Nature and fashion
How can the fashion industry take a proactive and regenerative approach to nature and biodiversity?
A complex multibillion-dollar global industry
As the fashion industry is reliant on the production and processing of raw materials – natural fibres and textiles (such as cotton, silk, and linen); synthetic fibres (such as nylon, acrylic, and polyester); and leathers, skins, and fur – it is also industry dependent on biodiversity.
Biodiversity – the biological variety and variability of life on earth – underpins healthy ecosystems and the services they provide: freshwater essential for life, soil essential for plants to grow (and the animal species which they support to thrive), clean air, and so on. [source]
Yet through its actions, the fashion industry has a significant damaging impact on nature and the environment. Its supply chains are linked to soil degradation, conversion of natural ecosystems, high levels of water usage, and waterway pollution.
Fashion’s negative impact begins with the primary production of raw materials. Many of its production processes harm nature, as well. But the damage isn’t just from production and manufacturing.
Products’ wear, care, and disposal affect nature and biodiversity too. [source] All of these impacts have been magnified by the rise and rise of mass produced, cheap, lower quality, and disposable ‘fast fashion’.
What’s being done
Concern about climate change has been growing within the fashion sector for some time – powered, in part, by growing pressure from consumers wanting to buy products sourced and produced sustainably and, also, the media.
Considerable progress on sustainability has been made at an individual company level by some of the industry’s major players.
The use of natural fibres such as hemp and, also, organic cotton is rising, for example. Certification of natural fibres is building confidence around their reduced impact. There is a decrease in synthetic fibre use. Recycled alternatives are increasingly being used.
There has also been an upscaling of efforts beyond individual company initiatives.
Textile Exchange, a global non-profit working to promote a suite of leading industry standards, is challenging the fashion industry to commit to increasing the percentage of recycled polyester from 14% to 45% by 2025 [source].
The 2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge, meanwhile, is a cornerstone for change in the apparel and textile industry, encouraging brands and retailers to commit to sourcing 100% of their cotton from the most sustainable sources by 2025.
Sustainable cotton is cotton grown in such a way that environmental impact is minimised while meeting the needs of the present without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their needs. [source] So far, 82 major brands – including ASOS, New Look, and M&S – have signed up to Textile Exchange’s 2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge. [source]
Textiles 2030 is WRAP’s new ground-breaking, expert-led initiative harnessing the knowledge and expertise of UK leaders in sustainability to accelerating the whole fashion and textiles industry’s move towards circularity and system change in the UK. Textiles 2030 is endorsed by UK Environment Minister Rebecca Pow.
The Fashion Pact, meanwhile, is a global coalition of companies in the fashion and textile industry (spanning ready-to-wear, sport, lifestyle, and luxury) including suppliers and distributors launched in 2019. All Pact members are committed to a common core of key environmental goals in three areas: stopping global warming, restoring biodiversity, and protecting seas and oceans. [source] Their aim is bold: industry transformation.
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Yet despite all this, more is needed.
Currently, organic cotton accounts for less than 1% of global cotton production, for example, as the risk to farmers of transitioning to certified organic without a secure market price and uptake guarantee is too great.
Further, fashion companies now need a more proactive and restorative approach focused on resource efficiency, conservation, and regeneration.
A circular economy is needed in which growth is redefined, with the focus shifted onto positive society-wide benefits – such as designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.
Brands can only do so much, however.
Countries of origin must provide stability and regulatory enforcement. Legislative structures must be enhanced both within and across countries, and not just in developing economies. Financial institutions must incentivise nature positive change at a supply chain level.
For this reason, the fashion sector must also work in partnership and encourage others to step up to help build a more nature positive world.
The path forward
To help create an equitable nature positive world – and support action for nature recovery in the UK, especially – the fashion sector must address its impact across the main challenges it poses to nature and biodiversity.
First, it must assess supply chains – and, also, countries of origin – because impacts are location specific. Then, it must step up positive actions both individually and in partnership with each other and all those they work with along the supply chain.
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Greater innovation is needed.
Dye technology is just one process that could be made more nature positive with adequate investment.
This could be achieved by making the process less polluting and more sustainable, closed-loop chemistry, and raising water efficiency. Recycling technology – which is still underdeveloped – is another.
Greater emphasis must also be placed on finding new ways to encourage all involved throughout the supply chain to improve their actions and, also, encouraging consumers to change their behaviour – notably, by using the fashion products they buy for longer.
Fashion businesses can take a variety of positive actions, from quick wins to longer-term efforts. Many of these actions require collaboration – with other businesses, across industries, and with the government.
Examples of different types of action are showcased here, not as a comprehensive checklist, but inspiration for further positive action. Effective action begins with an understanding of the challenges facing nature.
- The fashion industry is the UK’s largest creative industry – valued at £35 billion, it contributes 890,000 jobs to the country’s economy. 
- Predictions suggest ‘fast fashion’ – fashion that is mass produced, cheap, lower quality and disposable – will be worth $43 billion by 2029. This is up from $36 billion in 2019. 
- 52% of fibre in the clothing industry is polyester, the most widely used fibre. Recycled polyester has a significantly lower carbon footprint, up to 70% less emissions. 
- The fashion industry produces 4% of all human-derived carbon emissions. It is the world’s second-largest consumer of water. 
- The fashion industry emits more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping companies combined. 
- Currently, less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing is recycled – an annual loss valued at £100 billion globally. 
- Internet searches for ‘sustainable fashion’ tripled between 2016 and 2019, while hits on the Instagram hashtag #sustainablefashion quadrupled. 
- 1/3 Generation Z consumers say they are prepared to pay for sustainability, while among Baby Boomers the proportion is only 1/10. 
Dr Helen Crowley
Head of Sustainable Sourcing and Nature Initiatives, Kering
Fashion has a major role to play in promoting the proactive and regenerative approach to nature that is now an imperative for the business community.
The last few years have witnessed a rapid shift in our understanding of the importance of biodiversity, not only in terms of our health and our economic and business success but also in our support for a thriving society.
Rather than having a single source, this much-needed change has been driven by a convergence of several different factors.