COP15 summit: Impressions, disappointments, and glints of hope

Posted by Lila Rousselet on

For the first time in my life, I was invited to take part in a renowned international event: the COP15.

The COP 15 is the United Nations biodiversity summit. I won’t describe its’ purpose in further detail, as it may sound like one of the Christmas songs playing on repeat these days. Therefore, I will link this article published in le Devoir that covers the basics.
 


My invitation to take part in the event came from the Textile Exchange organisation, a non-profit that uses mentorship to lead brands, producers, and manufacturers of the textile industry toward more eco-friendly practices.

I find their reports on global fiber consumption quite useful, and I participate in panel discussions regarding artificial fibers and cotton. Every week, I keep up with the different topics at hand on the forum, which helps me learn a lot, find new suppliers, and deepen my research.

I felt deeply honored and proud to be invited to such an important event by an organisation I look up to.

I, naively perhaps, went in the hopes of meeting people from all over the world who are as passionate as me. Although my opinion on such summits is mitigated, my curiosity pulled me forth.


This year, many people from the private sector were there, and many of these businesses operate in the fashion industry. We’re talking big businesses here, such as Inditex (Zara), H&M, Gildan, Victoria Secret and Converse. They had all answered the call, led by the non-profit Business for nature and their “Make it Mandatory” campaign. This campaign reached 330 signatures from private and financial sectors and called on governments around the world to mandate the assessment and disclosure of corporate impacts and dependencies on biodiversity by 2030. By this, they meant to amplify the importance of the 15th objective suggested in the COP 15 pact.

In theory, it would not make sense for us to be against it. Therefore, as I was signing, I wondered whether the companies mentioned above really had a deep interest on the matter. It may be judgmental on my part, but the marketing aspect of it all still feels prominent.

I must say I was disappointed to see an H&M spokesperson on the first discussion panel of the fashion department. She spoke of her program to encourage regenerative agriculture in South Africa…which, don’t get me wrong, is a crucial topic of discussion, yet I feel like H&M has many other sustainability defects to tackle before this one.

Although I think these big actors have their place at the COP15 table, and that it is important (or rather, urgent) that they play their part, to see them cited as an example to follow left me a little bitter. Maybe they’ll find inspiration or ideas by participating to the conferences, but they are far from being exemplary in terms of biodiversity protection. For many years now, H&M has had a warm seat in court for treacherous marketing and greenwashing charges. I’m also very skeptical that businesses of this size can do anything to improve their environmental impact if they keep mass producing at an alarming rate. Unfortunately, be it on this panel or any other event I’ve participated in, our dependence to synthetic fibers or overproduction has never been the target of the discussion.

I would qualify this by saying that COP15 is also a place where compromises are made, so perhaps seeing a company such as H&M make an effort is much more convincing compared to a little Montloup. That's probably why these companies were invited in the first place.
 

Photo credit: Anne Nygard

In the second panel, one of the panelists recalled that humans are part of biodiversity, and that it didn’t make sense to ignore the social responsibility of businesses regarding salaries and working conditions. I concluded that regenerative agriculture has become a mainstream trend. Many business representatives won’t hold themselves accountable by putting the blame on their suppliers. From my point of view, this simply puts pressure on the manufacturers without supporting them financially to bring about positive change… Because change is expensive. Our economic model being based on capital gain, results in most large fashion companies constantly demanding lower prices. How can we expect farmers and producers to come forth with change if they don’t have the necessary support? And by support, we imply formal vows to buy a certain quantity per year and pay a part of the bill in advance to allow concrete solutions to be implemented. Waiting for payment months after the product has been produced and shipped (sometimes months later when it comes to clothing), means encouraging a debt-based system. When it comes to cotton producers, we’re talking mainly about farming countries located in the South that witness climate change firsthand.

The following point was discussed during one of the meetings:

We cannot, as businesses, western governments/organizations, for the most part white and colonialist, demand that third world suppliers, already under crippling pressure, finance and execute change.

 

Photo credit : Jordan Whitfield

On the regenerative agriculture discussion panel hosted by Textile exchange, Kering and the UNDP, solutions on how to help farmers transition were discussed. One of them would be to implement supplier resilience to secure purchases from one year to another instead of constantly seeking out the better deal. Helen Crowley from Pollination mentioned that for the first time, many companies from the fashion industry were present at this COP. The fashion department is indeed extremely dependant of nature. She called out the aberration that politics do not show any interest in fashion, when we’re all participating in the same event, for the same reasons, without crossing paths and discussing these issues.

The Indian government representative, Justin Mohan, as well as his Salvadorian counterpart, Miguel Gallardo, spoke of the necessity of sustainable partnerships with farmers, be it financial or entrepreneurial. The risks must be shared between parties and not only rely on farmers. They also mentioned the necessity of working with inconsistent aspects, sharing resources and available alternatives. On Sunday, Sarat Gidda, director of RaddisCotton, requested that businesses put more heart and empathy in their way of exerting commerce. He demands that certifications for farmers be more inclusive and available in their native tongues. As of now, they are mostly available in English only.
 

What also struck me, is the importance of discussing these issues in groups, panel discussions, or any form of communal gathering. This is the reason why I participate in the textile fashion and dressing community directed by the Montreal Concertation. 

“Brought to life in 2021, this community fulfills the urgent need for small businesses to affiliate to transform the practices of strategic textile and dressing department toward eco-friendly and circular models.”

To conclude, I found that very little concrete action was being offered, but I did appreciate the ones put forth by Kenya’s ecology minister. Recently, the country has put together a 10 year action plan that includes making sustainable production more centralized especially by enforcing companies to openly share their fabrication process, toxic emissions and waste management. The country also aspires to be a leader in circular economy, to support businesses to move away from linear models and assist them in making profound changes to their business model. To achieve this, they wish to impose new laws to transform their economic and financial system. I think that’s what we truly need: concrete action.

As I write these lines, the accord was signed by some 200 countries that took part in the event. They agreed to protect 30% of the planet’s natural spaces by 2030. Although this accord is not perfect, many agree to say it’s historical. To learn more about the 23 objectives, I highly recommend Radio Canada’s article on the topic: “Un accord historique et « ambitieux » sur la biodiversité adopté à la COP15 de Montréal.’’

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