Environmental Sustainability in the Fashion Industry
Last updated: 30 May 2023
Chemicals and Pollution | Climate | Green Economy | Human Rights and Environment | Plastics | Water
Fast fashion comes at an astonishing environmental and social cost. While the impacts of the fashion industry in terms of pollution, water use, carbon emissions, human rights, and gender inequality are increasing, the need for a shift to sustainable fashion is evident. Organizations in Geneva and beyond are joining efforts to shift the fashion economy and foster international cooperation on the issue.
The Environmental Cost of Fashion
The fashion industry represent an important part of our economies, with a value of more than 2.5 trillion $USD and employing over 75 million people worldwide. The sector has seen spectacular growth over the past decades, as clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014. While people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than in 2000, they only kept the clothes for half as long (McKinsey & Company, 2016).
While the fashion sector is booming, increasing attention has been brought to the impressive range of negative environmental impacts that the industry is responsible for. Fashion production makes up 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions, dries up water sources, and pollutes rivers and streams. What’s more, 85% of all textiles go to the dump each year (UNECE, 2018), and washing some types of clothes sends significant amount of microplastics into the ocean.
The Environmental Footprint of Fast Fashion
- The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second (UNEP, 2018)
- Approximately 60% of all materials used by the fashion industry are made from plastic (UNEP, 2019)
- 500,000 tons of microfibers are released into the ocean each year from washing clothes — the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017)
- The fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of humanity’s carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined (UNEP, 2018). If the fashion sector continues on its current trajectory, that share of the carbon budget could jump to 26% by 2050 (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017)
- Some 93 billion cubic metres of water – enough to meet the needs of five million people – is used by the fashion industry annually, contributing significantly to water scarcity in some regions (UNCTAD, 2020)
- Around 20% of industrial wastewater pollution worldwide originates from the fashion industry (WRI, 2017)
More facts and sources on Business Insider
Fast fashion also has a human cost: textile workers, primarly women in developing countries, are often paid derisory wages and forced to work long hours in appalling conditions (UNEP, 2018; WRI, 2019). In many places, these conditions create infringements on human rights (Human Rights Watch). Use of chemicals in clothes production also raise serious health concerns, both for the workers in the industry and consumers. Additional impacts on health also arise from the pollution described previously.
The environmental and social cost of the fashion industry forces us to rethink fast fashion, and stresses the need for more sustainable business models and practices. Resources hereunder provide additional information on the environmental impacts of fashion, and potential pathways for change.
- Fashion Industry Needs to Make Climate Action a Top Trend | UNFCCC | 27 March 2023
- Fibre recyclée : beaucoup de marketing, peu d’écologie (Video) | RTS | 17 January 2023
- La fast fashion « utilise des stratégies marketing redoutables pour rendre les jeunes accros » | Mélanie Ohayon | Genève Vision | 17 January 2023
- Chile’s Atacama Desert: Where Fast Fashion Goes to Die | EcoWatch | 15 November 2021
- Effective regulations? Environmental impact assessment in the textile and garment sector in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia and Viet Nam | ILO | 14 June 2021
- Can an end-to-end sustainability standard change fashion? | VogueBusiness | 18 March 2021
- Plastic microfibres illustrate the challenges of fighting marine litter | GRID-Arendal | 4 March 2021
- Fast fashion speeding toward environmental disaster, report warns | The Guardian | 7 April 2020
- Can fashion ever be sustainable? | BBC | 11 March 2020
- These facts show how unsustainable the fashion industry is | World Economic Forum | 31 January 2020
- The huge toll of ‘fast fashion’ on the planet – and why the answer could be circular | National Geographic | 4 July 2019
- Fashion’s tiny hidden secret | UNEP | 13 March 2019
- By the numbers: the economic, social and environmental impacts of “fast fashion” | WRI | 10 January 2019
- The global environmental injustice of fast fashion | Bick et al. | Environmental Health | 27 December 2018
- Putting the brakes on fast fashion | UNEP | 12 November 2018
- Fashion is an environmental and social emergency, but can also drive progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals | UNECE | 1 March 2018
- Timeout for fast fashion | Greenpeace
Plastic in Textile
After the Second World War, the development of synthetic textiles, such as polyester and nylon, transformed the fashion industry. From only a few thousand tonnes in 1940, global consumption of synthetic fibres rose to more than 60 million tonnes in 2018. Since the late 1990s, polyester is the most commonly used fibre in textiles. Today, an estimated 60% of clothing and 70 % of household textiles are made of synthetic fibres.
These plastic-based textiles have a significant impact on the environment and climate throughout their life cycle due to emissions of greenhouse gases and pollutants. The textile sector is a growing contributor to the climate crisis, with about 1% of crude oil production used to produce synthetic fibres. The sector is also an important source of plastic leakage into the environment. With between 200 000 and 500 000 tonnes of microplastics from textiles enter the marine environment each year, the textile industry amount for 35% of microplastics pollution in the ocean.
Consideration of the textile sector will thus be important for tackling the ongoing plastic crisis. Plastic pollution is one of the major environmental crises of our times, and efforts from various actors are underway to address it. This includes negotiations towards an international legally-binding agreement on plastic pollution, initiated by the resolution adopted at the UN Environment Assembly in March 2022. Learn more about the plastic pollution crisis, governance processes to address it and the work of Geneva-based organizations on the matter in our Plastics and the Environment series.
- How do you tackle microplastics? Start with your washing machine. | Girst | 19 April 2023
- Filtration as an effective and near-term solution to reduce the release of microplastics in the environment | A Plastic Planet, Matter, Planet Care, Xerox, 5 Gyres | 18 April 2023
- Dow said it was recycling our shoes. We found them at an Indonesian flea market | Reuters | 25 February 2023
- Trashion: The stealth export of waste plastic clothes to Kenya | Report | Changing Markets Foundations, Clean Up Kenya, Wildlight & Les Amis de la Terre France | 16 February 2023
- Tackling Microfibers at Source: Investigating opportunities to reduce microfiber pollution from the fashion industry | Forum for the Future | 1 February 2023
- “Do clothes make us sick? Fashion, fibers and human health” | Plastic Soup Foundation | 2022
- A review on microplastic emission from textile materials and its reduction techniques | Aravin Prince Periyasamy & Ali Tehrani-Bagha | Polymer Degradation and Stability | May 2022
- Microplastics from textiles: towards a circular economy for textiles in Europe | EEA | 10 February 2022
- Your Clothes Are Probably Made Of Plastic: What Fabrics To Avoid | Sustainable Rookie | 18 January 2022
- Plastic microfibres illustrate the challenges of fighting marine litter | GRID-Arendal | 4 March 2021
- The invisible threat: microplastics from your clothes | Plastic Soup Foundation | 3 March 2021
- Plastic in textiles: towards a circular economy for synthetic textiles in Europe | EEA | 28 January 2021
- More than ever, our clothes are made of plastic. Just washing them can pollute the oceans | Vox | 11 January 2019
International Cooperation on Sustainable Fashion
As fashion value chains are globalized and the industry has a significant impact on the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), international cooperation is important to foster sustainable fashion.
Launched at the fourth UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-4), the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion is seeking to halt the environmentally and socially destructive practices of fashion. The Alliance is improving collaboration among UN agencies by analyzing their efforts in making fashion sustainable, identifying solutions and gaps in their actions, and presenting these findings to governments to trigger policy. Additionally, the Forests for Fashion Initiative, led by UNECE, FAO, and partners, supports innovative solutions in fashion through sustainable forests-based materials. Several other international organizations are working on global efforts to foster more sustainable fashion. Additional information on these initiatives can be found in the links below.
- The UN Alliance for sustainable fashion
- Traceability for Sustainable Garment and Footwear | UNECE
- Ethical Fashion Initiative | ITC
- Sustainability and Circularity in the Textile Value Chain: A Global Roadmap | UNEP | 30 May 2023
- CNMI and EFI announce launch of joint ESG Framework for fashion and 2022 Sustainable Fashion Awards | ITC EFI | 26 September 2021
- UNECE launches ‘The Sustainability Pledge’ for measurable and verifiable sustainability in the garment and footwear sector | UNECE | 20 May 2021
- Call to Action for Traceability, Transparency, Sustainability and Circularity of Value Chains in the Garment and Footwear Sector | UNECE | 11 March 2021
- Enhancing Traceability and Transparency of Sustainable Value Chains in the Garment and Footwear Sector | UNECE | 8 February 2021
- Sustainability and Circularity in the Textile Value Chain | UNEP | October 2020
- Transparency and Traceability can support the fashion industry’s post-COVID recovery toward resilient and sustainable value chains | UNCTAD | 21 September 2020
- On trend: sustainable fashion in the wake of COVID-19 | UNEP | 16 June 2020
- UNECE traceability initiative can accelerate fashion industry’s shift to more sustainable and circular model | UNECE | 21 February 2020
- SAICM details efforts to reduce chemicals of concern in textiles, toys, building materials and electronics | IISD | 6 January 2020
- Building Circularity in the Textile Value Chain | One Planet Network | 1 August 2019
- UN launches drive to highlight environmental cost of staying fashionable | UN News | 25 March 2019
- Forests for Fashion initiative sets new trends | UNECE | 15 March 2019
- UN Alliance For Sustainable Fashion addresses damage of ‘fast fashion’ | UNEP | 14 March 2019
- The future of work in textiles, clothing, leather and footwear | ILO | 2019
- Made in Forests | UN with Goodwill Ambassador Michelle Yeoh | 16 July 2018
- A new textiles economy : redesigning fashion’s future | Ellen MacArthur Foundation | 2017
- UNCTAD establishes three partnerships to boost fashion industry´s support of biodiversity | UNCTAD | 1 June 2011
- Subscribe to UNEP’s textiles newsletter
The Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action
Launched at COP24 in 2021, the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Change serves as a roadmap to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 within the textile, clothing and fashion industries.
Signatories and Supporting Organizations under the Charter work within Working Groups aiming to identify and amplify best practices, strengthen existing efforts, identify and address gaps, facilitate and strengthen collaboration among relevant stakeholders join resources and share tools to enable the sector to achieve its climate targets. More resources on Charter and related activities can be found here.
World Cotton Day
Cotton is one of the most common fabrics used for clothes. Producing cotton sustains the livelihood of 28.67 million people and provides benefits to over 100 million families across the globe (WTO, 2020). Recognizing the critical role of cotton for economic development, international trade, and poverty alleviation, the UN General Assembly decided to proclaim World Cotton Day on 7 October (A/RES/75/318).
For its first edition, the day aims to highlight the importance of sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all in the cotton sector. Many actors in Geneva are involved in promoting sustainable production and consumption patterns in the cotton industry (see section below for details).
Cotton production can have consequent impacts on the planet due to the use of pesticides, high water consumption, and the conversion of habitat to agricultural use. Conventional production practices can result in soil erosion and degradation, water contamination, and other forms of pollution. Therefore, supporting sustainable models of cotton production is essential if we are to achieve the SDGs. Learn more about environmental sustainability in the cotton sector through the resources below.
- World Cotton Day | UN
- Why cotton? Facts & figures | WTO
- WTO, ITC and UNCTAD initiative on cotton by-products | WTO
- Cotton: Impacts & Action | WWF
- Better Cotton Initiative
- Measuring Sustainability in Cotton Farming Systems | FAO & ICAC | 2015
Sustainable Fashion in Geneva
By alphabetical order
Better Cotton Initiative
The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world, aims to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future.
International Labour Organization
ILO promotes decent work in the textiles, clothing, leather and footwear sector through social dialogue, knowledge sharing, international labour standards, capacity building, partnerships and policy support.
ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative
EFI is a flagship programme of the International Trade Centre, which connects marginalised artisans from the developing world – the majority of them women – to international fashion houses for mutual benefit. EFI also hosts the Secretariat of the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion
Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management
SAICM’s multi-stakeholder project on chemicals in products promotes information sharing and proposes cooperative actions to address chemicals contained in products, with textile being one of the focus areas.
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
UNCTAD engages with circular economy and sustainable trade in the textile industry through research work and support to developing countries.
United Nations Economic Commission for Europe
UNECE’s work on trade in the textile and leather sector focuses on improving transparency and traceability in order to identify and address labor and human rights violations and environmental impacts while embracing more sustainable production and consumption patterns. UNECE also promotes sustainable innovation in the fashion sector through its work on sustainable forest products.
World Business Council on Sustainable Development
The WBCSD support business initiatives for circular economy and sustainable consumption and production, including in the fashion industry.
UN system’s engagement is larger than the Geneva-based organizations presented here. Members of the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion also include UNDP, UNEP, UN Global Compact, UNFCCC and UNOPS.
What Can I Do?
While international organizations, governments and businesses work on solutions to shift the fashion industry toward a more sustainable pathway, consumers can also play a role with their daily actions. This section provides resources on the actions individuals can take to support sustainability in their apparel choices.
- Responsible purchasing | City of Geneva
- Ge-reutilise – Directory of second hand and rental shops | City of Geneva
- Labels and norms in Fashion | Public Eye
- Where to find information on fairer fashion | Public Eye
- Guide du shopping éthique (in French) | Nice Future
Further resources and events to learn about environmental sustainability in the fashion industry are provided below. This page is regularly updated.
- The Clothes We Wear | Wednesdays for the Planet | Geneva Environment Network | 17 March 2021