24th Sep 2021
By Baptiste Carriere-Pradal
You have probably all read the latest IPCC report, or at least heard about the findings. What a grim, alarming but realistic picture. Again, we have been reminded of the urgent need to limit global warming to two degrees celsius.
Yet, these ambitions are primarily based on an irrational trust in people’s goodwill to act.
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When the last tree was cut down from the Easter Island in the 1600s, sealing the fate of its inhabitants by locking them on the island and precipitating the collapse of their civilisation, surely, somewhere someone was watching this spectacle thinking, “they will realise that it is the last one, we know trees don’t grow overnight?”
But the sound of the axe falling on the one lingering tree mirrored the axing their hopes, and resonates now with the tick of the clock running through our heads as time runs out to combat climate change .
Every industry has a part to play in protecting our planet and people – including the apparel and footwear industry. A report of the European Environment Agency found that textiles consumed in the EU generated more than 300 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent in 2017, making it the fifth-largest impact origin of each European and UK citizen.
Hence, to reduce this impact, can we still rely on the goodwill and voluntary steps like the unlucky observer of Easter Island? Clearly no. From citizens, NGOs, to the main players of the textile and apparel industry, the consensus is clear: sustainability has to be turned into legislation – mandatory legislation. I am convinced of this.
So, how this can be turned into practice? It is estimated that more than 80 percent of the impact of a clothing item is sealed at the moment of its design.
The initial stage of choosing a material, a cut, or a trim determines the majority of its environmental impact. This phase is the most critical.
And I’m hopeful that we can influence this through legislation.
In some regions, regulation regarding responsible design is already in the pipeline. For instance, in Europe discussions under the Sustainable Policy Initiative (SPI) have kicked off and we expect a full proposal to be published in December.
Just as a product’s impact is defined at the design stage, the same is the case for legislation: the SPI has the potential to radically shift the ways products are designed and manufactured, so it is critical that the policies are carefully crafted from the start.
Firstly, as part of the upcoming SPI regulation, every organisation putting products on the market should be required to meet the expectations of the Paris Agreement.
Setting a mandatory threshold in CO2 emission for all industry players, implemented as the industry progressively moves towards better accounting and disclosure of the carbon footprint of each of its products, will pave the way for efficient decarbonisation.
Talking of products, while many leading luxury players continue to maintain their stronghold; every two to three years a new brand enters the market offering ever cheaper and lower quality products.
With the drive for a lower price and the emergence of more and more fast fashion brands, durability is inevitably compromised. However, through new regulation, selling durable products shall no longer be a design option – it will be a legal requirement.
As such, each product put on the market will need to meet minimum quality standards, ensuring that our fashion and sport items remain in good condition and last longer. By ensuring the durability of products, consumers will. in turn, be less likely to buy new replacements.
With the longevity of our clothes and shoes ensured, new business models linked to resell and repair can expand even further, offering the opportunity to potentially double again the lifetime of a product.
Not only can design regulation prolong the life of a product, but it can also determine its environmental impact at the end of its use. As items reach their inevitable end-of-life, they need to be fit for a circular economy.
Again, this capability will largely be defined during the design stage by starting to limit certain material types, dies, trim, or chemicals that are incompatible with recycling. Doing so will allow materials to be reintegrated back into the value chain to be reused – not wasted.
Therefore, effective policy has the power to make an impact and we must not rely on voluntary action. I believe legislation can compensate for a lack of goodwill.
If producers and sellers are forced to alter their approach and these key measures are implemented in all garments and footwear products, there will be a responsible baseline for a lasting, resilient and sustainable industry.
Baptiste Carriere-Pradal is chair of the Policy Hub – circularity for Apparel and Footwear, which unites the apparel and footwear industry to speak in one voice and propose policies that accelerate circular practices.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s, not those of EUobserver.
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