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UN highlights environmental cost of staying fashionable

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Clothing and footwear production is responsible for eight per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions


It takes around 7,500 litres of water to make a single pair of jeans, equivalent to the amount of water the average person drinks over a period of seven years. That’s just one of the many startling facts to emerge from recent environmental research, which show that the cost of staying fashionable is a lot more than just the price tag.The fashion industry is considered by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), to be the second most polluting industry in the world.

According to UNCTAD, some 93 billion cubic metres of water – enough to meet the needs of five million people – is used by the fashion industry annually, and around half a million tons of microfibre, which is the equivalent of three million barrels of oil, is now being dumped into the ocean every year.As for carbon emissions, the industry is responsible for more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Report says, 2,000 gallons of water are needed to make one pair of jeans; 93 billion cubic metres of water, enough for five million people to survive, is used by the fashion industry every year

Fashion industry also produces 20 per cent of global wastewater while clothing and footwear production is responsible for eight per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions; every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned.The dominant business model in the sector is that of “fast fashion”, whereby consumers are offered constantly changing collections at low prices, and encouraged to frequently buy and discard clothes.

Many experts, including the UN, believe the trend is responsible for a plethora of negative social, economic and environmental impacts and, with clothing production doubling between 2000 and 2014, it is crucially important to ensure that clothes are produced as ethically and sustainably as possible.In a bid to halt the fashion industry’s environmentally and socially destructive practices, and harness the catwalk as a driver to improve the world’s ecosystems, 10 different United Nations organizations established the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, launched during the 2019 UN Environment Assembly, which took place in Nairobi in March.

Head of the Consumption and Production Unit at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Elisa Tonda, one of the 10 UN bodies involved in the Alliance, explained the urgency behind its formation: “The global production of clothing and footwear generates 8 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and, with manufacturing concentrated in Asia, the industry is mainly reliant on hard coal and natural gas to generate electricity and heat. If we carry on with a business-as-usual approach, the greenhouse gas emissions from the industry are expected to rise by almost 50 per cent by 2030.”

Despite the grim statistics, producers and consumers of fashion are increasingly waking up to the idea that the industry needs to change. A number of companies, including large volume retailers, are integrating sustainability principles into their business strategies. Examples include the global clothing chain H&M, which has a garment collection scheme; jeans manufacturer Guess, which is involved in a wardrobe recycling programme; and outdoor clothing company Patagonia, which produces jackets using polyester from recycled bottles.

Smaller companies are also helping change the environmental landscape of fashion and building sustainability into their whole business model.Among them are the Swiss firm Freitag, which upcycles truck tarpaulins, seat belts and seat belts to make bags and backpacks; Indosole, which makes shoes from discarded tyres; and Novel Supply, a Canadian clothing business, which has a “take-back scheme,” so that the company can reuse and recycle them.

The founder of Novel Supply, Kaya Dorey, won a Young Champions of the Earth award, the UN’s highest environmental honour, in recognition of her attempts to create a production model that involves using environmentally-friendly materials, and finding solutions for waste created during the manufacturing process.In this video she explains how every element of her company’s production process is geared towards minimising waste and damage to the environment.


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