Sustainable Fashion: Walking the Talk
© Depositphotos. 85% of textiles end up in landfills or are incinerated, with most of these materials suitable for reuse.
Posted on 5 Jul 2020
Categories: Focus on
Study for a British university degree in Geneva

85 % of textiles end up in landfills or are incinerated, with most of these materials suitable for reuse.

I have always had a keen interest in making fashion sustainable. It started as a teenager designing my own clothes and has stayed with me through my professional life while working for the United Nations on global sustainability. However, I had never ‘visualized’ the impact of my own role, as a consumer, until I was, like the rest of the world, locked down at home for months. As my office clothing were replaced by casual ones, my more formal wardrobe was left untouched and looked much bigger than I had remembered. Did I really need all those clothes? Were those clothes a necessity (best case), innocuous, or more of an unsustainable habit (worst case)? What is a reasonable balance between basic needs and being a fashionista?

Fast fashion’ has accelerated the consumption process

According to statistics, the average consumer today buys 60% more clothes, compared to 20 years ago, and wears them for half the time before throwing them out. In the past, a garment lasted for years, and was of much better quality. ‘Fast fashion’ has accelerated the consumption process, making sure we all buy more, at a faster pace, and consequently the lifecycle of these clothes ends quickly, generally by being thrown out. According to a report for the Ellen McArthur Foundation, 85% of textiles end up in landfills or are incinerated, with most of these materials suitable for reuse.

As UN officers, we should walk the talk

Not only when it comes to promoting tolerance, human rights and integrity. We should also exemplify sustainable practices in our daily lives. If we have an honest look at our habits, when it comes to choices we make about travel, transport, food and fashion, we often are not fully aware of their impact on the environment and society. We must be informed, act accordingly and lead by example.

This UN Today issue is meant to provide us with more information on dressing sustainably and to raise our awareness of the role of fashion for sustainable development.   This is not an easy task, as there are many marketing ploys and greenwashing tactics in use and, even when dealing with really sustainable brands, we need to navigate through a myriad of definitions and options: ethical clothing, eco-fashion, circular fashion, upcycling, cruelty-free fashion, organic fabric, green labels, slow fashion, conscious products, just to mention a few.

Fashion has started its journey towards sustainability

However, defining sustainability for the apparel sector is difficult. It requires reducing impact on the environment (e.g., energy consumption, pollution, over use of water and natural resources, ability to recycle, etc.) and caring for the wellbeing of society (e.g., workers protection, protecting land for food production, humane treatment of animals, etc.). All of which must function competitively in the complex mix of supply chains, costs, trends, economic interests and societal preference. Only when all those aspects are addressed can we define a garment ‘sustainable’.

While companies need to learn how to reduce the impact of production on the environment and protect the workers, we need to learn to choose appropriately in order to influence and change the market. When buying, we need to remain vigilant to not fall into the fashion sector’s greenwashing trap, and always choose the right materials. For instance, we cannot longer justify producing and buying polyester. We have enough scientific evidence to prove how damaging this material is. Even recently, a study of the University of Manchester published in Science is clear about the fact that most of the microplastic polluting the seas originates from textiles and clothing. When it comes to fabrics, there are clear choices, and we hope the information provided elsewhere in this issue will provide you with some guidance on what they are.

Currently there is no ‘fashion passport’ for our garments, which tells us its origin, the sustainability of the material and chemicals used, its recyclability and impact. Thus, we need to do our own homework to ensure that we do not buy something only because it is beautiful and affordable, but also because it is sustainable and long-lasting.

If you wonder whether the UN has been addressing this matter in a coherent and organized way, check out the article on the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion in this issue. This is an effective mechanism created by UN organizations to bring this topic to the attention of member States, companies and the public.

Why not a UN Summit on Sustainable Fashion

My dream is a UN Summit on Sustainable Fashion. Perhaps this issue of UN Today may trigger some interest in gathering all UN agencies and member States around the same table to discuss this matter. After all, we are not talking about a small sector: the global garment and textile industry has an estimated value of $2.5 trillion globally, the clothing industry alone employs over 300 million people. It is also one of the most polluting sectors in the world and has been under much scrutiny because of a long history of labor issues. Bringing the UN together to discuss and agreeing, at least on a set of principles to make the sector more sustainable, would be an important step in the right direction, with a starting point.

©Paola Deda. Paola Deda is Director of the UNECE Divison on Forests, land and Housing and has brought the issue of sustainble fashion to the United Nations in several occasions.
* Paola Deda is the Director of Forests, Land and Housing Division at The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).