US-based clothing companies have been among the most vocal defenders of the Paris climate accord

US-based clothing companies have been among the most vocal defenders of the Paris climate accord

When President Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord three months ago, there was concern the move would undermine international resolve behind the global push on climate change. Nevertheless, the reaction of major US-based clothing companies speaks to the importance the sector attaches to addressing climate change.

While damaging in numerous ways, the one thing the Trump decision failed to do was dampen enthusiasm for the historic deal. In fact, if anything the collective will strengthened, with supporters of the COP 21 agreement united in criticism and in some cases condemnation.

Barack Obama, the outward-looking internationalist, had been a proselytising force for the 2015 accord. Ironically, his polar-opposite, isolationist successor appears to have further galvanised support for global action on climate change.

International business leaders came swiftly to the defence of the agreement, with US-based clothing companies such as Levi Strauss & Co, Nike, Gap, Patagonia and Eileen Fisher among the most vocal.

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Looking at the reaction of corporate America more broadly to Trump's Paris decision, it is interesting to note that only two CEOs – Tesla chief Elon Musk and Disney CEO Bob Iger – stepped down from White House advisory committees in response. That is in marked contrast to the furore last week over Trump's remarks about the Charlottesville riot, which provoked multiple resignations, including that of Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, and the eventual disbanding of the Strategic and Policy Forum and the Manufacturing Jobs Initiative.

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Nevertheless, the reaction of major US-based clothing companies to the country's withdrawal from the Paris accord speaks to the importance the sector attaches to addressing climate change.

On one level, these are US-based companies reacting to a US policy decision. More significantly, however, they are speaking as multinational corporations, highlighting the globalised nature of the fashion sector and suggesting many US manufacturers may identify more strongly with their sector's internationalism than with isolationist rhetoric.

"It's important to recognise that most of the US-based apparel companies look at their operations and the way that they function in an entirely global context," says Jason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC).

That means, in spite of the US decision, Paris will continue to have a huge bearing on their businesses, as national governments across the world respond in accordance with its aims.

Widespread commitment

"The fashion sector really is taking climate change seriously"

While many companies clearly decided against commenting publicly on the Trump decision, Kibbey suggests industry action speaks to widespread commitment on climate change. "The fashion sector really is taking climate change seriously," he tells just-style, stressing the progress being made towards science-based targets (SBTs).

The significance of SBTs in this context is they enable companies to align policies directly with the Paris accord, independently of what their governments may or may not be doing.

Working with the World Resources Institute, SAC is integrating SBTs into its environmental programme. "That alignment with Paris is what we think is part of being a sustainable company and we're going to be measuring that," Kibbey says. SAC's objective is to create "sector-wide guidance" on SBTs. "My belief is that once companies understand a little bit more as to what it's going to require to align with science-based targets, we'll see a lot more coming on board."

He adds that increasing uptake of SBTs will further affirm the sector's support for Paris. "Perhaps the strongest statement you can make is actually taking action in reducing emissions and doing it in alignment with the Paris accord."

Trade associations have been less prepared to criticise President Trump's decision than some leading companies. Asked by just-style for its reaction, the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) said it had no official statement to make. This reticence is perhaps understandable. Industry organisations have further battles to wage with the Trump administration, not least on trade policy. It is not only on climate change that the President's isolationist tendencies represent a threat to a globally orientated industry.

While Trump's decision has not yet proved as undermining as feared, it is very early days. US withdrawal could yet weaken the commitment of other nations, while the departure of a major funder of the Green Climate Fund, intended to finance green energy and other climate change initiatives in developing countries, is a severe blow.

That said, some will be clinging to the hope that all is not lost. UN rules mean the US cannot officially withdraw from the accord until November 2019, three years after it came into effect. In the meantime, the US will continue to participate in meetings and negotiations relating to the deal.

According to the State Department, the President is open to the US re-engaging with the accord if it can "identify terms that are more favourable to it, its business, its workers, its people and its taxpayers". As recent events have shown, two years is a very long time in politics.

Once triggered, the withdrawal process will take another year, which means the earliest date the US could officially have left will be the day after the next Presidential election.

Business as usual?

The decision on Paris could be viewed as the outward face of Trump's energy and climate policy. For environmentalists and progressive companies, the future of domestic policies relating to greener energy and environmental protection is an even more pressing concern.

However, Kibbey does not expect changes in domestic energy and climate policy to alter the direction of travel for the sector on environmental sustainability. Changing norms and the influence of customers and external stakeholders have been more important drivers of progress than government policy, he says.

"For a long time, the fashion sector hasn't really been taking cues from US policy and I just don't think this is any different. There's just very little in US government policy that's driving sustainability activities, and that's been the case since long before Trump."

This is an optimistic view but one at least partly vindicated by views expressed by some significant players. However, reduced support and incentives for greener energy could discourage the less committed or less well resourced, as Kibbey acknowledges. "Where I think there probably would be a change is for the smaller clothing companies. For smaller companies, perhaps a more active government, especially one that maybe is financially supporting efforts to reduce climate change impacts, would make a difference."

Professor Melody LeHew of the Department of Apparel, Textiles and Interior Design at Kansas State University is also "hopeful that responsible and progressive firms will continue making progress toward greater sustainability," but adds: "I am certain there are many businesses that may take a 'wait and see' approach."

"Laggard companies will need to make the change in order to keep up with competition and customer demand"

Nevertheless, Professor LeHew sounds an optimistic note. "Progress for all sectors may experience a slowing, but I believe the tipping point has happened and we will not see a return to business as usual, and laggard companies will need to make the change in order to keep up with competition and customer demand."

Like Kibbey, Professor LeHew stresses the critical role consumer opinion plays, not only in shaping how companies behave but also in influencing government policy. Government, industry and the consumer market are "part of an interconnected system," she says. "Government regulations can provide incentives or create pressure for industry and consumers to behave more sustainably, but consumers and industry can also do the same for government."

Under ordinary circumstances, the combined power of the voter and the corporation would win the day, and would probably have resulted in a different decision on Paris. These, however, are not ordinary times. When it comes to attending to the entreaties of companies or consumers, Donald Trump has distinctively selective hearing.

However, while the President appears committed to significant changes in federal policy, local and regional legislatures have backed continued commitment to the Paris accord and progressive climate policies. Many city, county and some state governments have joined with companies, investors and academics in the We Are Still In coalition.

Regarding environmental policy, the most important political partners for US-based global fashion concerns over the next few years may either be those on their doorstep or on other shores.