Fashion’s Energy Transition: The Global Fossil Fuel Fight in Micro

December 12, 2023
The fashion industry and its massive impact on climate change, air pollution, biodiversity and human rights is blaring and there won’t be a fast phase-out of fossil fuels unless it is a fair phase-out. Reflections from COP28 in Dubai from Corporate Campaigner, Rachel Kitchin.

Fashion brands were everywhere at COP touting their involvement with the UN Fashion Charter and commitment to sustainability. Luxury brand Stella McCartney even had its own stage in the Green Zone. But beyond a promising early-stage announcement from H&M and Besteller to invest in an offshore wind farm in Bangladesh, commitments and investments from brands to transition their supply chains over to renewable energy were notably absent. Unfortunately, investment in the energy transition and money for the Global South manufacturers that are making those brands’ clothes is essential if the sector is going to phase out fossil fuels and cut its emissions.

That dynamic of the Global North – whether it’s brands, energy companies or governments – wanting to hand down emissions targets without paying their fair share while profiting from pollution elsewhere in the world is playing out all over again in the fashion industry. The parallels are striking.

Fashion suppliers in climate-vulnerable countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Indonesia have been squeezed by brands for decades to offer lower prices and cheaper labour. Now, the brands and retailers are pushing them to cut emissions and phase out coal to meet the brands’ climate targets, all of which can add upfront and long-term costs. Yet shockingly, even the most climate-conscious brands have been staying remarkably quiet about actually paying up to support their suppliers to transition, and quieter still about how to ensure that the people most vulnerable to climate disasters – the workers – aren’t left behind.

That’s why, together with our partners at Oxfam Bangladesh, we launched a call to the 100 UN Fashion Charter members to phase out fossil fuels in their supply chains fairly and transparently. As I outlined at a panel event at the Bangladesh Pavilion with leaders of the country’s push for a fair energy transition and loss and damage, this means taking into account the impacts on workers and manufacturers in the countries that make the world’s clothes and shoes by committing money to climate adaptation programs. For example, supporting workers during dangerous heat waves and ensuring safe work conditions. It means helping manufacturers in their supply chain to foot the bill for energy efficiency or electrification programs and committing to pay fair prices for their products. 

Protecting workers and communities also means investing in real long-term energy solutions like electrification and clean energy, rather than potentially dangerous distractions like biomass. Biomass can have higher emissions than coal at the point of burning, have serious air quality and health impacts, lead to large-scale deforestation, and even threaten food sources as land is turned over to grow it for fuel. Yet, because it is defined as “renewable”, some brands are starting to push manufacturers in their supply chains towards burning biomass instead of coal to produce heat for processes like washing and drying.

An energy transition that endangers the communities that live and work in the industry’s global supply chains isn’t fair and the transition won’t be effective. Manufacturers in the Global South need to see real investment in clean renewable energy like wind and solar, and brands need to stop pushing forward on false solutions.

That’s why I called the industry to commit to a transparent and fair transition to clean renewable energy at an official COP28 side event with partners including Fashion Revolution.’s official demands for major fashion brands and policymakers demanded that the industry step up to these three fundamentally fair points: 

  1. Tell us how and where your clothes were made, how many were produced and their environmental impacts
  2. Set targets, disclose how you established them and report on progress
  3. Report on progress: Tell us how you plan to meet them

Seems pretty reasonable for corporations making billions of dollars in profits, right?

The overarching message at COP28 was clear for the fashion industry and its massive impact on climate change, air pollution, biodiversity and human rights: there won’t be a fast phase-out of fossil fuels unless it is a fair phase-out. It’s time for the industry to step up and pony up.


Here are some images of the incredible panels I shared with partners across the globe!