Apparel’s Response to the US Paris Agreement Exit

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Levi's sustainability
photo credit: Levi Strauss & Co

When President Donald Trump announced earlier this month that the United States would withdraw from the 2015 Paris Accord, effectively ending the country’s leadership on combating climate change, the backlash from the rest of the world was both immediate and vociferous. The United States is the planet’s biggest economy, as well as its second-largest producer of greenhouse gases.

While Trump’s “climate exit” was more political grandstanding than substance—under the rules of the pact, countries are locked in until at least 2020—the move is another blow to America’s increasingly battered credibility. It also undermines the foundations of the 195-country agreement by signaling to other nations—emerging economies in particular— that their climate commitments are just as rescindable, if not essentially meaningless.

For the fashion industry, one of the leading sources of pollution, the implications of the withdrawal are equally knotty. Fashion’s carbon footprint, according to a 2017 report commissioned by the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, is projected to increase by more than 60 percent to nearly 2.8 billion tons per year by 2030. That’s roughly the equivalent of emissions produced by almost 230 million passenger vehicles on the road.

“The value for the world economy of reducing energy emissions in the fashion industry is equivalent to €67 billion [$76.21 billion] annually,” said Eva Kruse, CEO of the Danish Fashion Institute, which organizes the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. “This underlines why this decision is not only without vision but completely lacks business sense—it’s just plain stupid. When politicians like Trump fail people and the planet, it reinforces the need for industries to come together and take the lead.”

What’s more, Trump’s inward-looking stance makes little sense in this case given that American retailers and brands are enmeshed in supply chains that operate on international, often byzantine scales.

With many of the world’s clothiers facing boisterous calls to shore up their environmental and social-justice efforts, especially from the values-driven millennial generation, the fashion industry is under more pressure than before to shake up the decades-long status quo.

In its 2015 Global Corporate Sustainability Report, consumer-research firm Nielsen noted that 72 percent of surveyed millennials were willing to pay more for products that come from sustainable brands. A 2016 study by Horizon Media’s Finger on the Pulse found that 81 percent of millennials expect companies to “make a public commitment to good corporate citizenship.”

[Read about how consumers think about corporate social responsibility: Infographic: What do Consumers Really Think About Sustainability Anyway?]

“Consumer brands that haven’t embraced sustainability are at risk on many fronts,” said Carol Gstalder, senior vice president, reputation and public relations solutions, at Nielsen. “Social responsibility is a critical part of proactive reputation management. And companies with strong reputations outperform others when it comes to attracting top talent, investors, community partners and most of all, consumers.”

For U.S. businesses, Trump’s posturing has become a call to action.

“Leaving the Paris Climate Accord puts us—and our U.S. peers—at a huge disadvantage,” said Chip Bergh, president and CEO of Levi Strauss & Co. “The administration’s decision to back out of the Paris Accord will not change Levi Strauss & Co.’s commitment to reducing our impact on the environment; and we will continue to pursue technologies that can reduce the apparel industry’s environmental impact.”

Needless to say, part of that motivation has to do with self-preservation. The effects of global warming are evident in much of the developing world where apparel brands source their materials and labor. Already, countries like Bangladesh and India are experiencing fiercer tropical cyclones and increased monsoon flooding. Cambodia, another manufacturing hub, is bracing itself for periods of prolonged drought.

The shifting climate will also result in a surge of deadly heat waves across the globe, according to a paper published this month in the journal Nature Climate Change. Roughly 30 percent of the world’s population is currently exposed to “lethal heat events” for at least 20 days a year, the authors said. By the year 2100, this percentage is projected to increase to 48 percent if greenhouse-gas emissions are drastically curtailed, and 74 percent if they remain unchecked.

“We’re acutely aware that climate change, if left unchecked, will have dire effects on our business, the communities in which we operate, and the world at large,” Bergh said.

It’s perhaps for these reasons that even brands with fewer green bonafides than, say, Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, Nike, or Levi Strauss & Co., are speaking out.

“Gap Inc. remains committed to doing our part to act on climate. We’re working towards cutting greenhouse gas emissions from our global facilities in half by the end of 2020, diverting waste from our U.S. facilities, and partnering with our suppliers around the world to adopt more sustainable manufacturing practices,” said Art Peck, CEO of Gap Inc., which owns the Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, and Athleta brands. “We will continue to work with like-minded businesses, NGOs, and other stakeholders to support solutions that will create a more sustainable and economically strong future for the people and communities touched by our business around the world. It’s not only the right thing for the planet, but also the right path forward for business growth, job creation and human health.”

[Read about why sustainability doesn’t necessarily mean higher prices: Green is Good: How Profitability Is Driving Sustainability]

Gap is a member of We’re Still In, a coalition of state, local, and business entities that wrote an open letter to assure the international community of their continued support of the Paris accord in the wake of Trump’s statement.

It’s important to note that goal-based climate pledges, as de rigeur as they may appear, are still outside the norm for most of the fashion industry. For every Timberland that manages to slash its greenhouse-gas emissions by 50 percent two years ahead of schedule, there’s a Forever 21 whose environmental policy is nebulous and unstructured.

In the latter cases, fashion’s international entanglements can be a boon.

“When you look at where the supply chains are, those countries are still going to be bound by Paris agreement,” said Jason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an apparel-and-footwear industry group that includes Gap, Adidas, Nike, Levi Strauss and Walmart. “And so improvements in factories and various manufacturers up and down the value chain are still going to happen anyway.”

Kibbey’s organization is working with the World Resources Institute to develop sector-wide guidance for apparel businesses seeking to reduce their carbon impact through science-based targets.

“We’re continuing on regardless of what the president says,” Kibbey said. “And we haven’t seen any change in interest in that program.”


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