Biodiversity is broadly defined as the variety of all life forms on earth. Biodiversity matters. We rely on it for food and energy, and we depend on its irreplaceable role in sustaining air quality, providing fresh water and soil, and regulating climate. And yet biodiversity is declining at a faster rate than ever before in human history. One million species, between 12-20% of estimated total species, marine and terrestrial alike, are under threat of extinction.
The apparel industry is a significant contributor to biodiversity loss.
Apparel supply chains are directly linked to soil degradation, conversion of natural ecosystems, and waterway pollution.
Large areas of forest land are cleared away to grow viscose for the fashion industry. Viscose, a semi synthetic fiber, is made from the cellulose of trees and often comes from endangered forests around the world that are under threat from deforestation. Forests make up 31% of the land on earth and produce vital oxygen and habitat for plants and animals. Forests help mitigate climate change because they soak up carbon dioxide that adds to continuous changes in climate patterns. The clearing of these forests creates a grave loss of ecosystems and species. This demand for land use in the industry is increasing.
Land use is also compromised in places like Mongolia where their fertile land is degraded due to overgrazing of their goats for cashmere production. The demand for Mongolian cashmere has led to soil erosion creating huge dust storms.
It takes four goats to produce enough fiber for a single cashmere sweater.
This luxury cashmere yarn has seen an increase in the number of goats in the herds leading to negative environmental impacts, including the decrease of other natural wildlife. These nomadic Mongolian herders have seen their livelihood radically changed. The demand has also led to cheaper cashmere qualities and the farming of these goats which leads to questionable shearing practices. This cheap cashmere is lower quality and an unsustainable resource.
The impacts of raw materials on nature will only increase as global demand for clothing increases. The fashion industry is projected to use 35% more land for fiber production by 2030 – an extra 284 million acres that could be left to preserve biodiversity.
While the full extent of fashion’s pollution impact is unknown, estimates have previously suggested that 20% of global freshwater pollution comes from the wet processing of the textile industry. Wet processing includes the scouring, bleaching, dyeing, printing and finishing of raw textiles which are water and chemical intensive processes.
Globally, patterns of overproduction and consumption are indirect drivers of biodiversity loss as they underlie land-use change and habitat loss, the overexploitation of natural resources, pollution and climate change which are the drivers of biodiversity loss. We need to rethink current clothing consumption models and buy less, buy better, wear our clothes longer and figure out how to successfully recycle them in a circular manner.
In terms of fashion’s impact on land, we need to be looking at regenerative agriculture which aims to rehabilitate and enhance the natural ecosystems. Currently, farmers producing fibers used by Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, Burberry and Kering Group (who owns Gucci, Saint Laurent and other major brands) are beginning to use regenerative farming methods in order to improve biodiversity and capture carbon, helping to lower CO2 levels. This method is now being used to produce raw materials used for fashion such as hemp, flax, bamboo and cotton and to raise cattle, goats and sheep.
Biodiversity along with conservation and restoration of nature should be taken into account for the fashion industry to move forward.
‘KISS THE GROUND’ documentary focuses on ways to bring fertile land back to where it should be.
There are designers who are leading the way in sustainable design. Stella McCartney only uses viscose from sustainably certified forests in Sweden. She also uses regenerated cashmere that is made in Italy from post-consumer waste and has a 92% reduction in environmental impacts compared to virgin cashmere.
Just doing laundry differently—specifically, in the following three ways—can make a big impact on the environment:
- Washing in cold water. Laundering synthetic garments releases microplastics into the water system. By changing the water temperature setting, it could reduce microfiber shedding by 57%.
- Filtering microfibers. Consumers can retrofit microfiber filters into their washing machines to prevent microfibers from entering waterways. There are also fiber-collection bags, which are specialized laundry bags, that can catch 90-99% of microfibers before they enter the water system. OUTERKNOWN sells a ‘guppyfriend bag’ on their website to help consumers capture these microfibers when washing their clothes to prevent them from ending up in our oceans.
- Using water-efficient washing machines. Consumers can also pay attention to water efficiency when purchasing a washing machine.
Another way, consumers can have a disproportionately positive impact on biodiversity is to get more use out of clothes they already own. Using a piece of clothing nine months longer can reduce its associated CO2 emissions by 27%, its water use by 33%, and its waste by 22%.
In addition, consumers can reduce waste through garment repair, recycling, and resale. Prominent campaigns by retailers like H&M, which accepts any brand’s clothing for recycling, are gaining traction. Brands have extraordinary influence to market such initiatives, ensure they have consumer appeal, and shift consumer mindsets and behaviors. But does this really make an impact on the environment, or is this just ‘greenwashing’? I will get more into this in a later blog post.
Besides helping drive consumer awareness, brands can incentivize behavioral change—for example, by offering small vouchers in exchange for used clothing. The industry can further push by providing viable business models for repair and reuse like PATAGONIA did in 2019, when its Worn Wear Program repaired more than 40,000 pieces of clothing.
What can you do to make a difference?
“Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” ~ Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Xoxo Chara, A Sustainable Love 💚