

Ian Welsh: When talking about climate targets, definitions are very important. What does net-zero mean?

Pauline Op de Beeck: Indeed they are very important, particularly when they are not yet fully agreed upon and people interpret them differently. There is no industry or globally accepted definition for net-zero just quite yet, but the Science Based Targets initiative is developing a definition.

Their working definition states that a company that is reaching net-zero emissions means that they will have achieved within their activities in their value chain and their own operations, no net impact on the climate from greenhouse gas emissions. This is achieved by reducing emissions in their own operations and in their value chain in line with a 1.5C pathway, and then balancing any of the remaining impact through greenhouse gas emission removals.

IW: How does this relate to Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions in terms of getting to net-zero? Are they all included?

PB: Yes. It includes Scopes 1, 2 and 3. That's how it varies from carbon neutrality, which can be applied to any scope. Net-zero really is your own operations Scope 1 and 2, as well as your value chain Scope 3.

Ian: Thinking forward, then what are the key challenges for the apparel sector to move towards a net-zero impact future?

Pauline: The first challenge for many companies is to really understand what their Scope 3 emissions are. Obviously, for this sector, it's particularly challenging given how large supply chains are. Because of the structure of the sector, most apparel companies might not interact with any of the companies in their supply chain beyond tier one suppliers.

Getting the right data to really understand the overall impact is also quite a challenge. That's understanding the carbon emissions from the raw materials stage all the way to how the consumer uses, and then eventually disposes of, the garment. That allows for an understanding of what the company needs to reduce. 

But once you've set that reduction target, a de-carbonisation target as ambitious as one aligned with 1.5C is really not going to come from efficiency alone.

It involves quite a lot of restructuring – in the case of apparel, of an entire sector – and a lot of innovation along with that. As with many sectors, that means moving from a linear model to a circular one. That entails using recycled materials, or those that come from regenerative agricultural systems, and engaging consumers on how they might change their perspective on clothing.

IW: Circularity is a real systemic change for the apparel sector, but surely is an essential element if we’re being serious about real emissions reductions. 

PB: Such a systemic move is required to achieve circularity and subsequently net zero, but the process is inevitably hard and it's not something that companies can do in isolation. 

Another element is the financing of these changes. There's a lot of innovation that needs to take place in recycling – there needs to be infrastructure investment because the capacity for recycling just isn't there.

There are so many different elements that need to fall into place for the sector as a whole to move along this pathway – not least the policies that the EU is putting together as part of the Green New Deal. All these things are going to help the sector overcome a lot of sectoral level challenges.

IW: It does seem that everyone agrees: yes, circular economy is the way to go, but not necessarily at the cost of style. And if there's still quite a long way to go to turn the sector around in terms views on circularity, how do you characterise best practice then in terms of carbon offsetting as a route to net zero?

PB: That's a tricky question because best practice today, is obviously limited to what is available. What most companies are doing today is buying offsets mainly to achieve carbon neutrality goals. This is something that they might do annually. Companies like Gucci, for example, are doing that. 

These offsets tend to be from voluntary certified offset schemes – and the projects may be efficiency-related or spurring investment in renewable energies. They're definitely having a positive impact on reducing the impacts of climate change, but not necessarily removing greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. There are a few players that are selling these offsets; it’s a small but growing market.

IW: What are the key pitfalls then to avoid? Offsetting gets good and bad press, so what are the key things to be careful of when you're going down this path?

PB: The most important thing is that offsetting is only a valuable exercise if you are actively reducing your emissions. Companies should not just buy their way to achieving a net-zero target. You really have to be aligned to a decarbonisation pathway and making real interventions within your own operations and your value chain to make sure you reduce emissions year-on-year.

Ultimately, that makes financial sense because you want to, at some point, spend less and less money on offsets. And that's obviously what happens when you reduce your emissions. The key pitfall to avoid would be to just buy offsets. 

IW: You talked about market maturity. Can you talk a little bit more about that? How mature would you categorise the market right now, in terms of offsetting?

Pauline: As it relates to greenhouse gas removals, it's very much in its early stages. That's partially because the need for greenhouse gas removals is still quite new. 

Secondly, it also takes quite a lot of investment. Greenhouse gas removals are definitely something that we need. Every IPCC model says that the only way we can achieve a 1.5C world is through greenhouse gas removal. Non-natural processes to achieve this are definitely on their way but still very much in their infancy.

But as more e companies set net-zero targets in the apparel sector, and others, the demand for greenhouse gas removal is only going to increase.

IW: Thinking forwards, the apparel sector is by definition one that is innovative. How do you think the sector can best harness this creativity on the path to net-zero?

PB Essentially, what it boils down to is a design challenge. It's a design challenge on a macro level – how do you redesign the system? But also on a microlevel – how do you redesign a garment so that you can keep it in its highest value for the longest space of time? 

Focus has to shift from the marketing teams, which is where that corporate focus and brand seems to be today, back to the designers. That is how we will move back to a place where garments are valued more highly by consumers. The garment will be in use for longer and we move away from the disposable model that we have had for too long.

Obviously, clothes provide a very functional purpose as well, but many of us engage with fashion because we love it. We love how it makes us feel, we love the sensation of certain materials on our skin, we like how it helps us express ourselves. 

Moving away from not being able to be seen at a couple of weddings in one year with the same dress, those kinds of shifts in consumer perception on clothing will ultimately come from reintroducing that creativity and bringing fashion back to the slower pace that we had a couple of decades ago. 

Pauline Op de Beeck and Ian Welsh originally spoke in 2020. Some comments have been updated. Join the Carbon Trust at the 2021 sustainable fashion and textiles event – for full details click here

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