COP28: How can 10 billion people be "sustainably" clothed? #823


Diversity is an inescapable part of any discussion on sustainability. That’s why it was at the heart of the panel entitled “How to dress 10 billion people sustainably”, moderated by Muchaneta ten Napel (Shape Innovate) as part of COP28 (organised in Dubai from 30 November to 12 December).

In order to decipher and take into account the “concrete solutions” that contribute to each stage of the process, the founder of fashion consultancy Shape Innovate explained that she had brought together professionals from all sectors of the supply chain around the table. The panel included the co-founder and designer of Ganni, Nicolaj Reffstrup; the director of Fashion Revolution Brazil, Fernanda Simon; and Sophie Aujean, the director of social advocacy for Fairtrade International in Belgium. Other participants included Neesha-Ann Longdon, from Ghanaian organisation The Or Foundation, and PT supplier Pan Brothers Tbk’s sustainability manager, Boadi Satrio.

Although Ten Napel said she did not prefer to focus the discussion on the problems, she recognised that this was an inevitable starting point for finding solutions. And it was finally by mentioning the difficulties they face in adopting sustainable projects that the participants opened the panel. From deforestation to the accumulation of textile waste to financial pressures, various obstacles were discussed.

Aujean (from Fairtrade) pointed to a fundamental reason for the various complications: “For us, the biggest problem is that the fashion industry is buyer-driven, which means that there is a huge imbalance of power between buyers and suppliers. This, in turn, is the root cause of many human rights abuses. If suppliers feel they don’t have a voice, then their situation doesn’t really allow them to guarantee respect for human rights, and this exposes them to a lot of pressure, just like the cotton workers and farmers”.

Policy and pilot project fatigue

At a time when discussions on policies and regulations are particularly active, especially among members of the European Union – think, for example, of the frameworks recently established by the organisation to review and create policies to promote circular and sustainable adoption – panel guests stressed the need for a multi-stakeholder approach to formulate effective means of change and highlight a wider range of regulations. Participants agreed that policies should address not only large companies and territories, but also those on a smaller scale, while deepening understanding of international and monetary realities to open up more inclusive and accessible opportunities.

During the discussion, the financial aspect naturally came up. Referring to innovations that help brands comply with legislation, Ganni’s Reffstrup said that problems arise when no one is prepared to “foot the bill” – the co-founder of the Danish brand is best known for integrating next-generation materials into the very heart of its collections. Reffstrup has noted that although there are many start-ups inventing and developing new technologies, they struggle to achieve scale because they are up against a system that has been perfected over hundreds of years. “There’s a lot of pilot project fatigue. A lot of companies are happy to enter into collaboration or marketing partnerships with these startups, but if you don’t work hard to integrate them into the core of your business, it won’t have any impact,” he explained.

The designer added that the financial costs of implementing sustainable solutions into a brand’s operations should not fall on the consumer. Instead, he points to alternative solutions such as tax-deductible incentives that would have an immediate impact on the way a business is run. Longdon, from the Or Foundation, confirmed the points made by Reffstrup, adding: “Profit has to change. It’s not just for the fashion industry. That’s why we’re all at the COP, because we’re trying to move towards a more sustainable future. But the truth is, the incentives aren’t up to where they need to be to make this happen.”

The price was also questioned at other points in the conversation. According to Satrio of PT Pan Brothers Tbk, such costs, including those that guarantee workers’ rights, cannot be the sole responsibility of the manufacturer either. “The brand can’t be one-sided”, he noted, “it has to include the whole supply chain. I think the manufacturer should say loud and clear that a certain price is not possible. The brand has to take the manufacturer into consideration so that the industry can develop as a whole. At the end of the chain, there is always someone who, in one way or another, pays the price.

So how do we sustainably clothe 10 billion people?

Similar concerns were raised about the certifications needed to demonstrate such efforts. One member of the audience pointed out that obtaining a Fairtrade certificate could be particularly costly for small companies. Aujean responded by linking these costs to the sustainability and due diligence systems that need to be put in place to ensure the required credibility. She added: “We really try to help companies put these systems in place. Again, I think the key is for governments to organise a favourable environment in terms of incentives to keep prices affordable for consumers.”

While it was clear that monetary incentives were one of the main solutions endorsed by the panel, the issue of accountability and responsibility also caught the attention of participants. According to Longdon, it is important to move away from the concept of ‘blame’, which often only leads to defensiveness, and towards the question: “Who is responsible for my product once it has reached the end of its life?” She added that time constraints are a barrier to getting more consumers on board and informed: “Rather than persuading [consumers] with arguments, one of the most important things I tell people is to think about investing in quality rather than quantity.” She went on to say that producing quality products for all was key when it came to bringing stakeholders and representatives together, and that the environmental and social aspects were closely linked, as evidenced by the rise in clothing poverty in the UK, where people are struggling to access decent clothing.

Ganni’s Mr Reffstrup shared a similar mindset, putting more responsibility on consumers. The designer said that brands should not expect these people to have in-depth knowledge of impact or certifications. Asked about the panel’s central question (How to sustainably clothe 10 billion people), the designer proposed solutions based on both technology and people.

Finally, Satrio also shared his feelings, concluding: “It’s all about people. People are very important in our labour-intensive industry. Even if we take care of the climate, the most important thing is people. People have to be resilient. If they are, then they can adapt along the way and be part of the community, along with the rest of the global team.”

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