Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world, plagued by sky-high greenhouse gas emissions, mountains of excess clothing manufactured and cast away each year, and the widespread use of fossil fuels in producing synthetic fabrics. A roundtable organized at COP27 drew together Brazilian companies who are leading the pack when it comes to sustainable fashion and beauty. Panel conveners Luciana dos Santos Duarte and Sylvia Bergh summarize the main takeaways and what it implies for the role these industries can play in helping address the challenges posed by climate change.
The Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) can be compared to the biblical Tower of Babel. Stretching into the sky, in the tower thousands of people suddenly had their speech confused by God and could no longer understand each other. But still they continued to talk. COP can be seen as a metaphorical Tower of Babel, convening thousands of people from different contexts who speak different political and economic languages to continue talking about climate change, a phenomenon that is as contested as it is complex.
COP represents the most ambitious event in the world to deal with the challenges posed by climate change. Most recently, COP27 brought 35,000 people to Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt. The private sector was well represented, with a range of companies sharing their diverse approaches to pursuing sustainability and demonstrating their commitment to corporate social (and environmental) responsibility and their adherence to one or several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In attending the conference, on the one hand they were able to position the discourse on sustainable business practices at the UN level, while on the other, no references were made to unsustainable practices. In the end, obscuring these seemed to point to greenwashing. In other words, the myriad approaches to and vocabularies around private sector sustainability make it difficult to separate fact from fiction.
The fashion industry alone is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions – more than that of all international flights and maritime shipping journeys combined. Yet this is often obscured, with the responsibility to reduce, reuse, and recycle placed on individual consumers instead. In light of this, we hosted a roundtable on fashion and beauty at COP27. The aim of the ‘Sustainable Fashion Made in Brazil’ roundtable, one of just three main events on fashion at the conference, was to critically understand how companies approach sustainability.
We chose to focus on Brazil, as it is one of the main producers of fibers, textiles, leather, and apparel in the world. While the country is still trying to regulate the fashion sector towards sustainable practices, its biggest corporations are adapting to international requirements and to what they believe is sustainable. We believed that the discussions could help the companies learn from each other while perhaps also helping ignite similar discussions in other contexts.
In partnership with the NGO Responding to Climate Change, the Ethical Fashion Brazil agency, and the Civic Innovation research group of ISS, the roundtable brought together fashion corporations Grupo SOMA, Lojas Renner, and Malwee, as well as beauty companies Laces and Hair and Simple Organic to talk about efforts to make fashion sustainable in Brazil. Okeanos, a Miami-based supplier of plastic made from Brazilian stones that is producing sustainable hangers for the fashion industry, was also present.
Here’s what the companies who participated in the roundtable have been doing:
Grupo SOMA has a market value of close to 1,8 billion Euro. Although it owns several brands which are not known to be sustainable, at COP27 it showcased a project by one of its brands, Farm Rio, which produces jewelry made by the Yawanawá indigenous women in the Amazon rainforest.
Like Grupo SOMA, Lojas Renner is one of the 150 companies in the world to have signed the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, an initiative of the UFCCC through which fashion companies pledge to achieve net zero emissions by 2030.
Malwee is one of the biggest fashion companies in Brazil. With “six brands ,” it manufactures 45 million pieces of clothing each year. It is moving toward sustainability through textile engineering, and the company is carbon neutral (due to the 1,5 million square meters of preserved nature of its own Malwee Park, which is open to the public).
Beauty companies Laces and Hair and Simple Organic are two cases of sustainable entrepreneurship focused on innovation. At the conference, Laces and Hair referred to nature to describe their business practices, for example their goal to “repair damaged hair with nature”. Simple Organic was a beauty startup until it was bought by Hypera Pharma so it could scale up its production of organic skincare and make-up. The product communication expresses values of diversity and gender neutrality. Among its innovations, it developed biodegradable plastic bags that will become fish food if they end up in the ocean, and they are launching a sunscreen that is reef friendly.
After a round of presentations, there was time for discussing problems companies face and ways of overcoming these. Based on a fashion report compiled by high-school students for the Model United Nations educational simulation (MUNISH 2022), we developed some questions to guide the discussion. Why? Because high-school students represent the generation who is (and will be) most affected by climate change, and who should have the right to dialogue with the big players. Two solutions they suggested and that we then discussed were 1) taxing fast fashion, and 2) identifying products that are not sustainable (like the letter T for Transgenics on food packaging in Brazil).
The roundtable participants believed that before taxing companies that are not engaging in sustainable production practices, the government should do more for those companies that are sustainable. “We need more regulation, inspection, control, and certification,” said Malwee’s representative, in addition to “investing not only in buying carbon (credits) but reducing the environmental impact of the production processes”. Lojas Renner’s representative said that “almost all regulations come from Europe and North America” and acknowledged the efforts of the Brazilian Textile Retail Association (ABVTEX) to regulate the fashion retail chain in Brazil. She also said that her company is trying to comply with the new requirements before they become a regulation.
When asked about the National Policy for Solid Waste, a policy enacted by the Brazilian government in 2010 that criminalizes the disposal of textile waste as ordinary waste despite lacking enforcement, participants argued that the companies should be responsible for their own environmental impact. For instance, they could choose not to work with suppliers who are not certified according to the regulations.
Most participants agreed that they need to educate their consumer about what is sustainable. In this sense, they are selling not only products, but also creating a service to raise awareness on sustainability. Social media is a vector for education, but at the same time, it is a tool to create desire, which in turn creates revenue. In this sense, growth and degrowth are related to the consumer acceptance of the brand and to business as usual, not to an environmental movement.
When asked about the paradigm that 90% of the consumers buy a product because it is trendy, and only 10% because it is sustainable, they agreed that sustainability should become an intrinsic motivation. They need to change the way in which they produce, but not the product, or at least not the product aesthetic, in order to engage in the ethics of sustainability.
“We don’t need to make sustainable fashion, but fashion sustainable” – Malwee representative
Although the presentations and the discussion during the roundtable showed different approaches to sustainability, the companies’ representatives converged on some topics like taking responsibility for the climate impacts of the fashion value chain and not expecting the government or consumers to lead the transition to sustainability. From a single project of jewelry in the Amazon to neutralizing the carbon footprint of the whole value chain, their different strategies serve as inspiration for our understanding of the role of fashion and beauty industries in addressing the challenges of climate change.
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 The event along with a social media campaign forms part of the activities of our research project ‘Transmedia Sustainable Fashion made in Brazil – Documenting the Roundtable at COP27 UN Climate Change Conference and exploring creative strategies to communicate scientific research’, sponsored by the Civic Innovation research group of the International Institute of Social Studies (Erasmus University Rotterdam).
 Grupo SOMA includes the following Brazilian brands: Farm, Farm Global, Fabula, Animale, Cris Barros, Foxton, NV, Maria Filó, Off Premium, Hering, Hering Kids, Hering Intimates, and Dzarm.
 It is not clear whether the initiative fosters genuine dialogue among companies, and whether it undergoes any external (independent) evaluations.
 Malwee, Enfim, Malwee Kids, Carinhoso, basico.com, basicamente.
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About the authors:
Luciana dos Santos Duarte is doing a double-degree PhD in Production Engineering (Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil) and Development Studies (International Institute of Social Studies, ISS/EUR). She holds a master’s degree in Production Engineering, and a Bachelor degree in Product Design. She is also a lecturer in Industrial Design Engineering at The Hague University of Applied Sciences (THUAS).
Sylvia I. Bergh, Associate Professor in Development Management and Governance, International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR), and Senior researcher, Centre of Expertise on Global Governance, The Hague University of Applied Sciences (THUAS).
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