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U.N. Environment Releases ’Sustainable Fashion Playbook,’ Says Industry Must Eradicate Overconsumption, Newness

Sustainable fashion is getting a new U.N.-aligned communications playbook.

On Tuesday, the United Nations Environment Program, or UNEP, and the U.N. Climate Change-convened Fashion Charter released their first Sustainable Fashion Communication Playbook at the Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen. In it, the organizations call for fashion leaders to “eradicate all messages encouraging overconsumption,” influencers to drive “alternative models of status and success,” (like shopping secondhand) and fashion media to “decouple identity from newness.”

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More than 160 industry executives, as well as Fashion Charter signatories, provided consolatory guidance for the playbook. Everything from tackling a pro-shopping agenda to questioning the role of fashion shows to influencers and fashion media, is embedded in the playbook. Likewise, steps like leading with science as far as sustainability claim-making, changing behaviors and practices toward lower impact living, reimagining inclusive values and driving advocacy, are prioritized. For sustainable fashion specifically, the playbook prioritizes definitions that are “deeply intertwined with the natural environment,” as well as those prioritizing diversity found in cultural heritage, art and craft traditions, customs and more.

In its essence, the UNEP argues fashion communicators can do more to inspire social change, as fashion communications is a hotbed for impact.

“That’s fundamental to the genesis of the playbook,” Rachel Arthur, advocacy lead for sustainable fashion at the U.N. Environment Program, told WWD. “The way we present [and market] fashion needs to be at the table and part of the conversation of moving forward on sustainability.”

To do so, stakeholders must be present and acknowledge the role of narrative and marketing.

Take fashion shows as one example. “It is really interesting to look at fashion shows and why they exist,” continued Arthur. “We know fashion shows are a piece of marketing. They’re designed to inspire creativity and purchase and be a starting point for business. That’s not to say that any of those elements need to go away,” she continued. “We need to think about the carbon footprint of the fashion shows themselves, but that’s not enough.”

In the playbook, Arthur and her colleagues argue for the interrogation of fashion’s “brainprint,” or rather the “knock-on effect,” in Arthur’s words, in which one fashion communication effort ripples into an insatiable and often linear consumption journey. Fashion’s goals are, moreover, near impossible to achieve without addressing consumption, she added.

Asked whether fashion media should still cover shows at the current frequency, Arthur said: “We’re not going to say which actions should or should not be prioritized in the actions of media.”

Using a recent headline-making influencer trip as another real-time case study, Bettina Heller, Paris-based UNEP program officer, left it open as to whether sponsored trips, shopping hauls or custom content are an ethical way forward.

“We are not in a position to assert what is ethical or not,” she said. “It’s up to the individual communicator. We are, by no means, saying that communications should stop. Actually, we want the playbook to apply to anyone, be it a fast fashion player or influencer.”

Where more topical solutions come in is in the form of “do’s” and “don’ts” in the playbook. These include scenarios like showcasing heritage and craftsmanship, but not to “appropriate others’ work and cultures without due credit.” Another example calls on influencers to demonstrate community or the cool factor of sustainable fashion over mindless consumption.

For the 91-page playbook, success is neither measured in new signatories nor report downloads.

“We don’t have a set [accountability] mechanism,” said Arthur. “The main intention is for this to serve as a guide and framework. It is the communications commitment that already aligns with the Fashion Charter. For Fashion Charter signatories, it already has the setup. For the rest of the industry, we’re not asking for new signatories. We recognize everyone is at different stages. If you want to be super transparent, which is one of the recommendations, you need the time to test what works.”

Currently, 100 companies and 41 supporting organizations have signed the Fashion Charter, among them Adidas, LVMH and H&M Group, as well as suppliers such as AGI Denim, Crystal Group and TAL Apparel. As of March, some 45 percent of Fashion Charter signatories complied for targets aligned with the 1.5-degrees Celsius pathway. Companies such as Adidas, for one, were mentioned in the playbook (namely the low-carbon shoe collaboration between Allbirds and Adidas).

The playbook coincides with UNEP’s Textile Flagship Initiative, a strategic leadership initiative for transitioning fashion to circular economy. As a follow-up, the UNEP will offer a free masterclass series, by year-end 2023. Interested individuals can fill out the online form for a variety of virtual sessions.

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