The apparel industry is continuously fighting against climate change, working on various initiatives to become carbon neutral. But, anyhow its impact on Biodiversity which refers to the variety of life on Earth at all its levels, from genes to ecosystems, and evolutionary, ecological, and cultural processes that sustain life is overlooked.
Though Biodiversity is a distinct issue, it is related to climate change. Biodiversity loss and climate change are interdependent and mutually reinforcing, one accelerates the other, and vice versa. For example, protecting forests could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, the rise of global temperatures increases the risk of species extinction on the earth.
Measuring the impact on biodiversity requires multiple metrics and indicators so as for measuring the progress of actions. Setting targets and accountability for such multiple metrics and indicators is much more challenging compared to a single metric of greenhouse emissions.
A McKinsey study has found that the apparel industry’s negative impact on biodiversity comes from mainly three stages in the value chain. These are,
- raw-material production
- material preparation and processing
- and end of the life
The study also identified the following five largest contributors to biodiversity loss related to the apparel value chain.
Cotton is the most used non-synthetic fiber in the world. Farming of it is especially insecticide and pesticide-intensive: although cotton grows on only 2.4 percent of global cropland, it accounts for 22.5 percent of the world’s insecticide use—more than any other single crop—and 10 percent of all pesticide use.
Cotton is also a water-intensive crop; some estimates suggest that 713 gallons (2,700 liters) 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 estimations, more than 150 million trees are logged annually for MMCFs. While the majority of MMCFs come from tree plantations that are certified and sustainable, up to 30 percent 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 endangered species, unless the process is 100 percent closed loop.
Textile dyeing and treatment:
Approximately 25 percent 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.
An average of 700,000 fibers are released in a standard laundry load, and half a million tons of microfibers (which are a type of microplastic) end up in oceans every year. An estimated 35 percent of primary microplastics in the world’s oceans originate from the washing of synthetic textiles. Toxic chemicals in synthetic microfibers poison marine wildlife.
Only 12 percent of textile waste is downcycled (broken down into its component materials), and less than one percent is closed-loop recycled. Nearly three-fourths or73 percent of the textile wastes 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.
Figure 1 Negative impact of the fashion industry on biodiversity
Eventually, the apparel supply chains are directly linked to soil degradation, conversion of natural ecosystems, and waterway pollution. These findings are enough for the apparel sector to slowdown broader global biodiversity loss, and a radical shift from businesses, as usual, will be necessary.
The study suggests four intervention areas to slowdown the apparel sector’s impact on biodiversity loss. As the apparel companies have started to pay attention to this issue, and have the power to truly move the needle.
Scale-up innovative materials and processes:
There is no perfect material. As discussed, each of the most commonly used materials in the apparel industry, cotton, MMCFs, and synthetics hurts biodiversity. But each of these can be made more sustainable. Furthermore, better alternatives do exist and could dramatically improve with more investment and innovation.
Take an aggressive stance against waterway pollution
In the absence of effective regulation, waterway pollution from textile dyeing and processing requires a tougher stance from apparel brands.
Because many suppliers in developing countries lack the resources and knowledge to monitor and track the chemicals they use, brands need to step up and engage with suppliers through education, targeted investment, and stricter accountability to establish basic certification standards at scale. At the very minimum, suppliers should comply with Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals, Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (ZDHC MRSL), and Wastewater Guidelines, which regulate the use of hazardous chemicals and wastewater discharge.
Lead the way in education and empowering consumers
Brands can help further educate consumers about what they can do to minimize the impact of their actions on biodiversity loss. Simple behavioral adjustments and consumption choices can have substantive results. For example, just doing laundry differently specifically, in the following three ways can make a big impact.
- Washing clothes in cold water
- Filtering microfibers during washing
- Using water-efficient or waterless washing machines
Another way consumers can have a disproportionately positive impact on biodiversity is to get more use out of clothes they already own. Consumers can reduce waste through garment repair, recycling, and resale.
Relentlessly pursue 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 at around 20 percent. Manufacturers recycle roughly 75 percent of pre-consumer textile waste. But the remaining 25 percent primarily ends up in landfills or is incinerated without ever having been worn, though some of it may be donated.