“Because normal human activity is worse for nature than the greatest nuclear accident in history.” ―
The clothing and textile industry offers style and functionality. It sells dreams and provides a stage for self-expression. But the industry produces an environmental impact which is far from sustainable. Looking at the environmental challenges in this sector, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is asking: How will fashion brands fulfil customers’ dreams in the future while contributing to the well-being of society and the environment at large?
[About WWF – For nearly 60 years, WWF has been protecting the future of nature. The world’s leading conservation organization, WWF works in 100 countries and is supported by more than one million members in the United States and close to five million globally. WWF’s unique way of working combines global reach with a foundation in science, involves action at every level from local to global, and ensures the delivery of innovative solutions that meet the needs of both people and nature]
Doing ‘business as usual’ will not be an option for the industry nor for the planet in the long run. To stay financially successful, companies will find it necessary to reduce their environmental impact and to respect the ecological boundaries of our planet. WWF’s vision is that the clothing and textile industry contributes to a world in which humans live in harmony with nature. There is a long way to go to make this vision come true, but WWF believes it to be possible, if the industry takes bold action and leadership for transformation.
The clothing and textile industry has an ecological footprint which is far from sustainable. The industry emits 1.7 billion tons of CO2 annually, is responsible for extensive water use and pollution, and produces 2.1 billion tons of waste annually, to name just a few aspects.
Global consumption of clothes doubled between 2000 and 2014. Today, on a global average, every person buys 5kg of clothes per year, but in Europe and the USA the figure is as high as 16kg. Overall apparel consumption is projected to rise even further, from 62 million tons in 2015 to 102 million tons in 2030. This projected increase in global fashion consumption will create further environmental stress and risks.4
Environmental impacts should furthermore be of financial concern to brands. A recent study by the Boston Consulting Group indicates that brands’ profit margins could fall by at least 3 percentage points by 2030 due to rising costs for labor, raw materials and energy, if companies continue with business as usual. This would add up to approximately €45 billion per year of lost profits for the
The clothing and textile sector faces many sustainability issues along the supply chain. The four most pressing environmental impacts – energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, water use, pollution through chemicals and micro plastics, and waste – are described in more detail below.
Energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. According to estimates, the clothing and textile industry emits 1.7 billion tons of CO2 annually and is therefore a significant contributor to global warming. This contribution to global GHG emissions is alarming, particularly when taking into account that the level of atmospheric CO2 already today exceeds the safe human operating space by 20 per cent.
Water use, water quality and water basin risks. The clothing and textile industry uses high volumes of water, particularly in raw material production like cotton growing, in dyeing and wet processing stages, and during the use phase by consumers. It is estimated that growing one kilogram of cotton needs up to 20,000 liters of water, depending where and how it is grown. The World Bank estimates that 20 per cent of industrial water pollution comes from textile dying and treatment. Water use and pollution lead to increased environmental stress at the water basin level, particularly in apparel producer countries.
Use of chemicals and micro plastics. The production of fabrics requires different kinds of harmful chemicals, which can be toxic and cause damage to the environment as well as the workforce. Chemicals are used throughout the apparel supply chain both in natural fiber production (pesticides) and in the production of final garments (e.g. dyes and colorants, detergents, water or stain repellents, performance enhancing coatings, fire retardants). Conventional cotton accounts for 24 per cent of global sales of insecticides and 11 per cent of all pesticides. Clothing made from polyester poses an as yet unknown threat to the oceans and eventually to the planet. When washing these clothes, micro plastic fibers are released, which find their way to the oceans.
Waste. Currently 80 per cent of all clothing produced ends up in incinerators or landfill, and only 20 per cent is recycled. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that textile waste occupies nearly 5 per cent of all landfill space. However, one challenge is that, globally, collection rates for clothes are very low. Germany outperforms most countries in recycling by collecting almost 75 per cent of all used clothing. But elsewhere the collection rates are far lower: 15 per cent in the United States, 12 per cent in Japan and 10 per cent in China.
What can consumer do? Call to Action:-
Buy organic and green. There are several standards and labels in the clothing and textile industry. WWF particularly recommends buying sustainable cotton, including organic cotton, Fairtrade cotton, Cotton made in Africa and Better Cotton. You can check WWF’s sustainable cotton ranking or siegelklarheit.de for more information on sustainable labels and standards. Swiss and international brands and retailers such as Coop, Migros and H&M, but also smaller companies, offer their own branded ecological collections, and there are other companies that make being green a central part of their business. The website Getchanged.net reveals a large collection of fashion brands that produce according to high ecological standards.
Buy wisely. If you buy new clothes, prefer high-quality basics made by responsible brands. You can mix these basics with your swapped, rented or second-hand accessories and fashion items. Consider that trends usually do not last that long, and question whether you must follow all trends.
Address the topic with your friends and colleagues. Inform your colleagues about the negative impact of clothing and textile companies on the environment and discuss potential solutions and actions you can take.
Contact your preferred fashion brand. Send companies your positive or negative feedback on their sustainability performance. If your preferred label does not provide green collections, or does not transparently communicate their environmental and social performance, voice your concern to the company.
Vote for a sustainable transformation of the economy. Particularly in a direct democracy such as Switzerland your vote for a sustainable transformation of the economy counts. WWF Switzerland regularly publishes recommendations on how to vote on certain topics, including issues such as green economy.
Support non-governmental organizations. Consider supporting the work of WWF or other NGOs engaged in the fashion industry. WWF strategically approaches the textile and other industries with the aim to move companies’ performances towards sustainability. You can support the work of WWF as a volunteer, with a donation and much more.
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