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What's in style: Fashion giants including Puma, H&M and Burberry don new carbon pledges

A new UN charter seeks to accelerate commitments on circular production, low-carbon transport, improved consumer awareness and other issues.

An international climate conference is not the first place you might go looking for global fashion industry giants. But in the conference halls of Katowice, Poland, this week, leaders of some of the world's most successful clothing companies, ranging from fast-fashion leaders H&M to luxury labels such as Burberry, gathered to launch a groundbreaking new industry initiative to promote sustainable fashion.

The Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action (PDF)trailed by luxury designer Stella McCartney earlier this month, was formally unveiled Dec. 10 with the backing of 43 fashion organizations, including consumer brands, key suppliers and sustainable fashion organizations.

It contains a series of promises designed to encourage the fashion sector — one of the world's most polluting industries — to align with the goals of the Paris Agreement, including an ambition to deliver a pathway for net zero emissions by mid-century. That ambition is underpinned by an initial target of 30 percent greenhouse gas emissions cut by 2030 against a baseline "no earlier than" 2015, the Charter states.

Speaking at the launch event, Patricia Espinosa, the head of the United Nations' climate change secretariat, said the unveiling of the charter is "one of the most exciting moments at this year's COP."

Alongside the interim emissions target for 2030, the charter also sets out a promise to end the use of coal-fired boilers or other sources of coal-fired heat and power generation by fashion companies and their direct suppliers from 2025.

Meanwhile, six working groups also will be convened from January to help drive "concrete progress" against the charter's commitments on circular production, low-carbon transport and improved consumer awareness.

I think the industry is increasingly prepared to collaborate and increasingly prepared to have one voice.
Beyond the technical commitment, Espinosa spoke of the need for the sector to reflect on the "cultural example" the fashion industry sets to consumers around the world. "When you speak, people listen," she told delegates. "Your voice matters."

The industry-wide initiative comes at a time when the fashion industry, particularly in the United Kingdom, is coming under intense scrutiny over its environmental impacts. Members of Parliament on the Environmental Committee publicly have questioned the bosses of fashion firms such as Boohoo, Missguided and ASOS on the paucity of their climate strategies and are expected to deliver a hard-hitting report on the industry's environmental profile in the new year.

Speaking at the launch of the charter in Katowice, Stefan Seidel, head of corporate sustainability at Puma, said there were clear business reasons for the fashion industry to take action to tackle climate change.

For example, moving into renewable energy presents an opportunity for production companies in developing nations to insulate themselves against the risk of grid blackouts, which can necessitate the use of expensive diesel generators as a backup power source or halt production altogether.

Meanwhile, the impacts of climate change will be bad for business if they are not curbed, Seidel pointed out, pointing to how the long hot summer in Europe has put a serious dent in winter clothing sales, while the outlook for specialist winter clothing producers is even bleaker. "Who wants to buy winter clothes when it's 25 degrees [Celsius] outside?" he asked.

Coming together as a collective force under the charter is essential for driving industry change, Seidel added. "Why do we have to do it together? The reason is very simple," he said. "We work with very long fragmented supply chains, where the most energy consumption is actually taking place. [But] it's typically not our direct business partners — it's in the lower tiers of the supply chain, the dye houses and the tanneries, and there typically brands like ours don't have direct business relationships, and we share those suppliers with a wide range of other customers. So, therefore, it is essential that we are actually working together, the leading brands and retailers of this sector and also the manufacturers… we all need to work together otherwise we have no leverage on our supply chains.

"If we do work together, on the other hand, we can see that much progress is possible."

Pamela Batty, vice president of corporate responsibility at Burberry, agreed co-ordinated action was needed across the industry. "Supply chains are hugely complex, and this is going to take participation and engagement from actors across the value chain," she told delegates. "But I think the industry is increasingly prepared to collaborate and increasingly prepared to have one voice."

That spirit of collaboration was not in evidence at the other high-profile event Monday on the sidelines of the COP24 Summit, as the U.S. administration hosted its only side event of the talks: a packed-out fringe panel that saw America attempt to promote "greener and cleaner" fossil fuel energy.

The event barely had started before dozens of protestors disrupted proceedings, declaring their intention to "speak truth to power" and keep fossil fuel power "in the ground."

The Trump administration may have brought the high drama to Katowice this week. But it was up to fashion leaders to bring not only a touch of style, but also positive ambitions, to the event.

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