UN addresses fashion industry’s 'underestimated' environmental impact

On 1st March, the UN held a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, to examine the social and environmental challenges faced by the textile/apparel industry, as well as the supranational organisation's own role in terms of fostering innovation in the sector.


Olga Algayerova, General Secretary of the UN's Economic Commission for Europe - UNECE

The analysis of the UN's Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) started from a set of rather damning considerations. The fashion industry, whose global worth is estimated at $2.5 trillion, is the world's second highest water user; it generates 20% of all sewage water and 10% of carbon emissions. Also, according to UNECE, the industry is responsible for 24% of global insecticide use and 11% of pesticide spread, even though it only occupies 3% of the planet's arable land. In addition, 85% of used textile products end up in landfills, where 21 billion tonnes of fabrics are thrown away every year.

In terms of the working conditions of textile workers worldwide, the UN insisted on the urgent need to take action to improve them, also considering that consumers now buy 60% more clothes than they used to at the start of the 2000s. A phenomenon linked to the increase in numbers of the world's middle class, which will grow from 3 billion individuals in 2015 to 5.4 billion in 2030. Overall, the textile industry will consume three times more resources by 2050 than it did at the start of the century.

"It is clear that the fashion industry needs to step up a gear. It must become ecologically rational and support a social transformation leading to decent, healthy working conditions," said Olga Algayerova, General Secretary of UNECE, to the industry professionals, experts and NGO directors who attended the conference.

The event was also the occasion to highlight the actions undertaken by various UN organisations on the issues in question. "In January, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) brought together the fashion industry's stakeholders to discuss action on climate change, exploring the collaborative approach needed in order for the industry to contribute to the reduction of net emissions by 2050," said UNECE. 

This initiative is only one of many. From the work of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for the protection of arable land, to the Ethical Fashion Initiative set up by the International Trade Center, aiming to encourage major labels to work more closely with marginalised artisans, to the work of the UN Environment Programme, fostering sustainable manufacturing, and that of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) for the improvement of working conditions, an area in which the UN Human Rights Council is active too.

"Although there still isn't a global approach within the UN as a whole to address the complex sustainability challenges faced by the fashion industry, the actions and initiatives deployed by the [UN's] various organisations are increasingly far-reaching," said UNECE, at the end of a conference which undoubtedly underlined the huge number of issues confronting the fashion world.

Translated by Nicola Mira

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