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Yes, fashion brands should be setting science-based targets. Here's why.

November 29, 2022
Data & transparency

Science-based targets for apparel brands: What they are, and why you should be setting them.

It’s December in Paris. 10°C and cloudy. Inside a room 15 km north-east of the city, several hundred UN representatives are engaged in the most important work of their lives.

It’s the 21st Conference of Parties, and the UN member states are about to sign the most ambitious climate-related global agreement to date: to limit global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrials. Ideally, to 1.5°C.

You’ve no doubt heard of this number before – and also its name: The Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement is the leading agreement we have on a global climate target. But for all the buzz Paris generated, it really only specified what the world wanted to achieve.

It still didn’t tell us how.

And, being an international conference of UN member states, it focused heavily on national contributions, rather than private sector contributions.

But also in 2015, a new movement was underway: the Science-Based Targets Initiative. And the movement had one clear goal: to drive ambitious corporate climate action.

What are science-based targets?

Science-based targets are environmental performance targets designed in accordance with the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C. They provide companies with a clearly defined path to reduce emissions.

Science-based targets are established by the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi), an international partnership between CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute (WRI), and the World Wind Fund for Nature (WWF).

Why should fashion brands set science-based targets?

According to the SBTi, more than 3,000 businesses have already set science-based targets. The SBTi welcomes companies from all industries: “We encourage companies from all sectors and of all company sizes to join the movement and commit to setting a science-based target,” they explain. “We acknowledge differences between business areas, which is why we are developing sector-specific pathways.”

As an apparel brand, there’s no reason you can’t do the same. In fact — as members of one of the most heavily environmentally criticized and scrutinized industries — apparel brands have all the more reason to set science-based targets. “The SBTi is especially keen to welcome companies in the highest-emitting sectors,” the organization explains, “who play a crucial role in ensuring the transition to a zero-carbon economy.”

If we’re talking about highest-emitting sectors, we can’t ignore the fashion industry.

Fashion is under scrutiny

Anyone inside the industry knows the immense scrutiny fashion brands are facing for their sustainability claims. Whether it’s H&M’s New York lawsuit, Boohoo’s human rights scandals, or Zara’s transparency and greenwashing concerns, the apparel sector has never faced greater public pressure.

And for good reason

The combined environmental impact of the global fashion industry is staggering. The UN Environment Programme estimates that the fashion industry is the second-biggest consumer of water and represents somewhere between 2-8% of carbon emissions globally. That’s not to mention the social impact of substandard working conditions and wages that are common occurrences in fashion supply chains.

And as fast fashion becomes even more accessible around the globe, the industry will have an even greater impact on the environment if left unchecked.

Climate targets are appearing everywhere

Setting net zero, carbon neutrality, or emissions reduction targets has become the ‘fashionable’ thing to do for brands in all sectors. This is a positive movement overall, particularly in the fashion world, and the industry will benefit from initiatives like the Better Cotton Initiative and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

But when each organization sets a different target and defines key terminology (such as carbon neutral) differently, it can be difficult to make meaningful comparisons among various companies in an industry, or evaluate the environmental impact of particular products.

Beyond creating confusion and a lack of comparability in the market, the darker side of all these environmental targets and sustainability campaigns is one the fashion industry is frequently accused of: greenwashing. When climate targets set by brands aren’t clearly defined or grounded in rigorous science, it’s easier for consumers, investors and stakeholders to be misled about a brand’s climate impact.

Which makes science-based targets extremely important

That’s why the private sector needs science-based targets: to make sure the goals we are setting — and the work we’re doing towards them — will actually make a difference in combatting climate change.

How can fashion brands set science-based targets?

You’ve made it this far, so let’s get practical. As a fashion brand, what are the first steps to defining and working towards science-based climate targets?

Setting a science-based target is a five-step process.

  • Commit
    Committing to science-based targets requires that you submit a ‘commitment letter’ outlining your intentions to set a science-based climate target.

If you're following the standard commitment process, you’ll need to complete the SBTi’s online registration through SBTi Standard Commitment application. Once you’ve submitted your application, sent a signed version of your commitment letter, and passed the SBTi’s due diligence process, your company will be recognized on the SBTi’s website, and partner websites.

  • Develop
    The second step involves working on an emissions reduction target in line with the SBTi’s criteria. To help with this step, the SBTi offers free resources, including:
  1. How-to guide
  2. Corporate manual
  3. Up-to-date SBTi criteria
  4. Corporate Net-Zero Standard and Net-Zero Getting Started guide
  5. Target setting tool for target modelling
  6. Greenhouse Gas Protocol and GHG Starter Assessment

Time to submit! Submitting requires that you present your target to the SBTi for official validation. At this stage, it’s recommended that you use the SBTi’s Pre-Submission checklist to ensure you’re ready to submit your targets for validation. When you’re ready, submit either a:Near-term Target Submission form (the official SBTi science-based target submission form)Net-Zero Target Submission form (the official SBTi net zero submission form)SME Target Setting System (a streamlined process to set near-term or net-zero targets in line with climate science)

Submitting your form will begin the target validation process. The SBTi recommends companies review the submission form ahead of time, during the target development stage, to make sure you know what’s required

  • Communicate

Now that you’ve submitted, it’s time to announce your target and inform your stakeholders. Engage marketing, PR and even sales departments to spread news about your science-based targets as far as possible.

  • Disclose

As an ongoing measure, you’ll need to report company-wide emissions and track progress towards your science-based targets every year.

‘We’ll always have Paris’

As the world moves ever closer towards our specific 1.5°C warming limit, the Paris Agreement is more urgent than ever before. Both the public and the private sectors have a duty to drastically reduce their environmental impact and contribute to the global climate response. Apparel brands can do their part by setting and working towards the rigorously science-based targets developed by the SBTi. And if achieving science-based targets is something you need help with, talk to Green Story.

Green Story can help

At Green Story, our mission is to empower 1 billion consumers to know their impact and make choices that are better for the planet and the generations to come. We’ll help you quantify and visualize your environmental impact, make accurate claims about the sustainability of your products, and offset your emissions through verified carbon credits. We’ll also make sure your customers are along for the journey by telling your sustainability story in ways your consumers can easily grasp, integrating your story into every aspect of your communications, and achieving market-wide buy-in for your sustainability mission.

About Amelia Zimmerman

Amelia Zimmerman is an ESG and sustainability writer. She lives in Toronto with her puppy and her partner, and she is passionate about using storytelling techniques to help people understand and act on climate change.