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Fashion is an environmental and social emergency, but can also drive progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals

The fashion industry is responsible for producing twenty per cent of global wastewater and ten per cent of global carbon emissions – more than the emissions of all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Cotton farming is responsible for 24 per cent of insecticides and 11 per cent of pesticides despite using only 3 per cent of the world’s arable land. In addition, the textiles industry has been identified in recent years as a major contributor to plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. It was estimated that around half a million tonnes of plastic microfibers shed during the washing of plastic-based textiles such as polyester, nylon, or acrylic end up in the ocean every year.

In addition to the negative environmental impacts, fashion is also linked to dangerous working conditions due to unsafe processes and hazardous substances used in production. High cost and time pressures are often imposed on all parts of the supply chain, leading to workers suffering poor working conditions with long hours and low pay, with evidence, in some instances, of modern slavery and child labour.

Exploring key sustainability challenges and solutions for the fashion industry, the event “Fashion and the SDGs: what role for the UN?” took place in Geneva on 1 March 2018, in the context of the Regional Forum on Sustainable Development for the UNECE Region. The event brought together a wide variety of stakeholders from many different UN organisations, civil society and industry to highlight the multiple opportunities for the fashion industry to help reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) across a range of key areas including responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), gender equality (SDG 5), clean water and sanitation, (SDG 6), decent work and economic growth (SDG 8), climate action (SDG 13) and life on land (SDG 15).

While there is yet no comprehensive approach across the United Nations system to addressing the complex sustainability challenges in the fashion industry, there is growing momentum in the actions and initiatives being taken by different organizations. 

UNECE, in cooperation with FAO, is cooperating with several partners in the forest sector to promote forest fibers as a sustainable alternative to more environmentally unfriendly fabrics – an idea brought to life at today’s event by models displaying clothes made of forest fibers, provided by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).

In addition, the United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT), hosted by UNECE, is researching issues of transparency and traceability in the textile sector, and is bringing different stakeholders together to collaborate on this theme.

A wide variety of other activities are also underway; for instance, the International Trade Centre (ITC) founded the Ethical Fashion Initiative in 2009, which connects marginalised artisans from developing countries – the majority of them women – to international fashion houses for mutual benefit. The UN Global Compact launched in 2012 the first industry-specific sustainability initiative for fashion by collaborating with the Nordic Fashion Association, who published a Code of Conduct for the fashion industry. In January, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) convened stakeholders from the fashion industry at a Dialogue on Fashion and Climate Action to explore the establishment of collaborative approaches necessary for the industry to contribute to global net-zero emissions by 2050. Other UN agencies and organizations have conducted research and published studies on specific impacts of the industry.

“It is clear that the fashion industry needs to change gears. It needs to become environmentally sound and support a social transformation towards decent and healthy jobs”, said Ms. Olga Algayerova, Executive Secretary of UNECE. Highlighting the range solutions and approaches adopted across the UN and beyond, she underscored the importance of bringing different actors together “to change the path of fashion from a social, economic and environmental concern to a driver for the implementation of the SDGs”.

Photos of the event can be viewed at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/121632478@N08/40519127821/in/album-72157688277949230/