From the farm to the consumer, the $2.5 trillion-dollar global textile, retail, and apparel production industry has a range of economic, environmental, social, and governance impacts. The industry is expected to contribute nearly 26% to global carbon emissions by 2050, up from 2% in 2015.
A recent article by Business Insider made the bold headline: ‘The fashion industry emits more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping combined’. It’s clear that if the industry continues on this current trend, it could use more than 26% of the “carbon budget” by 2050.
However, despite the odds, there are a number of players, both big brands and independent labels shifting to more sustainable business models – attempting to demonstrate to the wider industry that change is possible and embracing sustainable production processes can create more positive outcomes.
In this article, we take a dive into the sustainability and environmental problems facing the global fashion industry and some of the innovative brands challenging the status-quo in a bid to create a more sustainable future.
At a glance: The global impact of the fashion industry.
It is the second-highest user of water worldwide, using an estimated five trillion litres of water for dyeing processes a year, producing 20% of global water waste. On average, 40% of the clothes in our wardrobes are never worn. 85% of textiles are sent to landfills, that’s 21 billion tons a year.
Cotton farming is responsible for 24% of insecticides and 11% of pesticides, despite using only 3 per cent of the world’s arable land!
From a people perspective, 1 in 6 people work in a fashion-related job – more than 75 million people directly and billions more indirectly. On a demographic level, 80% of the labour force throughout the supply chain are women.
To combat this environmental and social impact, the industry has a history of contributing to sustainable development, through job creation and practices such as support for sustainable agriculture and land management, sustainable fibres and materials, innovative manufacturing practices, standards adoption and circular business models.
Companies in the sector, suppliers, brands, and retailers, have a significant business opportunity that can be achieved in the way they source, design, sell, and transport products. They also have an unprecedented opportunity to continue to advance gender equality, improve economic livelihoods, and mitigate climate impacts.
Weaving in the UN Sustainable Development Goals
Agreed by all world governments, the SDGs form the global agenda for the development of our societies, explicitly calling on all businesses to apply their creativity and innovation in addressing the world’s biggest sustainable development challenges. The overarching aim is to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.
High-polluting and socially damaging industries, such as fashion are in a unique position to truly deliver lasting social and environmental change worldwide by embracing ethical, sustainable business practices.
The 17 UN SDG’s provide multiple options and avenues for businesses across all industries to realise the social and environmental impact they are creating, therefore allowing for mitigation strategies and innovations to be created that minimise negative impacts and maximise positive impacts on people and the planet.
Whilst navigating through the vastness of the SDGs, and their various 169 targets, can be an intimidating task, however using tools like Impact, organisations can easily incorporate the SDG’s into their existing sustainability workflows to benchmark existing strategies/processes and demonstrate how their business helps advance sustainable development.
Meet the changemakers:
The Ethical Fashion Initiative has been running for a decade now, International organisations are collaborating to develop global initiatives, such as UN Environment, measuring and reporting their impact using the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Some existing initiatives include:
Levi Strauss: water-reducing jeans production:
Through its ‘Water<Less®’ brand, Levi’s has committed to reducing the amount of water it uses by 50% in countries with high water stress levels by 2025, with the ultimate vision of only using as much water as replenishes naturally wherever they operate. They will achieve this in part through a number of production innovations that will be publicly available in a bid to encourage industry-wide participation in water saving.
Thread: turning trash into fashion:
“If Haiti can turn trash into $ = good” was the sentence that kickstarted Thread. With plastic pollution impacting even the most remote, fragile marine ecosystems, reducing plastic waste is crucial to mitigating against further aquatic demise and is why since 2010, Thread have removed 38.9 million plastic bottles from Haiti’s’ and Honduras’ streets and canals.
This has not only significantly reduced the environmental damage and destruction of the local marine eco-system but also provided adequate wages to over 3,800 workers in poor communities to help lift them out of poverty.
Thread also has an interest-free micro-loan programme to support its suppliers and help them not only grow their business but also improve their financial literacy, which provides a much-needed boost to the local economy.
The plastic bottles themselves, are turned into synthetic fabrics, which when compared to conventional natural materials, possess unparalleled design versatility and a significantly smaller production cost – in terms of both financial resource and time.
Mud Jeans: leasing jeans for a circular fashion economy:
Through retaining the ownership of the raw materials, Mud Jeans facilitates the transition to a circular economy within the fashion industry. Much like the way PCP in the automotive industry operates, after a year of leasing an item of clothing, customers have the option of keeping it, switching it for a new model, or sending it back for reuse/resale as a ‘vintage items’ or recycling the fabric into a new product.
Traditionally, the production process for jeans is incredibly water-intensive, taking up to 7000L of water to make a single pair of jeans, not to mention the large amounts of toxic chemicals used that are harmful to both people and the Environment. Through innovative production methods such as laser cutting, and stonewashing without bleach, Mud Jeans can have an impact on reducing the 135 million kilograms of cotton that is thrown out as waste and burned annually in the Netherlands.
The company’s ultimate aim is to demonstrate that even the traditional clothing industry can make the transformation to a circular economy and through their ‘Lease a Jeans’ model, they can help facilitate the move towards a sustainable fashion future with lower levels of production and consumption.
VAUTE: locally made vegan clothing:
VAUTE is a fashion house prized with creating animal-free clothing that boasts the same insulation factor and qualities as traditional woollen knits and leatherwear. Their garments are made from 100% organically sourced fabrics, that don’t contain leather, fur, wool, mohair, silk or other animal products.
The technical innovation behind the materials is intriguing, for example their hats are made entirely out of plastic bottles and the knitwear is created using ‘single-thread technology’, in which the sweater is created with one continuous string of yarn, leaving no residual waste.
These production processes ensure that no animal fibres are used which would otherwise present several environmental and ethical issues. In addition, by not using animal products, VAUTE avoids the chemical-intensive and polluting processes required to produce leather and furs and helps encourage responsible production and consumption.
Encouraging responsible and sustainable practices at all levels
A recent report by KPMG titled ‘ Threading the needle: Weaving the Sustainable Development Goals into the textile, retail and apparel industry‘ describes how the opportunities companies operating within the fashion industry at all levels of the supply chain, can have a significant opportunity to improve the way they source, design, sell, and transport products and operate in a more sustainable and ethically responsible manner.
They also have an unprecedented opportunity to continue to advance gender equality, improve economic livelihoods, and mitigate climate impacts by alignment with the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Brands are the face of the industry, from designing products for durability, sustainability, and circularity and leveraging their corporate foundations beyond grants and CSR activities, as the face of the industry, brands are in a unique position to devise and shape trends that drive the industry toward a more sustainable future.
Retailers work with a vast network of brands and suppliers to ensure that products they sell meet the required quality, variety, and price points. They are well placed to leverage these relationships to uncover areas for sustainability and social value efficiencies throughout the supply chain.
Suppliers represent the bulk of the environmental and social footprint in the industry but are also well placed to advance responsible consumption and production through resource management optimisations and championing best practices when it comes to water consumption, chemical usage, waste management and sustainable raw material strategies.
By using Impact to track, monitor and report on a range of sustainability initiatives, businesses can not only better understand the true effect their actions have on society, but also develop evidence-based sustainability strategies using the right mix of foundational considerations that contribute to a more sustainable industry.