Fashion and sustainable development: why fashion companies need to embark on a path of sustainable transition
Due to its size and global impact, the fashion industry has a significant impact on social and environmental development indicators. Reducing CO2 emissions, addressing overproduction, reducing pollution and waste, promoting biodiversity and ensuring fair wages and safe working conditions for garment workers are some of the crucial elements to reduce the industry's environmental and social impact and contribute to global climate goals.
The industry is committing to change and we are seeing an increasing number of fashion brands attaching importance to analysing and assessing the environmental impact of their activities. However, unless significant changes are made in fashion production processes and consumption patterns, the social and environmental costs associated with the industry will continue to rise.
Therefore, to ensure a reduction in the environmental impact of companies and, at the same time, pursue economic growth, it is important that companies adopt an approach based on the principles of sustainable development.
What is sustainable development: the Bruntland Report
Sustainable development is a concept and approach that seeks to balance the use of natural resources and environmental protection with economic development and social progress. The objective is to create and maintain conditions in which human beings and nature can exist in productive harmony, while enabling current and future social and economic needs to be met.
This concept was first formally defined in 1987 by the United Nations World Commission on Development and Environment, also known as the Brundtland Commission, in its report Our Common Future. The Brundtland Report recognised that the global environmental problems and flashpoints were essentially related to great poverty in the South and unsustainable production and consumption patterns in the North. The report therefore emphasised the need to implement a strategy that integrates development and environmental needs.
This strategy was defined as 'sustainable development', i.e. 'development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'.
Sustainable development is based on three fundamental pillars:
- Environmental sustainability: includes protecting the environment and its systems, managing natural resources wisely and reducing pollution and waste.
- Economic sustainability: implies economic development and prosperity that are robust over the long term and evenly distributed.
- Social sustainability: refers to social progress and equity that meet human needs, such as health, education, social justice, human rights and citizen involvement.
These three pillars must be balanced within sustainable development. For example, it is not sustainable to focus exclusively on economic development at the expense of the environment or social justice. Likewise, environmental protection cannot be achieved at the expense of economic development or social progress.
Sustainable Development Goals for Fashion: UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion
In September 2015, during the United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development held in New York, a significant breakthrough in global sustainable development took place. The main objective of this meeting was to promote human well-being, protect the environment and contribute to a sustainable future worldwide.
On this occasion, the 2030 Agenda, a detailed roadmap for sustainable development that clearly defines goals, was approved. The 2030 Agenda comprises 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 sub-goals. These goals are based on the guiding principles of tackling climate change, building peaceful societies, ending poverty, combating inequality and promoting social and economic development, with the aim of achieving them by 2030.
All 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - directly or indirectly - are related to the fashion and textile industry, and there are many interconnections between the goals and individual targets. This industry is recognised as a crucial player in the pursuit of the 2030 Agenda goals, given its broad economic and environmental scope.
In response to this challenge, the United Nations established the UN Fashion Alliance, an alliance created to promote collaboration between the different UN agencies working in the fashion sector and support projects and policies that ensure a positive contribution of the fashion value chain towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Fashion, as understood by the Alliance, includes clothing, leather and footwear made from textiles and related products. The Alliance's scope of work extends from the extraction and sourcing of raw materials, to the spinning and weaving of yarns and fabrics, to the production of garments, accessories and footwear, through to their distribution, consumption and end-of-life, including the circular elements of reuse, repair/reuse and recycling of materials.
The Alliance is also committed to promoting fair trade practices, ensuring decent working conditions, protecting workers' rights and promoting innovation for a more sustainable future.
The Alliance's goals are closely aligned with the SDGs of the 2030 Agenda. These include promoting the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the fashion industry, minimising the use of natural resources, reducing waste and pollution, promoting equity and inclusion, and contributing to sustainable economic growth.
Challenges and benefits of a sustainable approach for fashion companies
Approaching the principles of sustainable development presents challenges and opportunities that fashion companies must consciously address.
First of all, it is essential to embark on a sustainable transition by taking into account the demands of the market and large buyers. For example, Zalando in its Sustainable Sourcing Policy mandates that by the end of 2023, 50 per cent of the cotton used in garments must have a reduced impact in order to be present on e-commerce.
Furthermore, adopting a sustainable business model encourages investment. According to a McKinsey report, 1 in 4 professional investors are willing to pay a premium price of between 20% and 25% for a company with a positive ESG record.
A company committed to reducing its environmental impact will be better prepared to deal with the increasingly stringent regulations that are emerging. For example, the proposed European Green Claims Directive provides for maximum penalties of at least 4% of annual turnover in the countries where a violation occurs, in the case of cross-border infringements.
Finally, the adoption of sustainable practices can attract a market of consumers who are increasingly aware of environmental issues. In fact, the number of consumers who are willing to pay more for sustainable products has increased in recent years and will continue to grow. Again according to McKinsey, products with certifications or sustainability claims have seen an 8% higher increase in sales than other products.
However, fashion companies can encounter several challenges in attempting to make a sustainable transition. These include the upfront costs of implementing more sustainable practices, such as adopting eco-friendly technologies or overhauling production processes. These costs can be significant and require long-term investment. Furthermore, there may be a lack of awareness or understanding on the part of some stakeholders as to why it is important to become sustainable, which necessitates ongoing education and awareness-raising.
Finally, there may be resistance to change from those who are used to existing business models, and this requires a strong commitment to overcome resistance and promote innovation.
The fashion industry represents a key sector for the achievement of sustainable development goals.
The UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion emphasises the importance of a holistic and collaborative approach to achieving these goals, recognising that only through the combined efforts of all stakeholders can a truly sustainable fashion industry be built.
Despite initial challenges such as upfront costs and resistance to change, it is possible to implement sustainability in the fashion industry. There are already numerous examples of brands and companies that are adopting sustainable practices and demonstrating that economic, environmental and social success is possible.
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