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Opinion article | Fashion can't wait for regulations to act on sustainability

Opinion article |  Fashion can't wait for regulations to act on sustainability
Opinion article |  Fashion can't wait for regulations to act on sustainability


Last month, many of fashion's biggest players descended on Copenhagen for the industry's flagship sustainability summit.

In the 15 years since the event launched, sustainability has moved from fringe status to the top priority of fashion executives. Every significant clothing and fashion industry player on the planet has formulated some form of sustainability strategy and every serious CEO has committed to climate goals. The industry has embarked on the journey.

But that's all the good news. Despite many well-intentioned efforts and small successes, clothing consumption has almost doubled since 2009; emissions, resource consumption and pollution from the industry have increased alongside it. Worse still, time is running out. The year 2030, which most businesses view as the magical deadline when change should begin to materialize, is just 11 seasons away.

But at a time when efforts need to accelerate, one global crisis after another has sapped executive focus, depleted corporate budgets and eroded the possibility that consumers can drive change. Even though the luxury boom appears to be on pause, for many companies, security for the next quarter has taken precedence over long-term strategic decisions.

Vendors, start-ups and activists are increasingly concerned that the current uncertain economic climate will lead to a hibernation of efforts, where budgets are frozen and projects continue but do not accelerate. Indeed, the industry is in the process of giving up its values ​​to obtain more immediate returns.

It is therefore no wonder that many presenters and panelists in Copenhagen placed their hopes in the powerful arm of regulation to move things forward where businesses alone have not experienced a fundamental change in their speech compared to five years ago, when the industry insisted on self-regulation. would be the preferable, more effective and faster way to achieve results.

I agree that we need regulators to act, but I doubt that regulation alone will be effective enough.

Although many bills are being introduced by the European Union to the United States, the legislative process is slow and the planet has no time to waste. The European elections have just given birth to a more right-wing Parliament, less favorable to ambitious climate policies. Earlier this month, the New York State Legislature ended its session for the year without passing a landmark fashion-focused bill. Even if new policies are adopted, questions remain about their effectiveness and concerns that the costs and complexity of complying could distract from broader progress.

In short, the wait for regulation risks becoming a mere smokescreen to hide, delay and excuse industry inaction at a time when it needs to accelerate rapidly.

Treating it as such would be a mistake that ignores the substantial business threats posed by future climate change-induced shocks. Indeed, change at this stage will require some pioneering brands to push the sector faster and further than even policymakers demand.

Particularly in the current economic environment, this will require visionary leadership. But the biggest fashion brands at least have the means to make a difference. These super winners have racked up billions of dollars in profits thanks to the pandemic, which should allow them to invest in lean times. Many of them are overwhelmingly owned by individuals and families with enough wealth and power to free themselves from the short-term tyranny of quarterly results and allow for longer-term thinking.

These dominant players should not only feel responsible for the industry and the planet, but should also see the strategic opportunity to be first and fastest; they could set standards, educate and engage consumers, and set the bar for competition.

On the other hand, maintaining the status quo will undoubtedly lead to a fashion drama for which we are not prepared. Dangerous is perhaps too delicate a term for the consequences of postponing action in the hope that technical solutions will emerge and evolve at lightning speed to massively reduce impact and emissions. Hockey stick plans almost never work, as top executives should know.

If the biggest players in the sector continue on this short-sighted path, they risk suffering an unpleasant shock. Not only because regulators will eventually force them to act anyway, but also because fierce competition will come, as has happened in other markets, from disruptive players that outcompete incumbents. in terms of consumer appeal and sustainability. The automotive industry, which deals with much more complex products and operations, should be a wake-up call. There, Chinese competitors captured a significant share of the electric vehicle market because European laggards thought they could extend deadlines.

Indeed, it is high time that fashion started leading by example when it comes to sustainability. At this point he better start running.

Dr Achim Berg is a fashion and luxury industry expert who has been advising business leaders for over 24 years. He was co-editor of the State of Fashion report series from 2016 to 2023. He is working on a book about the future of fashion.

The views expressed in opinion articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The fashion business.

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