It takes around 7,500 litres of water to make a single pair of jeans, equivalent to the amount of water the average person drinks over a period of seven years. That’s just one of the many startling facts to emerge from recent environmental research, which show that the cost of staying fashionable is a lot more than just the price tag.
When we think of industries that are having a harmful effect on the environment, manufacturing, energy, transport and even food production might come to mind. But the fashion industry is considered by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), to be the second most polluting industry in the world.
According to UNCTAD, some 93 billion cubic metres of water – enough to meet the needs of five million people – is used by the fashion industry annually, and around half a million tons of microfibre, which is the equivalent of 3 million barrels of oil, is now being dumped into the ocean every year.
As for carbon emissions, the industry is responsible for more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
The dominant business model in the sector is that of “fast fashion”, whereby consumers are offered constantly changing collections at low prices, and encouraged to frequently buy and discard clothes. Many experts, including the UN, believe the trend is responsible for a plethora of negative social, economic and environmental impacts and, with clothing production doubling between 2000 and 2014, it is crucially important to ensure that clothes are produced as ethically and sustainably as possible.
Innovating for sustainability
Despite the grim statistics, producers and consumers of fashion are increasingly waking up to the idea that the industry needs to change. A number of companies, including large volume retailers, are integrating sustainability principles into their business strategies.
Smaller companies are also helping change the environmental landscape of fashion and building sustainability into their whole business model.
The UN’s role in cleaning up the fashion industry
In a bid to halt the fashion industry’s environmentally and socially destructive practices, and harness the catwalk as a driver to improve the world’s ecosystems, 10 different United Nations organizations established the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, launched during the 2019 UN Environment Assembly, which took place in Nairobi in March.