The fashion industry is often highlighted as one of the primary polluters contributing to the climate crisis. It comprises everything from animal agriculture and petroleum refinement (yes, all your clothes labeled as polyester are fossil fuels) to powering textile mills and shopping malls. This makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly how much of the world’s carbon emissions the fashion industry is responsible for. Yet, there are estimations. The 2020 McKinsey Report states that the fashion industry is likely accountable for approximately 2.1 billion metric tons of carbon — that’s around four percent of emissions worldwide.

In the midst of a climate crisis, consumers are desperate for big brands, responsible for the majority of the industry’s emissions, to take action and change their polluting and exploitative ways for the future of the planet.

Many suggest that Science Based Targets are the answer, but what exactly are they and how can they help tackle fashion’s environmental impact.

What are science Based Targets?

The Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) is a partnership between CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) that works with brands in setting company goals that will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and creating plans on how they’re going to achieve those reductions. SBTi aims to support brands in reaching net zero by assisting organizations in reducing their carbon dioxide emissions to zero as a result of drastic emission reductions and the implementation of strategies to absorb the rest.

Emissions reductions can be executed through a variety of tactics, including less waste dumping, the use of fewer fossil fuels when manufacturing fabrics such as polyester, the elimination of dyes, and a decrease in overall production to ultimately phase into a circular system model. There are a variety of Science Based Targets a brand can set with the SBTi, the most ambitious being brands’ promise to not exceed the maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming levels set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The IPCC is the United Nations body made up of 195 member states responsible for enhancing knowledge on human-induced climate change and provides the public with details surrounding the environmental crisis currently being faced. The IPCC has warned that in order to maintain a liveable climate, the environment can only reach a maximum of 1.5 degrees warming. In starker terms, 1.5 degrees global warming is the highest level of warming in which humans can still survive.

For fashion brands to take meaningful climate action, they need to align their Science Based Targets with the IPCC’s pathway and reduce their emissions accordingly. Anything less than that is not going to achieve a future in which humanity can survive. The situation is urgent.

Science Based Targets can also address different kinds of emissions which are referred to as ‘scopes.’ Scope 1 emissions covers direct emissions from the brands themselves (such as from factories they own, their headquarters, and retail shops). Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions produced off-site. This includes services such as electricity and heating used by a company. Scope 3, the most important in regards to fashion, looks at all indirect emissions occurring in a brand’s supply chain, including everything from the farms where materials are produced to every stage of production before the garment reaches a brand’s stores. As these emissions are outsourced in long and complicated supply chains, Scope 3 emissions can be difficult to oversee and brands skirt accountability for much of them. However, as Scope 3 emissions account for around 96% of a brand’s total emissions, consequently their reduction remains the most important in order to have the most impact.

Brands are setting Science Based Targets — but are they meeting them?

In 2021, Remake published the Fashion Accountability Report which looks behind brands’ greenwashing tactics to see what they are actually doing, and subsequently, hold them to account for their (lack of) action. Research from the Fashion Accountability Report shows that most major brands have now set Science Based Targets to reduce their emissions. This is undoubtedly a good thing. If brands reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in line with the goals they set, a future world in which the global population can continue to live and thrive is much more likely to exist. As Becca Coughlan, Remake Transparency Manager, highlights: “If brand X’s targets include Scope 3 emissions and are aligned with the 1.5 degree and net zero by 2050 pathways, then that is great. If every major company in the world set and achieved these, it would leave us in a much more secure position climate-wise.”

However, setting and achieving goals are two different things. Here the question arises: Are brands actually trying to reach the targets they’re setting?

Unfortunately, the vast majority of major brands are well behind in meeting their Science Based Targets. Out of the 60 brands evaluated in the Fashion Accountability Report, only Levi’s was able to provide evidence of emissions reduction at a pace quick enough to meet the 45 percent reduction set out by the IPCC’s 1.5 degree pathway – and even then the brand suggested that this progress was probably a result of the pandemic due to factors such as reduced sales and the closure of stores and factories. A recent report by the Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor highlights that brands are signing up for emission-reduction initiatives “prominently to advertise their pledges.” In other words, it’s all marketing with no substantial action being taken.

If there is a lack of evidence showing brands are taking steps to achieving their self-set goals, this amounts to greenwashing. Brands can use their emissions pledges for good PR to sell more clothes while not actually putting in the work to commit to achieving the reductions they advertised. For instance, Primark states on its website that the company aims to cut its emissions in half by 2030. However, the company doesn’t share any details of what its current emissions are and remains vague in its plan to decarbonize. Primark is not alone in this vague reporting, as only 55 percent of brands evaluated in the Fashion Accountability Report have published their full Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. Once again, brand accountability is absent yet remains crucial.

Accountability is one of the key issues with New York’s latest proposed Fashion Act, which has recently gained attention for its aim to make all major brands doing business in New York that have gross receipts exceeding one hundred million dollars or more annually, worldwide, disclose their emissions and supply chains. This includes most of the big brands and fashion retailers the public is familiar with, including Fashion Nova and H&M to Nike and Gucci, Much like the 2015 Modern Slavery Act in the UK, the bill requires brands to disclose information regarding their various supply chains and set actionable Science Based Targets relating to their potential to reduce carbon emissions. In addition, the bill states that brands can be fined for not setting these targets, but notably, not fined for failing to meet their targets. A coalition of fair fashion campaign groups, including Remake and PayUp Fashion, are pushing for changes to the bill that would bring accountability to its center. This would involve sanctions for brands who fail to prove they have made the changes they promise in relation to both their treatment of garment workers and environmental impact. Expanded brand liability is already implemented in other recent groundbreaking legislation, such as California’s Garment Worker Protection Act which was passed last year.

Conflicts of Interest within the SBTi

Returning to the SBTi, formal complaints have recently been made by original instigators of the initiative, who argue that there are conflicts of interest and problems with its governance. The primary cause for concern is due to the fees brands pay to be part of the SBTi. If the existence of the SBTi is dependent on fees from member brands, it might be more likely to overlook any problems with the brands’ decarbonization efforts. Schemes for companies to disclose their environmental impact have existed for decades, including the Global Reporting Initiative which was founded in 1997. However, little seems to have changed in the decades since these early initiatives, whose focus remained on transparency and disclosure rather than accountability, and participation being voluntary rather than compulsory or legally binding. The criticisms brought forward in the formal complaints against the SBTi are backed up by academics such as Bjørn et al., who highlight that some of the methods used by the initiative “lack explicit documentation of target equations and parameters” and “do not present methods in a comparable way,” making it confusing for participating companies to determine the most effectives ways to achieve their goals.

Alongside the fees brands pay to participate in the coalition, SBTi receives additional funding from sources such as the IKEA Foundation and Bezos Earth Fund. These foundations are charitable arms of well known companies, IKEA and Amazon respectively, both of whom the Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor (CCRM) have labeled as “low integrity” in regards to their targets to reduce emissions and reach net zero. Receiving funding from climate offenders casts questions of legitimacy onto programs such as the SBTi. Similarly, many accuse the SBTi of not being ambitious enough in the face of the current climate crisis because of its lack of urgency leading to failed objectives.

For instance, CCRM suggests that “standard-setting initiatives are lending credibility to low quality and misleading targets.” The CCRM confirms that certain brands are benefiting from previously set Science Based Targets established within years that had unusually higher emission levels, thus in those years, brands were able to set less ambitious goals and meet the same targets in comparison to years with average emission levels. The CCRM also brings up that a lack of “sufficient resources” is limiting the level of detail included in the SBTi’s reporting. This lack of urgency seems to be the natural result of the initiative receiving funding from the very companies it seeks to oversee, in addition to SBTi verifying member companies’ compliance with their own rules rather than using independent verifiers. As former CEO of the Global Reporting Initiative Ralph Thurm told the Financial Times: “That is not how it should be. You can’t be judge and jury.”

Setting science-based targets is a start, but that’s all it is: a start. It’s great if brands declare they aim to be net zero in the future, but this means nothing if not followed up by clear and tangible action. Claiming to have science-based targets to reduce emissions should not be a marketing ploy. Until there is more action behind brands’ Science Based Targets, all they amount to is performative PR.

Read the full 2021 Fashion Accountability Report

Image: Francois Le Nguyen

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