The United Nations (UN) is spearheading an effort to encourage corporations, governments and non-governmental organizations to “create an industry-wide push for action to reduce fashion’s negative social, economic and environmental impact” while driving the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN Environmental Programme (UN Environment) announced last week.
Composed of 10 different UN agencies, the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion will make its official debut next March at the fourth UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya. The assembly’s motto, UN Environment said, is to “think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limit”—a notion that “will resonate” with designers, brands and retailers seeking to switch up the status quo.
Besides producing 20 percent of global wastewater, apparel and footwear manufacturing generates 10 percent of global carbon emissions—more than all international flights and maritime shipping, according to UN Environment. Textile dyeing is the second-largest polluter of water worldwide. Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. And washing synthetic garments releases a half a million metric tons of microfibers into the ocean every year.
If nothing is done, the environmental authority added, the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. There’s also the human cost to contend with: Textile workers are often paid “derisory” wages and forced to labor long hours in deplorable conditions.
It’s for all those reasons that the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion wants to leverage the strengths of its members to examine solutions that ameliorate garment production’s worst effects, from the Food and Agricultural Organization, which protects arable land, to the International Trade Center, which established the Ethical Fashion Initiative to connect artisans from the developing world to international fashion houses for “mutual benefit.”
As for UN Environment, it helps foster sustainable manufacturing practices, the organization noted before listing several entrepreneurs who are already “designing the fashion of the future,” including Ecoalf, a Spanish company that creates shoes from algae and recycled ocean waste, and Nudie Jeans, which employs organic cotton for its jeans and offers free repairs for life. In Cambodia, Tonlé creates zero-waste apparel using surplus fabric from mass-manufacturing labels; in the Netherlands, Wintervacht transforms castoff blankets and curtains into coats and jackets; and in Switzerland, Freitag makes bags and backpacks from truck tarpaulins and bicycle inner tubes.
Queen of Raw in New York, it pointed out, links designers with deadstock fabric from factories and mills that overproduce it and retailers that overbuy it. Novel Supply in Canada, which creates clothing from natural and organic fabrics, is developing a take-back program to find alternative ways to utilize garments at the end of their life. Its founder, Kaya Dorey, won UN Environment’s 2017 Young Champion of the Earth award for her efforts to create a zero-waste, closed-loop model for clothing.
With the number of times a garment is worn declining by 36 percent in 15 years, the rental model could provide a viable alternative to linear consumption, UN Environment noted. Pioneers in this area, it said, include denim-leasing brand Mud Jeans, Rent the Runway, Girl Meets Dress and China’s YCloset.