Creative thought

The fashion industry confronts the challenges of climate change

time:2020-04-30 21:59:00

Hans d'Orville

President of the ICCSD Advisory Committee

Former UNESCO Assistant Director-General

The world is in the thralls of two hecatombic crises: the COVID-19 virus pandemic and the accelerating climate crisis, which is the greatest long-term challenge facing the planet today. Both crises have enormous consequences for sustainable development. And yet, there are other numerous challenges confronting us in creating and preserving a sustainable world.

Beginning with the COVID-19 crisis: we are witnessing an unheard number of people succumbing to the virus; hundreds of thousands, if not millions losing their jobs and livelihoods; as well as a sea change in the survival and relevance of numerous industries and productive sectors damaging economies and societies in virtually every country. Often ignored, the fashion industry is one sector that is being hit incredibly hard, with an as yet unfathomable impact for jobs, human wellbeing and prosperity, culture and creativity, and the environment. But even once the COVID-19 crisis  will have been conquered, the fashion industry will be undergoing a tremendous change for years to come.

Let us therefore first look at the interrelationship of fashion and sustainable development until the time when the COVID-19 outbreak hit.

Concerns about sustainability are growing worldwide. Consumers and companies alike worry about how to alleviate their carbon and resources use footprint on the environment. Sustainability is a particular worry for the younger generation. There is an Environmental Profit and Loss (EP&L) tool which was created to help companies understand their environmental impact by measuring greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, water pollution, air pollution and waste across the entire global supply chain.

We live in an age of the digital transformation of all industries. New markets, new technologies, and shifting consumer needs present opportunities - but also risks. The future of fashion and the potential of fashion cities is shaped by digitalization. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution, artificial intelligence, 5G communications networks, internet and internet of things, big data, robotics, 3D design and blockchain are affecting all segments of the fashion industry and are radically transforming it. Cutting-edge technologies and virtual reality have multiple applications in the fashion world, allowing production and distribution methods to evolve just as quickly as ever-changing tastes and fashion trends.

The fashion industry is an international and highly globalized industry, with clothing often designed in one country, manufactured in another, and sold in a third. For example, an American fashion company might source fabric in China and have the clothes manufactured in VietNam, finished in Italy, and shipped to a warehouse in the United States for distribution to retail outlets internationally. China has emerged as the largest exporter of fast fashion, accounting for 30% of world apparel exports. Each year Americans purchase approximately 1 billion garments made in China. In contemporary global supply chains it is retailers and branders who have had the most power in establishing arrangements and terms of production, not factory owners. 

The past decades have been an economic success story for fashion. Over that period, the industry has grown at 5.5 percent annually, according to the McKinsey Global Fashion Index, to now be worth an estimated US$2.4 trillion or 2.16 trillion Euros. Because data on the fashion industry are typically reported for national economies and expressed in terms of the industry’s many separate sectors, aggregate figures for the world production of textiles and clothing are difficult to obtain. Arguably, fashion would be the world’s seventh-largest economy if it ranked alongside individual countries’ GDP.

However, the textiles and fashion industry greatly jeopardize environmental sustainability. Globalization has made it possible to produce clothing at increasingly lower prices. Prices are so low, and collections shift so fast, that many consumers consider fashion to be disposable. However, fast, and thus disposable, fashion adds to pollution and generates environmental hazards, in production, use and disposal.

Beyond, the fashion industry needs to take an active stance on social issues (like Benetton did already in the 1990s), satisfy consumer demands for radical transparency and sustainability and have the courage to “self-disrupt” its own identity and the sources of old success so as win new generations of customers.

Putting the environmental perspective at the center, rather than the logic of the industry, is thus an urgent concern if fashion is to become more sustainable. The quest for sustainable fashion is a process of fostering change to fashion products and the fashion system towards greater ecological integrity and social justice. Sustainable fashion concerns more than addressing fashion textiles or products. It also means considering fashion from the perspective of many stakeholders - users and producers, all living species, contemporary and future dwellers on earth. Sustainable fashion or eco-fashion therefore belongs to, and is the responsibility of, citizens, the public sector and the private sector. Socially conscious shoppers are embracing the growing trend to “slow fashion” – away from the hitherto prevailing “fast fashion” - which is focusing on sustainable materials and transparent, ethical labor and manufacturing.

The fashion industry must find a better balance between environmental, social, and ethical objectives and responsibilities, by sustaining flourishing ecosystems. This may include: increasing the value of local production and products; prolonging the lifecycle of materials; increasing the value of timeless garments; reducing the amount of waste; and reducing the harm to the environment created as a result of production and over-production as well as consumption. Another aspect is the desire to practice environmentally friendly consumption by promoting the emergence of the "green consumer".

“Slow fashion” can be seen as an alternative approach to “fast fashion”, favoring emotional, ecological and ethical qualities. Slow fashion is a fashion concept that reflects a perspective, which respects human living conditions, biological, cultural diversity and scarce global resources and creates unique, personalized products. “Slow fashion” challenges growth fashion's obsession with mass-production and globalized style and becomes a guardian of diversity. It fosters a heightened state of awareness of the design process and its impacts on resource flows, workers, communities, and ecosystems.

“Slow fashion” often consists of durable products, traditional production techniques or design concepts that strive to be season-less or last aesthetically and materially for longer periods of time.  New ideas and product innovations are constantly redefining “slow fashion”.

The environmental impact of fashion also depends on how much and how long a garment is used. Typically, a garment used daily over years has less impact than a garment used once to then be quickly discarded. Studies have shown that the washing and drying process for a pair of classic jeans is responsible for almost two-thirds of the energy consumed through the whole of the jeans' life, and for underwear about 80% of total energy use comes from laundry processes. Thus, use and wear practices affect the lifecycles of garments and need to be addressed for larger systemic impact. However, there is a significant difference between making a product last from making a long-lasting product.

The clothing industry has one of the highest impacts on the planet. High water usage, pollution from chemical treatments used in dyeing and preparation and the disposal of large amounts of unsold clothing through incineration or landfill deposits are hazardous to the environment. There is a growing water scarcity, the current usage level of fashion materials (79 billion cubic meters annually) is very concerning, because textile production mostly takes place in areas of freshwater stress. Only around 20% of clothing is recycled or reused, huge amounts of fashion product end up as waste in landfills or are incinerated. 

Since rapid production runs create excessive textile waste, cheaply made apparel harms both factory workers and the environment. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, about 12.8M tons of clothing is sent to landfills annually. In the UK, around 350,000 tons of clothing is estimated to end up as landfill every year. Global textile production emits 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually (more than international flights and maritime shipping combined). The fashion industry is responsible for up to 10% of global CO2 emissions, 20% of the world’s industrial wastewater, 24% of insecticides, and 11% of pesticides used.

According to Earth Pledge, a non-profit organization committed to promoting and supporting sustainable development, "At least 8,000 chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textiles and 25% of the world's pesticides are used to grow non-organic cotton. This causes irreversible damage to people and the environment, and still two thirds of a garment's carbon footprint will occur after it is purchased.” The average American throws away nearly 70 pounds of clothing per year. There is an increasing concern as microfibers shed from synthetic fabrics are polluting the earth’s waters through the process of laundering. These microfibers are too small to be captured in wastewater treatment plant filtration systems and they end up entering our natural water systems and as a result are contaminating the food chain. One study found that 34% of microplastics found in oceans come from the textile and clothing industry and the majority was made of polyester, polyethylene, acrylic, and elastane. Eliminating synthetic materials used in clothing products could help prevent harmful synthetics and microfibers from ending up in the natural environment.

The majority of fashion and textiles are produced in Asia, Central America, Turkey, North Africa, the Caribbean and Mexico. There is also still production across Europe, in the UK Midlands, Central and Eastern Europe. At least 25 million people, the majority women, work in garment manufacture and up to 300 million in cotton alone.

The environmental impact of fashion also affects communities located close to production sites. Water and land pollution from toxic chemicals used to produce and dye fabrics have serious negative consequences for the people living near factories.

Innovative fashion is being developed and made available to consumers at different levels of the fashion spectrum, from casual clothing to haute couture.

Traditional methods of dyeing textiles are incredibly harmful to the earth's water supply, creating toxic chemicals that affect the entire communities.

So far, no brand can label itself as fully sustainable, and controversies are abundant on exactly how to use the concept of fashion, if it can be used at all.

Some designers have marketed bamboo fiber as an alternative to conventional cotton, citing that it absorbs greenhouse gases during its life cycle and grows quickly and plentifully without pesticides. However, the conversion of the bamboo fiber to fabric is the same as rayon and is highly toxic.

Veganism is reportedly one of the fastest-growing movements in the world. While most people think of it as a diet, it is actually a lifestyle that seeks to exclude the use of animals and their by-products where practicable and possible. This means vegans don’t wear animals, either! In an industry riddled with leather jackets, fur coats, cashmere sweaters and woolen scarves, animal-free fashion may seem like a far off dream.

In fact, as animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, and deforestation worldwide, and innovative alternatives to traditional materials are being released all the time in a market that is striving to keep up with shifting trends. As more conscious consumers realize that they can no longer justify the myriad negative impacts that animal use has across the board, the demand for sustainable vegan fabrics is at an all time high.

Since about five years ago, numerous designers have banned furs. The next choice was then skin and leather, followed by emerging plastic alternatives – like polyester, PVC or polyurethane – and then vegan alternatives. AfterWorld War II leather had already been replaced by “false leather” (or faux cuir) called Skai.

An activist group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is seeking to sensitize the public since September 2019 as to the waste inherent in leather production. A seminal report “Pulse of the Fashion Industry (2017 by Boston Consulting Group) had denounced leather fashion production as the most polluting method in the world. The demand for leather at the global level has pushed the breeding of animals for the sake of their skin. Such breeding is very costly in terms of water and land, it nurtures deforestation and contributes to climate change, without counting the toxic chrome dyeing and coloring – let alone the cruel treatment often doled out to animals. In France alone, 9,400 leather companies generate a revenue of some 25 billion Euros. Yet there is a dilemma: if all animal products were to be banned, the industry would resort to undesirable plastic multiplications. Hence the trend to vegan skins. Follow hashtag #vegan leather – or: cuir vegan.

Stella McCartney had pledged not to use animal skin in her collections since the beginning in 2001. Chanel has abandoned since 2018 the sale of products with exotic skins (pythons, alligator, lizard) as well as the Selfridges Department Store.

Yet other designers (Beckham, Balenciaga, Topshop) have replaced the skin of lambs, goats, cows etc. by synthetic derivatives based on polyester, PVC or polyurethane or by vegan skins. While they are not ideal from an ecological perspective, the synthetic skins, also called simili-cuir (similar to leather), reduce the waste of water and chemical substances previously used in the production processes, while offering excellent durability and being washing-machine proof.

The leaves of the pineapple plant have recently become one of the most sustainable vegan leather alternatives on the market, used by Hugo Boss. Made from pineapple leaf fibre, Piñatex (pineapple leather) is an innovative fabric developed by Ananas Anam in the UK. It is a natural, biodegradable product – and it reduces waste and provides additional income to farmers. It is ideal for use in products traditionally made with leather, like wallets and shoes.

Vegan products are no longer limited editions. Rather, they are produced en masse by many companies like H&M, which is also using material partly made of by-products of winemaking. Produced by the Italian company Vegea, it uses discarded grape skins, stalks and seeds which are turned into a beautiful alternative to leather.

Fashion also needs a diversity of transportation. With the vision to achieve a fossil -free commercial heavy transport by 2050, within the timeframe of the 2015 Paris Agreement, Scania, H&M Group, E.ON and Siemens joined forces in the Pathways Coalition. The solution to getting there is through smarter logistics, electrification of vehicles or biofuels through cooperation with key players in the value chain. Resorting to renewable commercial transport alternatives, such as biogas, biodiesel or renewable diesel, bioethanol and electrification (including hydrogen fuel cells and e-highways) is absolutely critical. Sea transport plays a vital role and there is a need for tangible steps towards the decarbonization of ocean shipping. Maersk – one of the biggest transport providers in the world – deploys biofuel-blend to propel vessels, which comes from wasted cooking oil to reduce emissions from ocean shipping and to make a substantial part of the fashion supply chain carbon-neutral.

How to make the fashion industry further engage with the climate crisis?

Haute couture shows and ready-to-wear fashion shows for spring and fall are held during “Fashion Weeks”. The most important take place in the fashion capitals Paris, Milan, New York and London. However, there are literally dozens of other Fashion Weeks internationally - from Tokyo to Sao Paolo to Shanghai to Beijing to Qingdao – and most recently Shenzhen, reflecting the poly-centric character of the global fashion industry.

At these fashion weeks, new activist groups including Extinction Rebellion are increasingly denouncing the fashion industry for being one of the world's most polluting sectors. During the London Fashion Week in September 2019, Clare Farrell, Co-Founder of Extinction Rebellion – committed to non-violent actions to alert about the planetary climate urgency under the motto “repair, rewear, rebell” – asked if there is glamour in living in a world that is dying? Fashion may well cause ecocide. Business as usual will mean the end of life on earth if the circular economy does not replace the infernal trio of overconsumption overproduction and waste.

Luxury fashion house Balenciaga put its signature at the Paris Fashion Week in February 2020, when it presented its autumn/winter 2020 collection on a purposefully flooded catwalk to draw attention to the threat of climate change and its most immediately tangible – and devastating – effects, rising sea levels.

Although only a few centimetres deep, the runway water created the illusion of an almost bottomless abyss at the centre of the show. The first three, most sought-after, rows of seating were also partially engulfed by water. An LED screen suspended from the ceiling displayed natural scenes including crashing waves, churning clouds, swarming crows and bright red glowing lava, which were reflected in the water below. In keeping with the set's environmental message, Balenciaga planned to have the water returned to and reused by the City of Paris.

Balenciaga’s collection (see 5 photos at end) was a menacing, mostly black assortment for the cold-weather season, remixing house signatures and adventurous new items alike, showcasing more than 100 different outfits. Models in the first section of the show were dressed in all-black ensembles, while others donned branded wellies, leather galoshes and latex trench coats as they sloshed down the runway. A new category, “evening streetwear” included slick jumpsuits thermoformed at the torso. The clothes seemed to maintain the vibe of the movie The Matrix with long leathery coats and spooky cloaks and futuristic eyewear reminiscent of space invaders.


A wartime-style economy is often cited as a potential path towards meeting our international carbon emissions agreements – coupled with the “we are at war” mantra of French President Macron confronting COVID-19. In debates about the fashion industry, the idea of a shift as radical as the one that took place in the second world war is frequently mooted in conversations about sustainability.

Clothing was rationed then – a system that changed consumption habits and helped to keep precious materials for use in the war effort. This did not actually mean the end of the variety or creativity. There were varying qualities of clothing still available at different price points and design was cleverly rethought to minimise waste.

The Savigny Luxury Index, which tracks the share prices of nearly 20 top luxury companies “went into meltdown” in February due to fallout from the coronavirus. The share prices of the Index’ 17 constituent companies dropped 7.1 percent in February. Three labels—Burberry, Prada, and Tod’s—tumbled 15 percent or more. Altogether, there was the first across-the-board decline in more than eight years. A joint study by Italian luxury-brand committee Altagamma, research firm Bernstein, and Boston Consulting Group projected that the global luxury sector could hemorrhage between about $34 billion and $45 billion in sales in 2020 due to the effects of COVID-19. This translates that the luxury market may only reach about US$335 billion this year, translating to an industry-wide loss of between about seven and 10 percent year over year.

With many people forced into working from home by the current situation, the question of what to wear to the office has suddenly morphed to become what to wear to work in my kitchen, bedroom or living room – thereby dramatically changing the demand picture.

Change is coming for the fashion industry whether we like it or not. What will the fashion industry look like after COVID-19? Which products and designs will it generate? What materials will it use to meet societal needs? Is it conceivable that in future, for example, we could buy only a certain amount of new clothing – and then buy as much secondhand as we wanted? As the industry inevitably transitions, we have no roadmap how to reach the sustainability goals with new business models.

And finally, there is the catastrophic impact on the garment workers in many developing countries. In Bangladesh, more than a million of workers have been sent home without pay or have lost their jobs after Western clothing brands cancelled or suspended some £2.4 bn of existing orders in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data from the Bangladeshi Garment Exporters Association (BGMEA). In the UK alone, Primark, Matalan and the Edinburgh Woolen Mill are among retailers that have collectively cancelled £1.4 bn and suspended an additional £1 bn of orders as they seek to minimize losses. This includes nearly £1.3 bn of orders that were already in production or had been completed. With the way the garment supply chain is set up; the suppliers take all the risk. They buy the cloth, hire the workers and make the clothes but they cannot raise an invoice until an order is shipped. If brands cancel existing orders and refuse a shipment, then invoices cannot be sent and nobody will receive pay. Entire factories will go bankrupt and be ruined. Beyond Bangladesh, similar tragedies will develop in countries like Viet Nam, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia or India. What a prospect for the development of the global South! How can we cope with this situation?


The subsequent 5 photos are all from the Balenciaga Fashion Show in Paris

Credit: All photos by Alessandro Lucioni /


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