Fashion can now report its plastic use. Will reduction follow? #720


With legislation and investor pressure growing, reporting is a first step for fashion to tackle its plastic use and production problem.

Global non-profit CDP’s environmental disclosure system is open for reporting on plastics for the first time as of 19 April. For fashion, it’s an opportunity to get granular about how much plastic the industry uses and produces in packaging, production and materials, including plastic-based fibres such as polyester. The next step is to create strategies to reduce or eliminate plastic.

Nearly 7,000 companies worldwide will be asked to report on plastic production and use initially through CDP’s water security questionnaire, as CDP says it has noticed a congruence between high-impact sectors that already disclose water security and high-impact plastics sectors. Questions will focus on “the most problematic plastics”, such as plastic polymers, durable plastics and plastic packaging.

Founded in 2000, CDP uses capital markets and corporate procurement to encourage companies to disclose their environmental impact. It works with over 740 investors with $136 trillion in assets, and in 2022, almost 20,000 companies globally disclosed data through CDP — including more than 18,700 companies that make up half the global market capitalisation. Up until now, plastic was not part of what companies were asked to disclose — instead, they shared information on climate change, water security and deforestation. CDP consulted with companies on plastics and found that 88 per cent said plastic is an issue, yet a third did not have plastic-related targets. CDP is continuing to evaluate its questionnaires on climate change, water security and deforestation to understand how plastics intersect. The ability to add plastic is necessary for understanding the scale of fashion’s plastic use and where in the production cycle plastic is most ubiquitous.

“The scale of the plastic pollution crisis is no secret,” said Cate Lamb, global director for water security at CDP, in a statement. “To be able to act effectively, companies must develop a robust understanding of how they contribute to the plastic pollution crisis and formulate equitable and just transition plans to address this. In turn, investors and policymakers need access to relevant, comprehensive and comparable data across the global economy on which to make better decisions.”

The reporting process will include plastic mapping, potential impacts on the environment, business risks and targets, and companies with certain plastic production and use activities will also answer questions on total weight, raw material content and circularity potential. The CDP’s plastics reporting questions are built on frameworks designed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and UNEP’s Global Commitment Frameworks. Publicly disclosed data will be available from September.  From here, brands could use the data to decipher where the majority of their plastic use and production occurs in the supply chain, implement alternatives, and track progress over the years as they work towards elimination. CDP stressed the need for transparency and accountability and said, “plastic-related disclosure will be the foundation of transformative action” but did not outline any specific solutions for how companies should use the plastic-related disclosure data to address their use and production of plastics.

CDP named fashion among the highest impact sectors invited to disclose alongside chemicals, food and beverage, fossil fuel and packaging. Fashion’s plastic use and production is most prevalent in packaging and materials, the CDP says. Some brands have made efforts to transition away from single-use plastic packaging, opting for a range of alternatives from biodegradable packaging to plant-based or paper packaging to recycled plastic packaging (which can vary in terms of success depending on how easily recyclable that packaging is).

Around 60 per cent of clothes are made from plastics, with synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon and acrylic key culprits. Textile manufacturing releases 120,000 tons of synthetic microfibres per year, according to The Nature Conservancy and Bain, and the release of microplastics continues when consumers wash their clothes. Recycling plastic-based fibres is notoriously challenging because they tend to degrade, and technology to recycle them effectively is limited. Brands have started experimenting — Stella McCartney partnered with recycling startup Protein Evolution Inc in December 2022 to transform nylon and polyester into new material, which can then be recycled again, although critics say even recycling synthetics at scale has limited environmental benefit. Experts also say that products made from recycled plastic (such as plastic bottles) will have limited impact if brands don’t reduce their plastic production in the first place.

Legislation against plastic use in fashion is mounting: California passed a law in June 2022 that restricts single-use plastics; the EU set out a series of proposals to prevent packaging waste in December 2022, including all new packaging in the EU being recyclable by 2030; and a bill proposed in California last month would tackle microfibre pollution by requiring all new washing machines sold by 2029 to include microfibre filters.

CDP says investors are concerned, too. “Less information means less certainty for investors. When a company is not transparent about how it is addressing plastics issues, investors can never be sure about a company’s real fundamentals, true risk and the extent of their impacts. For example, a company’s growth prospects may be intrinsically tied to the production or consumption of single-use plastic. How the company accounts for bans on single-use plastic in its growth strategies and whether it invests in innovative solutions is vital information,” a representative says.

For companies looking to get ahead of potential regulations, tracking and understanding their plastic production and use will be an important first step. However, true impact will come down to whether companies channel the new data into strategies to eliminate plastic use and to track their progress on those efforts — particularly as fashion has been criticised for prioritising reporting and tracking over actual action.

“Not only do plastics pose an existential threat to our planet, but they present serious regulatory, financial, and reputational risks to companies that fail to take responsibility for their plastic waste,” said Annie Sanders, director of shareholder advocacy at Green Century Capital Management. “By engaging with companies to ensure they adequately address plastics-related risks, investors can protect shareholder value and help catalyse a circular economy where nothing we use for five minutes pollutes our environment for centuries.”

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