Previously underestimated in terms of its impact on the environment, the record of the $2.5 trillion-dollar fashion industry is now coming increasingly under scrutiny. Not only is it the second highest user of water worldwide, producing 20 per cent of global water waste, and responsible for 10 per cent of global carbon emissions, but beyond the environmental impact the industry is also closely linked to labor, gender and poverty issues. And while significant today, it is likely that such concerns will only increase further in the coming decades, which has prompted the UN to call for delegates attending its upcoming High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development to debate plans to launch a Partnership for Sustainable Fashion.
Through a series of Sustainable Development Goals, the UN has already committed to ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns, with targets focusing on the use of natural resources, chemical waste, fossil fuels and the integration of sustainable practices into production cycles. However, these so-called SDGs are not specifically directed at the fashion industry. And given the extent to which how we make and consume clothing is impacting upon planetary resources, it is an industry that is having a significant impact on the achievement of the UN’s goals.
Several organizations within the UN do currently work to address certain aspects of the fashion industry. These include the Ethical Fashion Initiative founded by the International Trade Centre (ITC), which connects marginalized artisans from the developing world to international fashion houses, UN Environment, that focuses on the area of sustainable consumption and production, and The International Labour Organisation, which advocates and actively works on improving working conditions in the textiles, clothing, leather, and footwear sectors. But despite the variety of efforts by these different institutions, the UN has not thus far taken a comprehensive approach to address all aspects of a sustainable fashion industry.
“We are racing against the clock to find a better way of producing, using, and disposing of apparel,” said Michael Stanley-Jones, a Nairobi-based Programme Management Officer for the UN Environment’s Poverty-Environment Initiative. And he acknowledges that failing to condition the fashion industry to work within the limits of the planet’s natural resources could disrupt the livelihoods of millions, citing the private sector, investors, researchers, farmers, activists, innovators, designers, educators, youth and the media among the stakeholders to be targeted.
Stanley-Jones does see the fashion industry’s interest in sustainability growing. As an example, membership of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an initiative which developed the Higg Index that aims to “holistically” measure members’ sustainability in terms of product design, facility labor conditions and brand environmental-social impacts, and encourages companies to be transparent in sharing and comparing scores for public scrutiny, has a current membership of 60 manufacturers and distributors, which collectively accounts for a third of the global fashion industry. And he hopes that by setting up a UN Partnership for Sustainable Fashion, this will pave the way to establishing a clear roadmap for sustainability standards across the entire industry.