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Apparel sector is significant contributor to biodiversity loss

By Hannah Abdulla 27 Jul 2020

A new report has suggested that not enough is being done to counter the impact of the apparel sector on biodiversity loss.

Apparel sector is significant contributor to biodiversity loss

A new report has suggested that not enough is being done to counter the impact of the apparel sector on biodiversity loss.

Biodiversity is declining at a faster rate than ever before in human history, according to McKinsey & Company’s latest report, ‘Biodiversity: The next frontier in sustainable fashion’ .

One million species, between 12% and 20% of estimated total species, marine and terrestrial alike, are under threat of extinction, it says adding 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.

The report examines the apparel industry’s largest contributors to biodiversity loss, how companies can strategically mitigate that loss, and what brands can do to boldly lead the industry’s biodiversity efforts.

Based on the analysis, it identifies five of the largest contributors to biodiversity loss in the apparel sector. They are presented according to the fashion value chain, not by magnitude of impact:

  • Cotton agriculture. Cotton is the most used nonsynthetic fibre in the world. Farming it is especially insecticide and pesticide-intensive: although cotton grows on only 2.4% of global cropland, it accounts for 22.5% of the world’s insecticide use-more than any other single crop-and 10% of all pesticide use. Cotton is also a water-intensive crop; some estimates suggest that 713 gallons (2,700 litres) of water are needed to produce one T-shirt.
  • Wood-based natural fibers/man-made cellulose fibers (MMCFs). MMCFs are created from cellulose, mainly derived from wood. According to estimates, more than 150m trees are logged annually for MMCFs. While the majority of MMCFs come from tree plantations that are certified and sustainable, up to 30% of MMCFs may come from endangered and primary forests. Furthermore, water and soil pollution from chemicals used in plantation forests and during pulp processing drive habitat loss and endanger species, unless the process is 100% closed loop.
  • Textile dyeing and treatment. Approximately 25% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment. These processes overexploit freshwater resources and contaminate waterways through chemical runoff and nonbiodegradable liquid waste. Of the 1,900 chemicals used in clothing production, the European Union classifies 165 as hazardous to the health or the environment.
  • Microplastics. An average of 700,000 fibres is released in a standard laundry load, and half a million tons of microfibres (which are a type of microplastic) end up in oceans every year. An estimated 35% of primary microplastics in the world’s oceans originate from the washing of synthetic textiles. Toxic chemicals in synthetic microfibers poison marine wildlife.
  • Waste. Only 12% of textile waste is downcycled (broken down into its component materials), and less than 1% is closed loop recycled. Nearly three-fourths-73% -of textile waste is incinerated or ends up in landfills, which release pollutants into their surroundings and contribute to habitat loss. Anywhere from 30 to 300 species per hectare may be lost during the development of just one landfill site.

“These are sobering statistics. For the apparel sector to slow broader global biodiversity loss, a radical shift from business, as usual, will be necessary,” say the report’s authors, Anna Granskog, Franck Laizet, Miriam Lobis and Corinne Sawers.

Intervention areas

The way to address the problem depends on prioritising four objectives, including saling up innovative materials and processes.

Regardless of the material, making it more sustainably could dramatically improve the situation. This could involve organic cultivation, turning to recycled fibres or using sustainably sourced natural fibres.

Report authors also calls for investment into textile innovation.

“Recycled fibres not only repurpose waste but also have a lower biodiversity footprint than virgin fibres.

“Scaling up the commercial availability of these innovative fibres will require investment. Economies of scale should help reduce price points, but these newer materials are likely to remain expensive, used only by sustainability-minded designers. As for recycled fibres, scaling will depend on whether they can be made more robust and less prone to shedding so that they don’t contribute to microplastic pollution, and on whether recycling blend textiles becomes viable.”

Other suggestions include taking an “aggressive stance” against waterway pollution which can later lead to brands and suppliers pursuing more high-tech options to reduce nonbiodegradable waste. These include moving from wet processing to waterless dyeing and advanced wastewater treatment technologies and greener chemicals.

Meanwhile, the report states consumers also need to be educated and empowered on areas including washing in cold water, filtering microfibres and using water-efficient washing machines, as well as getting more use out of clothing they already own and utilising garment repair, recycling and resale options.

“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%,” authors say.

Lastly, the report calls for the relentless pursual of zero waste.

“One of the most powerful changes the apparel sector can make in the interest of biodiversity is to simply stop making too many clothes. Average overproduction is estimated around 20%. Manufacturers recycle roughly 75% of preconsumer textile waste. But the remaining 25% primarily ends up in landfills or is incinerated—without ever having been worn, though some of it may be donated.”

In addition, some general steps that apparel companies can take include factoring biodiversity into financial reporting, collaborating with other brands to define joint standards for suppliers, investing in the broader ecosystem to accelerate and scale innovation and engaging with policymakers and welcoming regulations.

Biodiversity was also highlighted in the January edition of Global Fashion Agenda’s (GFA) 2020 CEO Agenda

The industry’s increasing demand and utilisation of energy, land, water and natural resources results in a loss of ecosystems and species as well as microfibre pollution, it says. As a result, biodiversity and the conservation and restoration of nature require urgent consideration.