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Rapid fashion has a shockingly negative impact on the environment and society. The necessity for a transition to sustainable fashion is clear, even though the effects of the fashion industry on pollution, water consumption, carbon emissions, human rights, and gender inequality are growing. Efforts are being made by organizations in Geneva and elsewhere to change the fashion business and promote global collaboration on the subject.

The Impact of Fashion on the Environment

More than 75 million people worldwide are employed by the fashion sector, which has a global market value of over 2.5 trillion dollars and is a significant contributor to our economy. The industry has had phenomenal growth in recent years, with the manufacturing of apparel doubling between 2000 and 2014. Despite purchasing 60% more clothing in 2014 than in 2000, people only wore the clothing for half as long (McKinsey & Company, 2016).

As the fashion business is flourishing, a growing number of harmful environmental effects that the sector is accountable for are coming to light. Water resources are depleted, rivers and streams are polluted, and 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions come from the fashion industry. Also, according to the UNECE (2018), 85% of all textiles are disposed of annually, and washing particular types of clothing releases a sizable amount of microplastics into the ocean.

Rapid fashion also has a human cost; textile workers, primarily women, are sometimes paid pitiful pay and made to work long hours in horrendous circumstances in poor nations (UNEP, 2018; WRI, 2019). These circumstances lead to violations of human rights in numerous locations (Human Rights Watch). Serious health issues are brought up by the use of chemicals in clothing production for both customers and industry personnel. Pollution has other effects on health in addition to those already mentioned.

We must reconsider fast fashion in light of the industry’s negative environmental and social impacts, which also highlight the need for more sustainable business models and operations. More details on the environmental effects of fashion and possible change approaches are provided in the resources listed below.


Plastic in Textile

During World War II, the fashion industry underwent a radical change thanks to the creation of synthetic materials like polyester and nylon. In 2018, more than 60 million tonnes of synthetic fibers were consumed worldwide, up from only a few thousand tonnes in 1940. Polyester has been the most widely used fiber in textiles since the late 1990s. Nowadays, synthetic fibers are thought to make up 70% of home textiles and 60% of clothing. Due to the emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, these plastic-based textiles have a substantial effect on the environment and climate during their entire life cycle. Due to the creation of synthetic fibers using around 1% of crude oil, the textile industry is a growing contributor to the climate catastrophe. Moreover, the industry plays a significant role in plastic leakage into the environment. The textile sector accounts for 35% of the microplastic contamination in the ocean, with between 200 000 and 500 000 tonnes of microplastics from textiles entering the marine environment each year. So, taking into account the textile industry will be crucial for combating the current plastic catastrophe. One of the biggest environmental concerns of our day is plastic pollution, and numerous actors are working to remedy it. This involves talks leading to a global, legally-binding accord against plastic pollution, which were sparked by a resolution approved at the March 2022 UN Environment Assembly. In our Plastics and the Environment series, you may find out more about the plastic pollution crisis, the governance procedures to solve it, and the initiatives of Geneva-based groups.


Collaboration on Sustainable Fashion Internationally

International cooperation is crucial to promote sustainable fashion since the sector has a substantial impact on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and because fashion value chains are becoming increasingly globalized.

The SDGs and the fashion industry’s Impact (UNECE, 2018)

The UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, which was established at the fourth UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-4), aims to end the ecologically and socially harmful practices of the fashion industry. By examining UN organizations’ efforts to promote sustainable fashion, identifying problems and gaps in their efforts, and presenting these results to governments to spur policy, the Alliance is enhancing collaboration among UN organizations. Moreover, the UNECE, FAO, and partner-led Forests for Fashion Initiative foster creative fashion solutions by using materials derived from sustainable forests. Some international groups are aiming to promote more sustainable fashion on a global scale.


The Fashion Industry Climate Action Charter

The Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Change, which was introduced at COP24 in 2021, acts as a plan for the textile, apparel, and fashion industries to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The Charter’s signatories and supporting organizations collaborate in working groups to identify and amplify best practices, bolster ongoing initiatives, identify and address gaps, foster and enhance collaboration among pertinent stakeholders, pool resources, and share tools to help the sector meet its climate targets. Below are more resources on the Charter and associated activities.

National Cotton Day

One of the most popular materials for clothing is cotton. Cotton production supports the livelihood of 28.67 million people and benefits more than 100 million families worldwide (WTO, 2020). The UN General Assembly resolved to declare October 7th as World Cotton Day in recognition of the vital role cotton plays in economic growth, global trade, and the eradication of poverty (A/RES/75/318).

The goal of the day’s first celebration is to draw attention to the value of consistent, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all in the cotton industry. Promoting sustainable production and consumption practices in the cotton business involves a wide range of players in Geneva. Cotton farming can hurt the environment since it uses a lot of pesticides, uses a lot of water, and changes natural habitats for agricultural purposes. Traditional manufacturing methods can cause water contamination, soil degradation, and other types of pollution. Hence, if we want to accomplish the SDGs, we must encourage cotton production strategies that are sustainable.