Scientists around the world are extremely worried about the changes in ecosystem equilibrium. In fact, it was the second goal of COP26 after climate change. In Fashion, there is a lot of talk about carbon emissions, and how supply chains can reduce the amount of CO2 that is emitted to the atmosphere, but today we would like to discuss how.
All life on earth, including Humans, highly depends on the health of ecosystems. But what exactly is an ecosystem, and why is it so important?
An ecosystem is an area where plants, animals, and other organisms, as well as weather and landscape, work together to form a bubble of life. Every single one of these components is linked together with the others through nutrient cycles and energy flows.
Nature has developed a magical system where elements coexist and thrive, without one specie taking over. However, a small change in the temperature of an ecosystem or the acidity of the water will affect what plants will grow there, which affects what animals can eat, and starts a chain of changes.
The way the Fashion industry is designed affects ecosystems in a wide range of ways. First of all, all contributions to climate change affect biodiversity. Climate change affects air and water temperatures, and increases the chance of extreme weather events, such as droughts, fires, and floods, that destroy ecosystems. Our series on CO2, which started with our thoughts on COP26, covers all things related to climate change.
However, there are a lot more ways in which Fashion affects biodiversity directly, and slows down the progress toward SDGs 14 (Life below water) and 15 (Life on Land).
The Riverblue movie shed light over the scary amounts of contamination caused by the denim industry. Chemicals are used for dyeing and washing yarns and finished clothes, which is done with the use of water. Not all chemicals end up on the garments, and then get washed up in waterways.
There are horror stories of rivers that are so polluted that they completely change colour, such as the East River in Xintang, China and the Caledon (Mahokare) River in Lesotho, South Africa.
A recent report published by Water Witness International’s (WWI) explains that trade agreements, tax incentives, targeted aid programmes, and the cheapest labour costs on earth have contributed to the rapid growth of garment manufacturing across Africa, causing extreme levels of water pollution. Researchers found water that had a pH level the same as household bleach, as well as high levels of carcinogenic chemicals. In other areas, water was visibly polluted with blue dye from denim production.
Effluent from Maseru's garment factories - in particular dyes for jeans - flow into
the Caledon (Mahokare) River in Lesotho, South Africa (Robin Hammond/Panos)
The global water system is connected. When something enters water, it then enters the food system, and starts affecting human health directly.
There are many solutions to avoid water pollution in the creation of clothes, such as using natural dyes, or waterless technologies such as laser or printing. Global accelerator Fashion For Good launched D(R)YE Factory of the Future, a consortium project that aims to accelerate the shift from wet to mostly dry textile processing, which would ensure that no chemicals end up in waterways.
LOGGING (SDG 14)
Logging, which is a direct destruction of an ecosystem, the Fashion industry contributes to deforestation mainly to produce two types of materials: man-made cellulosic fibres, and leather.
Man-made cellulosic fibres (MMCFs) include viscose, lyocell, modal, and acetate. Around 98% are made from wood (usually eucalyptus), 1% is from bamboo, and less than 1% is from waste. There have been great developments in technology to turn various types of bio-waste into fibres, and Evrnu, Renewcell, Infinited Fiber and Orange Fiber are some of the companies working on this. However, the volume is set to grow from 6 to 10 million tonnes within 15 years, with recycled fibres likely to reach only a fraction of this volume. Managing forests properly and ensuring that wood is allowed the time to grow back (covered by FSC and PEFC certifications) is extremely important, but a forest managed by humans, inhabited by one type of tree mainly, doesn’t allow ecosystems to fully recover.
Stand.earth, a supply chain research firm, released a report last year that focused on the effects of leather trading on deforestation. The cattle industry is the single largest driver of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and of tropical forests globally, mostly because the forest is destroyed to grow feed for the cattle. In Brazil, leather is a valuable commodity that drives deforestation, just like beef, and 6.7 million hectares (16.5 million acres) of forests were lost in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest biome over the last decade. There are solutions for sustainable farming, based on regenerative practices, however, the volumes of leather used have to decrease to stop deforestation. Brands need to put a lot of effort into increasing traceability of their raw materials, because at the moment it is extremely rare that they know where the cattle was farmed.
Pesticides, insecticides, nutrients, genetically modified seeds, you name it. Agriculture has always affected biodiversity, but different techniques do this to a lower extent. We have covered cotton farming widely lately (read about how to reduce impact here) and have been admiring Fibershed's project trying to reduce biodiversity impact at the first stages of the supply chain.
Every time a garment which contains plastic content (such as polyester, acrylic, nylon or elastane) is washed, microplastics are released in the water.
Since plastic never breaks down — it only breaks up into smaller pieces — plastic never goes away, and has been found in our bodies.
Head over to the Use and Care section in supply chain 101 where we share our tips on how to care for your clothes in the most sustainable way.
With around 1 million animal and plant species now threatened with extinction, more than ever before in human history, the Fashion industry really needs to step up its efforts, and consumers need to buy less and better.
Humans need to understand that without ecosystems there is no trade, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide. Without healthy ecosystems there is no fashion.
Key areas in which fashion impacts biodiversity (Mckinsey&Company, 2020)