Credit: Creative Commons / Tamara

Hit the brakes to slow down polluting fast fashion industry

A new global alliance to ‘put the brakes’ on fast fashion was launched at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi last week.

The aim of a future ‘sustainable fashion partnership’ would be to drive “industry-wide action” to reduce fashion’s negative environmental, social, and economic impact and ensure the sector is at the forefront of global efforts to implement the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Campaigners have described the current fast fashion business model of ”take, make dispose, repeat” as “making a mockery” of the SDGs – 17 goals adopted by 193 governments in 2015 to protect the planet and end poverty which include a specific commitment to achieving sustainable consumption and production globally.

The UN Environment Assembly is the world’s highest-level intergovernmental decision-making body on environmental matters. But while several UN offices and agencies currently address issues related to sustainable fashion, as yet there is no comprehensive UN approach towards the development of a sustainable fashion industry.

At the Nairobi meeting, representatives from governments, civil society, trade unions and industry discussed what role the UN could play in tackling the impact of skyrocketing levels of clothing production and consumption.

Michael Stanley-Jones, Co-Secretary of the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, who moderated the launch event, said that many clothes items are discarded before their natural end-of-life:

Underutilisation and overconsumption are the problems we are facing. The combined impact of this is costing the world economy an estimated US$ 1/2 trillion in lost value annually.”

More than 150 billion garments are now produced annually with 60% more clothes bought today compared to just 15 years ago.

These soaring levels of clothing production and consumption cause pollution and depletion of water sources, soil loss from the toxic pesticides used to grow cotton and the release of huge amounts of plastic microfibres when synthetic clothes are washed. The fashion industry produces over 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon emissions a year and, without transformative change, by 2050 it could be responsible for more than a quarter of the world’s total carbon emissions.

Patrizia Heiddeger from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) was at the Nairobi launch.

She said:

It’s time for a fashion industry where toxic chemicals, plastic and microfibre pollution and excessive levels of waste are consigned to history. While some clothing brands are making inroads to sustainability, given the stark scientific warnings on climate change and nature loss, progress is too slow and environmental goodwill is not good enough.”

Heiddeger added that “UNEA is the place where global leaders need to agree on developing binding rules for responsible business conduct to reduce negative environmental impact, in particular for high-impact sectors such as the fashion industry”. She said it was regrettable that governments convening at UNEA-4 “could not agree on significant steps forward towards a convention to regulate plastic pollution including micro-plastics”.

There are growing calls from consumers for policies that both tackle human and labour rights’ violations in global textile supply chains, and promote more sustainable, slower fashion to reduce material consumption and emissions from the textile industry.

At the same time as campaigners are calling for more environmental regulation at the European and global level, negotiations continue on a UN Treaty on Business and Human Rights to hold companies accountable for negative human rights and environmental impacts throughout their global value chains.

Last month a landmark UK Parliament report into the sustainability of the fashion industry called for fashion retailers to be held legally responsible for the huge environmental and social impacts along their supply chains.

The sheer amount of clothing being produced and consumed today means that there has also been a knock-on increase in the supply of used clothing, far outstripping the demand. Charities receiving clothing donations now export much of the surplus for re-use in Africa, East Asia, and Eastern Europe. The three biggest exporters of used clothing globally are the USA (which accounts for about 15% of all exports), followed by the UK and Germany (which both export around 10% of all used clothing). China is the fourth largest exporter and it now accounts for 6% of all exports, up from 0.88% in 2010.