Transforming the fashion industry to meet U.N. sustainability targets

24 May 2018

BONN, Germany (Landscape News) – Despite being dubbed the world’s second largest industrial polluter after oil, the $2.5 trillion fashion industry supports over 60 million workers throughout the global value chain.

The number of urban consumers will double to 2 billion people by 2025, according to estimates by McKinsey management firm. Related pressures on the environment and the need to achieve the anti-poverty Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 makes a transformation within the fashion industry critical.

The SDG targets touch on a broad range of fashion-related environmental concerns, from plastic pollution to water use, labor rights and much else in between at domestic, consumer and industrial levels, but SDG 12 “Ensure Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns” — in particular is relevant. All told, fashion industry development concerns cut across eight of the 17 targets.

Michael Stanley-Jones, Nairobi-based Programme Management Officer of UN Environment’s Poverty-Environment Initiative, who will participate in a Global Landscapes Forum digital summit – Fashion for the Sustainable Development Goals: Sustainable Supply Chains and Green Job Opportunities for Youth and Womenon May 30, spoke with Landscape News on future prospects for a sustainable fashion industry.

Through the summit, Stanley-Jones aims to explore sustainable fashion solutions with a panel of guest speakers who can provide concrete examples of appealing fashion products manufactured using sustainable materials, environmentally responsible methods, and inclusive business models.

“Recent shifts in how we make and consume clothing are stretching planetary resources to the breaking point,” said Stanley-Jones. According to a  McKinsey report from 2016, clothing production has doubled, the average consumers’ apparel purchase has increased by 60 percent, and the average usage duration of apparel has halved between 2000 and 2014.

A 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation also found the lost value of wasted apparel due to underuse and lack of recycling reached $500 billion annually.

“We are racing against the clock to find a better way of producing, using, and disposing of apparel,” said Stanley-Jones. Sustainable fashion solutions could include slower consumption, more environmentally responsible production, the recycling of used fabrics, and promoting “durable, reusable, and eco-friendly” fashion.

“(I hope to instill) a stronger understanding of the underlying principles of the ‘circular’ or no-waste economy as it applies to fashion, leading to action at each stage of the supply chain, beginning with the more sustainable sourcing of materials for textile and fabric design, and ending with exploration of possible alternative markets to source and distribute and recover clothing,” Stanley-Jones said

U.N. INTERVENTIONS

In response to concerns over sustainability in the fashion industry, delegates attending the upcoming High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development at U.N. Headquarters in New York in July will debate U.N. plans to launch a Partnership for Sustainable Fashion.

“Agreeing on its scope and engaging with stakeholders are high on this agenda,” said Stanley-Jones, naming the private sector, investors, researchers, farmers, activists, innovators, designers, educators, youth and the media among targeted stakeholders.

This partnership will be part of UN Environment’s Poverty-Environment Action for Sustainable Development Goals 2018-2022 (PEA SDG), scheduled for launch in late 2018 as a program for bringing “pro-poor, environmentally sustainable management of natural resources into the heart of government decision-making,” which will launch late this year.

While the Poverty-Environment Initiative does not specifically address sustainable fashion, Stanley-Jones said that its integrated approach to planning, budgeting, and investing in the environmental and socio-economic dimensions of a given industry can significantly contribute to the realization of SDGs.

While the developed world—especially Southeast and South Asian countries which provide natural resources and labor—suffer most from the fashion industry’s impacts, Stanley-Jones said that all countries as part of the global fashion value chain.

UNSUSTAINABLE IMPACT

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change forecasts a 60 percent increase in the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions and waste by 2030 if transformation towards a sustainable fashion industry fails to materialize soon.

“This inherently unsustainable increase could contribute to dooming the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” said Stanley-Jones.

Pressing environmental issues in the fashion industry include controlling its water and energy footprint, facilitating closed loop recycling, promoting sustainable materials, halting overproduction and treating waste appropriately, he said.

Deforestation occurs when forests are converted to croplands to produce fiber.

Freshwater resources are stressed by cotton production and by consumption during processing. Producing and consuming countries’ water bodies both suffer from wastewater pollution. Energy consumption is heightened by the production of synthetic fibers, which are petroleum-based. Synthetic micro-fiber pollution is of increasing concern with micro-plastics being washed in water bodies and showing up in aquatic species at alarming rates,” said Stanley-Jones.

Failure to condition the fashion industry to work within the limits of the planet’s natural resources could disrupt the livelihoods of millions, he added. The livelihoods of the poor, indigenous communities, and other marginalized groups are disrupted by depleted natural capital, climate change, gender inequality, and urbanization—all relevant issues within the fashion industry.

MAKING CHANGE

Incentives such as green finance may be required for stimulating the fashion industry’s transition towards sustainability, Stanley-Jones said.

“One promising area is soil carbon sequestration, techniques for increasing soil fertility and increasing carbon capture by farms and grazing lands. Reforms may be introduced through assessment of landscapes’ potential to serve as carbon sinks, and the awarding of credits to those field managers who implement them,” he explained.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Ex-Ante Carbon-balance Tool (EX-ACT) is a cost-effective land-based accounting system which estimates the impact of agriculture and forestry on a landscape’s carbon balance, comparing policy change and business-as-usual scenarios. It can be applied to evaluate the fashion industry’s value chain.

Stanley-Jones sees the fashion industry’s interest in sustainability is growing. For example, membership in the  Sustainable Apparel Coalition initiative established in 2009, has a current membership of 60 manufacturers and distributors who collectively account for a third of the global fashion industry.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is best known for developing the Higg Index, which aims to “holistically” measure members’ sustainability in terms of product design, facility labor conditions, and brand environmental-social impacts, encouraging members to be transparent in sharing and comparing scores for public scrutiny.

However, members have yet to reach a consensus regarding the application and follow through of Higg Index Standards, or the publishing of their scores, prompting some critics to call out the coalition as an “unproven experiment.

Currently, there is not yet a clear roadmap determining the fashion industry’s global sustainability standards, and the upcoming establishment of of the U.N. Partnership for Sustainable Fashion will help pave the way, he said.

“Poverty-Environment Action is but one project among many that might contribute to channeling investment in sustainable development,” said Stanley-Jones, adding that it is designed to address the gap in financing sustainable development in eight least developed countries in Africa and Asia-Pacific, including ones that have strong textile and agricultural sectors.

Find out more about digital summit – Fashion for the Sustainable Development Goals: Sustainable Supply Chains and Green Job Opportunities for Youth and Women

Q+A: Indonesian community enterprises partner to realize U.N. development goals through fashion

Q+A: Challenges of producing and marketing sustainable fashion in Indonesia

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