Companies on their own have increasingly found ways to be more environmentally friendly when it comes to manufacturing processes and on being socially responsible corporate citizens. Many American firms back in 2015 pledged to address climate change as part of the Obama administration’s “American Business Act on Climate Pledge.” For many others, a closer look at the United Nation’s sustainability mandate also has been a good place to start. But several U.N. groups, such as the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe, or ENECE, have said fashion hasn’t done enough as a collaborative group to foster change. That’s starting to shift following the launch of the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action earlier this month.
Given that fashion is an estimated $2.5 trillion-dollar industry — the U.N. says that it employs more than 75 million people worldwide, or about one in six people work in a fashion-related job — the sector has a major impact on the global economy and an essential role to play in the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. Whether it is the impact of production on the environment and the communities where apparel, accessories and footwear are manufactured, or educating consumers about changing their consumption patterns, the fashion sector is an integral part of the sustainability conversation.
In fact, the UNECE said in July that “fashion is an environmental and social emergency.” It based its conclusion primarily on the amount — at a global level — of waste water and carbon emissions produced at the manufacturing level. At the human level, the organization said fast fashion is also linked to “dangerous working conditions” because of unsafe processes and the use of hazardous substances. But the U.N. group also said “costs reduction and time pressures imposed on all parts of the supply chain” mean that employees suffer from long working hours and low pay, which in some cases translates to a “lack of respect for fundamental principles and rights at work.”
The focus on world sustainability is part of a U.N. mandate, built on the principle of “leaving no one behind.” The mandate at its core imagines a world in 2030 that is fully inclusive of everyone with disabilities.
Disability is used broadly to cover different forms of inequality, including education, growth and employment, and accessibility of human settlements. To further its goal, the U.N. General Assembly in September 2015 adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Agenda includes 17 sustainable development goals, as well as data collection and monitoring of the SDGs. Among the goals are clean water and sanitation; industry, innovation and infrastructure; responsible consumption and production, and climate action.
For fashion, the sustainability conversation on a global scale is a big one, with multiple layers where fashion can make an impact. And while there’s much needed to be done, the good news is that a change that furthers one SDG often helps move the needle on other SDGs.
Here are some key themes and the different SDGs that can be impacted.
Employment and Living Wage
The fashion sector creates a substantial number of jobs around the world. But the bulk of those jobs — think skilled artisans, weavers and embroiderers — are low-paying and performed by women, many of whom are the sole breadwinners of their families. By paying a living wage, the fashion industry can help further several U.N. sustainability goals. First, it helps fight the end of poverty — SDG number one. Second, living above the poverty line allows disadvantage people the ability to eat better, which contributes to an overall improvement in health and wellbeing — SDG number three. Third, the conversation on improving working conditions can involve not just the physical space, but also provide for upward mobility on the jobs front. This would translate to higher household income levels — SDG number one — and support gender equality — SDG number five — in a sector where more women hold the lower-paying jobs while the majority of senior executive posts are held by men. The U.N.’s International Labour Organization also actively works on improving conditions in the textiles, clothing, leather and footwear sectors.
Just exactly how bad an offender is the fashion industry when it comes to the environment? According to the UNECE at a program in Geneva this past March, the $2.5 trillion fashion industry is the second highest user of water worldwide, and it produces 20 percent of global water waste. The production of one cotton shirt requires 2,700 liters of water, or the equivalent to the amount of water that a person drinks over 2.5 years, the UNECE said. The group also noted that 10 percent of global carbon emissions are from the apparel industry. And cotton farming is responsible for 24 percent of insecticides and 11 percent of pesticides in the world. Of equal concern is the fact that 85 percent of textiles are sent to landfills, or the equivalent of 21 billion tons a year.
A closer look at how to lessen water pollution involves an evaluation on how to curtail the release of hazardous chemicals and materials, as well as how waste water is treated — SDG number eight. Another is paying attention to materials released into the waterways, such as microfibers and microplastics from washing cloths and other textiles — SDG number 14. And restoration of soil quality would combat the degradation caused by cotton production — SDG number 15. Further, reducing chemical emissions from textile production would lessen greenhouse gas emission and address issues connected to climate change — SDG number 13. According to the UNECE, textile production generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Furthermore, improving the health impact from chemicals released during production would improve working conditions for workers, as well as their health and well-being — SDG number three.
Responsible Consumption and Production
The fashion industry also produces way too much product. According to UNECE data, the average consumer purchases 60 percent more apparel than they did in 2000, but each garment is kept half as long and about 40 percent of purchases are never worn.
A reduction in what’s produced — SDG number 12 — would in turn limit the use of natural resources, decrease chemical waste and fossil fuels, as well as create and improve efficiency in the production cycles. The UNECE points out that improvement on this front is a good start toward achieving a decent work environment and economic growth. And a push toward recycling of apparel would be step in the right direction for waste management — SDG number 11.
Another U.N. organization, the U.N. Environment, addresses fashion industry issues in the areas of sustainable consumption and production, in part through sound chemicals management, sustainable lifestyles and a circular economy. The group is set to launch in March, at the next U.N. Environment Assembly meeting, a sustainable fashion alliance. This alliance is aimed to encourage governments, the private sector, and non-governmental groups to work together to help push the fashion industry toward implementation of the U.N.’s 17 SDGs.
The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2015 convened stakeholders from the fashion industry to explore the establishment of collaborative approaches that would enable the industry to contribute to global net-zero emissions by 2050.
Last week, designers and brands formed the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action as part of the U.N. Climate Change initiative. More than 40 brands have signed on, indicating their commitment to environmental change across the supply chain, including the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030 and the phasing out of all sources of coal-fired heat.
Signatories include Hugo Boss, Kering Group, Inditex, Gap Inc. and Puma. Another signatory is Stella McCartney, who also launched a charity dedicated to raising funds and awareness surrounding the issue of sustainability. And Burberry, also a signatory, earlier this year said it plans to go fur-free and to stop burning excess stock.