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The World Copped Out at COP26

COP26 was a cop-out, a duck-and-cover excuse to show that countries can address climate change. In reality, the gathering was little more than another frustrating multinational meeting of governments, NGOs, and self-proclaimed do-gooders.

I'm not suggesting that folks attended without the best of intentions. But what I am suggesting is that more could have been done if the politics permitted. It's a shame, really. A lost opportunity. I guess we'll have to wait for COP27 to see if any progress can be made.

The world gathering at COP26: There's data -- and then there's data

If you've ever attended a climate conference, the one thing you'll notice is all of the data presented. But infrequently do you see an overriding set of data that everyone can buy into. Typically, such data is drowned out by the noise generated by others. It can be a food fight.

Now, this is typical of multi-stakeholder meetings. Even so, differences of opinion and the sharing of research and data should be encouraged. But we live in a time when differences of opinion can easily be misunderstood. At the same time, in the case of the environment, the world keeps burning as Nero fiddles. It's easy to cry out for action, but how can that happen when some of the biggest polluters don't even show up?

And, of course, there's always the boogeyman in the room: how companies operate. But, unfortunately, lost on many NGOs and advocates is the simple reality that companies are in business to make money, not save the planet. And it is this dynamic that sets the stage for any discussion of climate change.

COP26: Globalization and the environment

Back in the 1990s, when the World Trade Organization was formed, I heard a lot from people that free and open trade would create opportunities for so many people.

No longer would workers in the developed world be saddled with the struggle of working at a sewing machine all day. Instead, they'd become computer programmers. And consumers would enjoy an endless bounty of excited, low-cost products from around the world. At the same time, so many millions of people would be lifted out of poverty.

This sounded so good on paper. It was kind of like the promise of American freeways in the 1950s. Build more roads, and people will be speed along to their destinations without traffic jams, detours, or smog. Until reality set in. Damn.

But as with anything with life, such dreams may be realized, but inevitably they come with costs. Some may refer to these costs as trade-offs, but that's really to sugar-coat reality.

The planet coped with humanity's pollution for centuries. That was nothing new. But with globalization came hyper-growth — and along with it, hyper-pollution. Good with bad. Which is the fair assessment of globalization. It's been a mixed bag. We've reaped the fruits of our labor. And to be honest, many of the fruits in the bushel are rotten.

The blame game within the apparel industry

And then there's the apparel industry. Our industry gets attacked constantly for being a global-leading polluter. There's some merit to the allegations. Although there's a lot of blame to go around aimed at other industries. But that's when things get particularly testy, exceptionally political. It's also when well-meaning meetings like COP26 get bogged down.

But within the apparel industry, why is cotton always blamed for so many of the industry's environmental woes? Why is it the humble cotton farmer who has to carry so much criticism in the industry? It may have something to do with a lack of understanding about cotton coupled with a timely deflection away from the true causes of harm to the environment caused by our industry.

Understanding cotton and apparel

Let's talk about cotton. It is the least understood of the products utilized in the apparel industry supply chain. It's an agricultural product, for goodness sake. How many clothing designers have been on a farm, let alone spent time with a farming family? If our industry has a dirty environmental image, well, then blame the farmers. After all, they use too much water, so many pesticides, and scary products that begin with the letters G-M-O. Cotton is an easy target, but it also misplaces the blame and removes responsibility from the brands with a clever marketing-inspired bait-and-switch.

Let's talk about apparel. First, of course, the physical manufacturing, shipping, and distribution of products cause the most environmental harm. But don't go after that part of the system. Oh no, not the brands. Instead, blame something that's little understood because to criticize the apparel industry is to admit failure. Besides, who wants to buy a dirty product? The stores don't, and consumers certainly don't. But that's where the attention needs to be spent: with the clothing brands.

Free trade and the right to pollute freely

Thanks to free trade, the apparel industry exploded over the past decades. Sure, there were costs to the environment and workers in developing countries. But look at how much money the business made! What a success story. Until it hit the pandemic and crashed and burned by exposing the underlying fragility of global supply chains.

Here's a project for some enterprising graduate student: how much exhaust was expelled by the boats piled up at the port of Long Beach while they waited to be unloaded? That's got to be a scary figure. Compare that to the alleged carbon expelled by cotton farmers in a given year? Somehow, I feel the boats and the broken supply chain would come out on top.

Consumers subsidized the system

Ironically, it's consumers who effectively subsidized a system that slowly destroyed the planet and virtually enslaved millions of people worldwide while bolstering the fortunes of stockholders. Indeed, it was their innocent purchases that financed an industry void of conscience — an industry built to meet the needs of consumers. Whoever thought so much was riding on an $8 t-shirt?

So why the rant? The world is changing and not for the better. We've all been run down by the pandemic. "Normal" life remains elusive for so many people. Common sense solutions to problems affecting us all remain evasive or overtly political, indeed not practical. Which leaves me with a sense of drifting into some unknown place.

Moreover, as the global economy struggles to regain its footing, what about climate change? In a rush to return to normal, I somehow feel efforts to control the causes of environmental degradation have been kicked to the curb. A casualty of the times in which we live, a step in futility buried in politics, smothered in marketing, and adrift on a sea of good intentions.

This article was originally published in on December 3, 2021.


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