The world copped out at COP26

The world copped out at COP26 - it was a duck-and-cover excuse to show that countries can address climate change, says industry consultant Robert P. Antoshak.

In reality, the COP26 world gathering was little more than another frustrating multinational meeting of governments, NGOs and self-proclaimed do-gooders.

I'm not suggesting that people 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 it was a lost opportunity. I guess we'll have to wait for COP27 to see if any progress can be made.

The data at COP26

If you've ever attended a climate conference, you’ll know there’s a lot of data. 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 so it can turn into 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. We live in a time however, 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 of how companies operate. But, unfortunately, lost on many NGOs and advocates is the simple reality that companies are in business to make money and not save the planet. It is this dynamic that sets the stage for any discussion on climate change.

Globalisation and the environment

Back in the 1990s, when the World Trade Organisation was formed, I heard many times 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 would 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 good on paper. It was like the promise of US freeways in the 1950s. Build more roads and people will speed along to their destinations without traffic jams, detours or smog - until reality sets in.

As with anything in life, dreams may be realised, but 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 - it was nothing new, but globalisation created hyper-growth and hyper-pollution. The good with the bad is a fair assessment of globalisation. It's been a mixed bag and we've reaped the fruits of our labour. And to be honest, many of the fruits in the bushel are rotten.

The blame game within apparel

The apparel industry gets attacked constantly for being a global-leading polluter. There is some merit to the allegations and there's also a lot of blame to go around aimed at other industries. That's when things get particularly testy and exceptionally political. It's also how well-meaning meetings like COP26 get bogged down.

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? It may have something to do with a lack of understanding about cotton coupled with a timely deflection away from the true causes of environmental harm caused by our industry.

Understanding cotton and apparel

Cotton is the least understood of the products used in the apparel industry supply chain. It's an agricultural product and how many clothing designers have been to a farm, let alone spent time with a farming family?

If our industry has a dirty environmental image, let's blame the farmers. After all, they use too much water, pesticides, and scary products that begin with the letters G, M and 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.

Now, let's talk about apparel. 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 criticise 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 has exploded over the past few 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 Covid-19 pandemic and crashed and burned by exposing the underlying fragility of global supply chains.

Here's a project for an enterprising graduate student: How much exhaust was expelled by the boats piled up at the ports while they waited to be unloaded? That's got to be a scary figure. If you compare that to the alleged carbon expelled by cotton farmers in a given year, I feel the boats and the broken supply chain would come out on top.

Consumers subsidise the system

Ironically, it's consumers who effectively subsidised 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 a USD$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.

Main image credit: Bruno Mameli /