Our Decade for Materials Change

Date: August 3, 2021
By Liesl Truscott

Last Saturday, July 31st, was Earth Overshoot Day

It’s summertime here in England. Seb, my sixteen-year-old son, is off backpacking today. He’s heading to the train to take him to the Brecon Beacons, a National Park in Wales. He and five friends have organized themselves, their food, camping equipment, and stuffed backpacks to 20 percent of their body weight. I’m feeling so proud and excited for him and a tad smug. Alongside sore feet, aching shoulders, and the constant potential for a LOT of rain (it is Wales), my son is communing with nature. Of course, I won’t tell him this. As humans, we need to connect to the natural world, the world we are deeply dependent upon that brings novelty, beauty, and pleasure. I’m so happy he’s sensing this and striding out independently to be “in it.”

But of course, never far away from our heads and hearts is the reality that our beautiful planet is suffering from human activity. Some call it the Anthropocene. This summer, following 12 months of a global pandemic, offers no respite. It’s in the news, but it’s personal too. In Zoom calls with colleagues from Canada to India to Germany to Turkey, my teammates bring devastating news of weather events. Here, the Met Office issued its first-ever extreme heat warning in the UK, but this does not compare with my colleague Ömür’s recent experiences in Turkey. She skyped yesterday to say: “I am safe but also devastated. I’ve been to all places before where all is burnt down now. I feel like I lost someone I know and love so much. The forest that was burnt was the home of the West Anatolian bee and the scientists say that all the hives were gone with the fire. We’ve started facing the climate crisis this summer with disasters like wildfires, floods, and extreme heatwaves all around Turkey. It’s 41 C today in Bursa.”

Forest fires in the Manavgat district of Antalya. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images (The Guardian)

Despite the warming and tension in the air, there are also signs of optimism. Let’s wake up and take note of them.  For me, my son’s connection with nature is just one sign. Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of joining an “influencers” meeting hosted by a Textile Exchange member brand. Not only was it exciting to connect to a group of young people spreading the sustainability message through fashion conversations, but it was also truly inspiring to witness their bright sparks of insight, compassion, and the depth of debate. Topics ranged from how to value designers for classic and enduring fashion to the importance of seeking out black designers and businesses to rebalance and diversify the industry. Later that day, I spoke with a CSR director from a famous luxury brand who shared the company’s progress in materials sourcing and sustainability. Our industry is shifting but of course, not before time and time is not on our side.

Now is the Decisive Decade. If we have any chance of avoiding runaway climate change and biodiversity loss, we must act now and make significant headway over the next nine years by 2030. There is a dizzying number of initiatives to help us along the way, providing they don’t overwhelm us into inertia! From the United Nations COP 26 and The Race to Zero for climate to COP 15 (and the launch of The Post 2020 Global Biodiversity Framework) and the Decade of Ecosystem Regeneration, we are now bombarded with opportunities to act.

Yes, it’s on “our watch” now. Whether you are a CEO or a new graduate working in agriculture or design, we must all learn to bring these enormous goals to fruition while the clock ticks. It’s about equality between generations, as well as between countries. I recommend you listen to Kate Eder, a twenty-year-old student, talking about this topic with the hosts at Outrage & Optimism. Kate’s reference to intergenerational collaboration fills me with optimism! If you want to balance optimism with sobering science and socio-economic reflection, Johan Rockström, Tim Jackson, and Christiana Figueres provide a thoughtful and provocative conversation in Breaking Boundaries, Post Growth, and The Future we Choose.

So, what does this all mean for our industry?

It will take nothing less than a complete system change to retreat back from the planetary boundaries that Johan Rockström is measuring and build a society that decouples wealth from consumption and spreads it more equally, as explained by Tim Jackson. But if there is a time for this to happen, it must be now.

At Textile Exchange, we invite all companies, large and small, retailers or suppliers, experienced or beginners, to join us in Creating Material Change through our Corporate Fiber & Materials Benchmark (CFMB) program. We bring a solid framework for companies to understand and act upon, to mitigate risk, and grasp opportunities for raw materials production and sourcing practices. Further, we model outcomes and impacts in collaboration with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and Higg Co to bridge action to impact.

See Insights Summary and Impacts Dashboard

Most importantly, increased uptake of preferred materials must be embedded in sound and fair business models, with people at the center, or we won’t achieve our goals. Circular and regenerative use of materials must benefit supplier communities and have got to be part of the systems change.

More recently, we have engaged with many stakeholders to incorporate biodiversity action into the CFMB program. Knowing what materials are being used and options for more sustainable choices has been a big part of the journey. Going forward, there must be an increased emphasis on where the production is taking place. The scientific community reported that strategies for climate and nature are two sides of the same coin. Both climate mitigation and resilience – and biodiversity restoration and regeneration – hold a powerful key for Textile Exchange’s Climate+ 2030 strategy. Raw material sourcing has implications for indigenous communities, wildlife, waterways, forests, wetlands, oceans, and other vital ecosystems.

We are delighted to have had over 200 companies in 2020 join our Materials “Race to the Top” and believe the combination of healthy competition and collective action is needed to bring systems transformation to scale and at speed. Every year, we sense a new level of urgency but also action. Our job at Textile Exchange is to serve companies along their journey, show the path forward, and reflect on progress through company scorecards (example) and communal Insights.

Last year, the world as we knew it completely changed, underscoring and accentuating the beginning of this decade for decisive action. If we humans needed a “seeing is believing” experience to Act Now, few would question the disruption of a global pandemic or deny that we are now deep in the grips of climate change.

Deep breath. We can only go forward, albeit with a sense of uncertainty and a dose of fear. If not for ourselves, then certainly for our children and future generations. Never has the work we are all doing in materials been more critical. Our call to action is loud and clear. Join us in Creating Material Change.

Liesl Truscott
Corporate Benchmarking, Director
Textile Exchange