Op-Ed | Fashion Can’t Wait on Regulation 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 first launched, sustainability has moved from the fringes to the core of fashion executives’ agendas. Every sizeable apparel and fashion player on the planet has formulated some form of sustainability strategy and every serious CEO has committed to climate targets. The industry has embarked on the journey.

But that’s the extent of the good news. Despite many well-intended efforts and small successes, apparel consumption has nearly doubled since 2009; the industry’s emissions, resource consumption and pollution has grown alongside it. Worse, time is running out. The year 2030 — which most companies have pegged as a magical deadline by which point change should start to materialise — is only 11 seasons away.

But at a moment when efforts need to be accelerating, one global crisis after another has sapped executive focus, drained corporate budgets and eroded the prospect that consumers might drive change. With even the luxury boom seemingly on pause, securing the next quarter has taken precedence over strategic long-term decisions for many companies.

Suppliers, start-ups and activists increasingly fear the current unclear economic climate could lead to a “hibernation of efforts,” where budgets are frozen and projects continue but do not accelerate. In effect, the industry is on track to throw over its values to secure more immediate returns.

Small wonder then that many presenters and panelists in Copenhagen pinned their hopes on the mighty arm of regulation to move the needle where companies on their own have not — a fundamental shift in narrative compared to even five years ago, when the industry insisted that self-regulation would be the preferable, more efficient and faster way of achieving results.

I agree that we need regulators to act, but have my doubts that regulation on its own will be effective enough.

While there are many bills forthcoming from the European Union to the US, the legislative process is slow and the planet doesn’t have time to waste. Elections in Europe have just delivered a more right-leaning parliament, less friendly to ambitious climate policies. Earlier this month, New York’s state legislature ended its session for the year without passing a landmark fashion-focused bill. Even as new policies are enacted, there remain questions over how effectively they will be enforced and concerns that compliance costs and complexity could distract from broader progress.

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

Treating it as such would be a mistake that ignores the substantial business threats presented by future climate-change induced shocks. Indeed, change at this stage will require some brand frontrunners to push the industry faster and further than even policymakers are demanding.

In the current economic climate especially, that will require visionary leadership. But fashion’s biggest brands at least have the means to make a difference. These “super winners” accrued billions of dollars in profits through the pandemic that should allow them to invest in leaner times. Many of them are majority owned by individuals and families with enough wealth and power to free them from the short-term tyranny of quarterly results and enable longer-term thinking.

These dominant players should not only feel responsibility for the industry and the planet, but should also see the strategic opportunity in being first and fast movers; they could determine standards, educate and engage consumers, and set the bar for competition.

By contrast, maintaining the status quo will undoubtedly bring fashion drama it isn’t prepared for. Dangerous may be too delicate a word for the fallout from postponing action in hopes that technical solutions will appear and scale with lightning speed to massively reduce impact and emissions. Hockey stick plans hardly ever work, as top managers should know.

If the industry’s biggest players continue on this short-sighted path, they are likely in for a nasty shock. Not only because regulators will ultimately force them to act anyway, but also because fierce competition will arrive, as it has in other markets, from disruptive players that outgun incumbents on both their appeal to consumers and sustainability. The automotive industry, which deals with significantly more complex products and operations, should be a warning. There, Chinese competitors have taken a significant share of the electric vehicle market because European laggards thought that they could stretch timelines.

Indeed, it is past due for fashion to start “walking the talk” on sustainability. At this point, it had better start to run.

Dr. Achim Berg is a fashion and luxury industry expert who has advised top executives for more than 24 years. He was co-editor of the State of Fashion report series from 2016 until 2023. He is working on a book about the future of fashion.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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