COP27 brings together the world’s leading nations to accelerate the fight against global warming. Agriculture, food, energy and science are among the issues being discussed, but fashion is one of the big absentees. How do you explain this?
Thomas Ebélé: Since the Paris Agreement in 2015, the subject of fashion has taken a back seat. Some resolutions have been expanded or reworked during the subsequent COPs, but overall there has been nothing new. When you look at the themes that are going to be dealt with at COP27, whether it’s agriculture or energy, for example, you see that they are all, in one way or another, linked to fashion, but without the subject being addressed directly. Fashion will not be a major subject, but one that will be dealt with in a transversal manner.
The fashion industry is not subject to any particular constraints, even though it is a major contributor to C02 emissions…
TE: This is indeed a problem. There has been a lot of talk about the Fashion Pact (a series of ecological commitments signed by fashion and textile companies, editor’s note) when it only covers three areas of action that were already in the Paris Agreement, namely preserving the oceans, respecting biodiversity and limiting climate impact. As long as there are no constraints in fashion, the lines will not move. Does a COP really have the power to change things? It puts issues on the table, but what are its means of action? We can see that some things, however basic, do not change, such as the use of pesticides. And all this, in my opinion, is above all a lack of political will… Who is going to force ultra-globalized groups or new players like Shein over whom we cannot control? For the moment, apart from raising consumer awareness, the means of action are limited, and that’s why we work on it every day.
Hasn’t the fashion industry – despite everything – changed since the launch of the SloWeAre label in 2017?
TE: Of course some things have changed. From a societal point of view, eco-responsible fashion had a negative connotation until 2017, and that has changed considerably. There was a first awareness at that time, with the discovery for many of the many dramas and scandals that affected the textile industry, such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, and a boom in brands, start-ups, or people who started to carry responsible fashion projects.
The second awakening came with the Covid-19 pandemic, and right from the first containment, with an explosion of traffic and sales on the platforms of eco-responsible fashion brands. It was a time when people took the time to see, to learn, to understand, and to care about the importance of this change… But the hype died down as quickly as it appeared. But the hype died down as quickly as it appeared. Even if they became aware of the problem, consumers quickly reverted to their habits. However, the signal was heard and understood by conventional brands, which have now undertaken CSR or sustainability-related actions, or at least displayed it on their websites; this has unfortunately contributed to making the truly responsible offer less visible.
More and more labels and collectives are emerging that are committed to moving the yardsticks, but is this enough at a time when fast-fashion is gaining ground?
TE: Each collective and brand that is committed to the values that are part of an ecosystem, and we can see that there is a relocation taking place today. There is a market, an appetite, a real transformation model. Brands, even fast-fashion brands, have become aware of this, like H&M, which offers collection points, recycling and repair services. These brands have understood that we need to move towards an economy of functionality, and that they will eventually sell fewer products and more services.
Can inflation stop the trend towards more sustainable fashion?
TE: It already has, and has for several months. We hear almost every day that an eco-responsible fashion brand is disappearing, whether it’s because of rising raw material costs, falling sales, or whatever. Since the beginning of the school year, it’s very complicated. That said, it’s very heterogeneous because, at the same time, there are brands that have never done so well… These are generally those that have found their public, their niche, that remain faithful to their values, and that take the time to grow, to develop, without wanting to go too fast. Finally, the brands that work best are those that have measured ambitions.
“We are currently working on a reference system for responsible shops.
Second hand, overcycling, ethical brands, responsible materials… It seems like we have taken a giant step forward in just a few years, but the figures show an increase in the production of clothing, and a derisory share of so-called alternative materials compared to those that pollute the most. Are the targets set under the Paris Agreement really achievable?
TE: I don’t see how they can be… Without concrete measures, things won’t change. What bothers me the most – and we are seeing this today with the incentive to heat to 19°C – is that the consumer is caught between the ‘must do’ and ‘allowed to do’. Today there is a semi-incentive policy, but a real incentive policy is needed to get things moving. Collectives and even companies are not sufficiently supported or encouraged. It is imperative to promote the solution actors.
To answer more concretely, world fibre production is indeed continuing to increase, as is world clothing production, so in my opinion it will be complicated to achieve these objectives. Once again, we need concrete measures, as well as investments, particularly in recycling or new materials. We need to get out of oil, stop producing synthetic materials, and integrate responsible natural or artificial materials, which we can mix with existing fibres, when possible, for technical clothing, for example. There needs to be a transition period where we will mix fibres to limit the impact on nature of polluting fibres that already exist.
In 2023, environmental labelling will be mandatory for the textile sector. Will this change the situation?
TE: I don’t think so. It will provide a form of information to consumers, but it should be noted that not all players will be obliged to implement it. Only the big issuers, the biggest brands, will have to comply with this requirement, initially, but the smaller players will not be obliged, it will be up to them. Especially since the methodologies have not yet been decided… Today, we do not have public databases with sufficient data and reliable indicators to carry out real carbon audits. These are done by firms, at their discretion, and this is very expensive. Not many people are prepared today to invest money to have the most reliable data, so we rely on public databases, which are rather obsolete and do not cover all the methodologies. For example, the same cotton fibres that arrive at a spinner’s will not have the same carbon footprint, depending on the twisting of the yarn and the production line used. It can even double, that’s saying something! It depends on the machines, the solvents, the energy… There are a lot of elements that come into play, and that necessarily complicates things.
Do we need to go further in terms of legislation to get things moving?
TE: As long as we allow Shein products to be sent in plastic blister packs directly to consumers, the lines will not change. You can now order this type of clothing very quickly, not to mention the price, and receive it at home, and then if it doesn’t fit, or doesn’t please, you throw it away. That’s what we have to fight against.
You founded SloWeAre and then published a book to help consumers make more informed choices. What’s the next step?
TE: We are currently working on a reference system for responsible shops, because it is important to highlight the actors who make the products available. The comfort of buying from your sofa is good, but there is a dimension that is essential in the sale, and that is the fitting of clothes. This helps to avoid, or at least reduce, unsold items, waste and returns. This may seem old-fashioned today, but it is essential. It also allows for a time of exchange with the salespeople in the shop, who can provide information on the product, talk about its history, and give advice. There are shops that have this philosophy, and it is important to us to be able to promote them through this future reference system.