Protecting biodiversity: the role of the fashion industry
The Global Resources Outlook report published by the United Nations shows that over 90% of biodiversity loss is caused by the extraction and processing of natural resources.
The fashion industry, with its current linear approach, puts considerable pressure on biodiversity.
However, the circular economy offers a perspective to address this situation. By keeping existing garments and materials in use, the extraction of resources from natural ecosystems can be avoided and the negative impacts on biodiversity related to the production, processing and disposal of virgin fibres can be reduced.
Europe has been actively working on this issue since 2021, through the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 entitled 'Bringing nature back into our lives'. This strategy, part of the European Green Deal, addresses the challenges concerning the loss of biodiversity and sets common targets to be achieved by 2030.
The important role of the circular economy in reversing biodiversity loss
According to the paper published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation entitled The Nature Imperative, the circular economy can play a key role in countering and reversing biodiversity loss.
One of the crucial reasons underlining the importance of the circular economy for the protection of biodiversity is its ability to eliminate waste and reduce pollution. In the circular economy model, the release of substances harmful to biodiversity such as waste and pollutants (e.g. hazardous chemicals, greenhouse gases and unnecessary disposable materials) into nature is avoided. To achieve this, it is crucial to consider waste and pollution as design defects and to adopt new business models, materials and technologies to eliminate them. This approach involves all stages of the value chain, from production to use and post-use. In the fashion industry, for example, this can be achieved by designing clothes with non-toxic dyes and low-dispersion or safely biodegradable fabrics to avoid the release of hazardous substances and microplastics into the environment.
Furthermore, through the circulation of products and materials, the circular economy can contribute to meeting society's demand for goods and services by using fewer virgin resources, thereby significantly reducing the negative impacts on biodiversity from extraction and processing. High-value circularity models that require less reprocessing of products and materials should be favoured, such as renting, reselling and repairing models whenever possible. Low-value circularity models, such as upcycling and recycling, are also attractive when products can no longer be used again. To fully exploit these opportunities, products need to be redesigned to allow multiple use cycles and infrastructures need to be developed to facilitate circularity. For example, in the fashion industry, prolonging the use of garments made from natural fibres will, as long as the purchase of new garments is avoided, help reduce the demand for virgin fibres and the land needed to grow them, thus creating more space for other land uses, including the conservation of wilderness.
Finally, through the adoption of circular economy principles, it is possible to regenerate nature. It is possible and necessary to go beyond simply reducing the negative effects of economic activity on biodiversity, to actively employ it in the regeneration process of natural systems. Regenerative production can help achieve this by creating the conditions to allow underground and aerial biodiversity to flourish within and beyond managed areas. This will ensure the long-term provision of fundamental ecosystem services on which society relies, such as the production of food and clean water, flood protection and nutrient cycling, and the prevention of soil degradation.
Actions fashion companies can take to help protect biodiversity
- Land use: currently, the fashion industry uses an increasing amount of land for growing cotton, obtaining cellulose fibres from forests and raising livestock. It is predicted that by 2030, land use will increase by 35% compared to current levels.
- Over-exploitation of raw materials: The textile industry is closely linked to the consumption of global water resources, accounting for more than 4%. This consumption is expected to increase by 100% by 2030.
- Pollution: despite occupying only about 3% of total arable land, cotton production uses a significant proportion of insecticides, pesticides and synthetic fertilisers globally, 16%, 6% and 4% respectively.
- Climate change: the fashion industry contributes significantly to global emissions, accounting for between 2% and 8% of the total. If appropriate measures are not taken, the sector's emissions will increase significantly, exceeding the 1.5°C target for climate change.
- Invasion of exotic animal species: the transport of raw materials and fashion products over long distances encourages the spread of invasive species, which can cause serious damage to local ecosystems.
Fashion companies can take a number of actions to help protect biodiversity:
- Assessing impacts and setting targets: measuring the impacts and dependencies of the company on biodiversity helps to identify priority areas and achieve positive results. It is important to set specific targets for biodiversity. For example, the Science Based Targets Network manual, created by the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), The Fashion Pact and Conservation International, provides guidance for fashion companies in setting science-based targets for nature.
- Exploiting the opportunities of the circular economy: assess the potential of the circular economy and identify best practices and innovation opportunities that contribute to the preservation of biodiversity. It is important to define an action plan for the circular economy in order to address the most urgent impacts and dependencies of business on nature. The circular economy is a key mechanism for implementing sustainable strategies. An example of a fashion brand that has committed to this is Timberland. The brand is committed to generating a net positive impact on nature by 2030, setting targets to design 100 per cent of its products according to circular economy principles and to obtain 100 per cent of the natural materials used in its products through regenerative agriculture by 2030. For example, for its recent trekking boot collection, it used regenerative leather production practices, such as encouraging animals to graze in natural patterns and growing different species of cover crops.
- Engage in collaborations for circular solutions: stimulate collaborations with key stakeholders inside and outside value chains to find circular solutions that address biodiversity loss. This involvement can foster innovation and the implementation of sustainable practices. In the fashion industry, for example, Kering and Conservation International launched the Regenerative Fund for Nature, with the goal of transforming 1,000,000 hectares of crops and pastures into regenerative agricultural spaces over the next five years. Launched in 2021 and part of Kering's broader Biodiversity Strategy, the Fund provides grants to farmer groups, project leaders, NGOs and other stakeholders who are ready to test, trial and scale regenerative practices that focus on working in harmony with natural systems.
Fashion has the potential and responsibility to become a driver of change for the protection of biodiversity. By adopting circular models, using sustainable materials and implementing responsible production practices, fashion companies can actively contribute to biodiversity conservation.
Companies can collaborate with key stakeholders to develop circular solutions that address biodiversity loss, preserving ecosystems and adopting sustainable production practices.
It is crucial that fashion companies commit to ambitious targets, such as those set by the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030.
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