The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015. The SDGs aim to address global poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, peace and justice. If brands and companies in the fashion industry work to adopt the SDGs, then the fashion industry can become a place that contributes to global equality, biodiversity, and overall well-being.
The SDGs are so important that the nonprofit Fashion Revolution even produced an online course about them titled “Fashion’s Future: The Sustainable Development Goals.” Of the 17 SDGs, the following are some that were highlighted in Fashion Revolution’s course, and that the fashion industry is inherently linked to.
The first of the SDGs aims to end poverty in all its forms, in all places around the world. There are currently more than 700 million people who live in poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic risks reversing decades of progress. The fashion industry has the potential to either contribute to global poverty or help alleviate it.
The majority of the world’s textile and garment workers live in developing economies where poverty endures for complex and systemic reasons. Research done by Deloitte Access Economics for Oxfam reveals that just 4% of the price of a piece of clothing is estimated to make it back to the workers who made it. If brands and companies made a simple vow to pay their garment workers fair wages, this could drastically help global poverty levels.
A living wage should be enough for workers to feed themselves and their families. It should also be enough for workers to live in adequate housing, to have enough money for education, and to have enough money for doctors visits and emergencies. The amount of money that equals a living wage will vary from country to country, and that number may differ from a country's minimum wage. If companies put in the time and research to find out what they should be paying their workers to help lift them out of poverty, then millions of garment workers would be in a much better place. Even if big brands passed the entire cost increase of paying living wages to their workers on to consumers by increasing the price consumers pay for an item, this would only increase the price of a piece of clothing by just 1%. Ensuring that workers in the fashion industry’s supply chain are paid appropriately is one small way the industry can help end poverty.
Gender equality is a fundamental human right that’s essential for a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world. Progress has been made toward gender equality over the decades, but there is still a long way to go. Equality means that men’s and women’s rights, responsibilities, and opportunities will not depend on whether they’re born male or female.
Between 60 and 75 million people work directly in the fashion and textiles industry, and around 70%-80% are women. Many of these women are subject to exploitation, verbal and physical abuse, unsafe conditions, and low pay. Despite the fashion industry’s reliance on women in their supply chains, most brands do very little to address gender inequality. It’s estimated that gender gaps cost the economy 15% of GDP.
Companies need to have higher standards for how they treat their employees, especially if they’re female. Investing in women and female workers, and making sure that women actually benefit from their jobs is key to achieving gender equality and will also help with poverty reduction.
More than 80% of wastewater resulting from human activities is discharged into rivers or sea without any pollution removal, and 3 out of every 10 people lack access to safely managed drinking water services. River basins are important water sources for textile and apparel suppliers and their surrounding communities, but if one company happens to be polluting water upstream, the downstream residents may end up drinking and bathing in polluted and unsafe water, and other downstream suppliers who rely on that water may be negatively affected as well.
Fashion companies need to understand who else is using their water supply, what forms of agriculture rely on that water supply, whether the water supply is located in a densely populated area, and what communities rely on the water supply for their everyday needs. Fashion brands and retailers must look at these risks and develop holistic water management systems to cover both direct operations and supply chains.
Companies should be setting targets for improvements in water management practices, monitoring progress, and disclosing the results of their efforts in consistent and comparable ways. This is the only way that fashion brands and retailers will do their part to improve water quality and protect water-related ecosystems.
Although greenhouse gas emissions are projected to drop about 6% in 2020 due to travel bans and economic slowdowns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, this improvement is only temporary. 2019 was the second warmest year on record and the end of the warmest decade ever recorded.
The fashion industry uses large amounts of fossil fuels and plants to produce raw materials for garments. Deforestation and the removal of natural grasslands for rubber and bamboo plantations, wood pulp for viscose fibre, and to make room for more farms for leather or wool production are all examples of how raw materials used in the fashion industry contribute to climate change.
Fashion companies can reduce the industry’s emissions dramatically by switching to renewable energy and improving energy efficiency across supply chains, especially in the areas with the highest impact: raw materials and fibre production (15% of carbon emissions), yarn preparation (28% of carbon emissions), and dyeing and finishing (36% of carbon emissions).
We make over 300 million tons of plastic every year, and 8 million tons of it is predicted to go into our oceans. Tiny microfibers can be ingested by marine animals, many of which end up as our food. Once ingested, they can cause gut blockage, physical injury, changes to oxygen levels in cells in the body, and altered feeding behavior and reduced energy levels, which can impact growth and reproduction.
Looking for solutions to microfiber waste can help the fashion industry reduce its negative contributions to water systems. Brushing, laser and ultrasound cutting, material coatings, and pre-washing fabrics are all examples of techniques that can be used on synthetic materials to reduce the release of microfibers over the course of a garment's life.
Research and innovations into improving the efficiency of capturing microfibers in wastewater treatment plants can also help prevent microfibers from entering the environment. Wastewater treatment plants are currently between 65%-90% efficient at filtering microfibers, with only the most advanced systems capturing 90%. Improving and developing commercial washing machine filters that can capture microfibers would allow for an additional level of filtration to prevent them from escaping into water systems.
The fashion industry relies heavily on biodiversity, mostly through the production and processing of different materials used to make clothes and create packaging. The fashion industry has a significant negative impact on biodiversity throughout its production processes, as well as during wear, care and disposal. A large portion of biodiversity loss occurs due to habitat change resulting from agriculture, and the fashion industry is projected to use 35% more land for fibre production by 2030.
The fashion industry has a key role to play in preventing biodiversity loss. Sourcing raw materials in a sustainable way can make a big difference. Many brands are beginning to realize that being sustainable is imperative for future growth and have begun sourcing materials from organic cotton farms, wool farms, or from companies that make materials like viscose in a sustainable way.
Realizing that the fashion industry is linked with the SDGs is the first step toward creating meaningful change. If individuals, brands, and companies within the fashion industry use the SDGs as guidelines to do and be better, then the industry can help the planet become a better place for everyone and everything on it.
Jessy Humann lives and writes out of Spokane, Washington. When she's not writing about sustainable fashion and why it's important, she loves to write poetry and do other types of creative writing. Her first children's book comes out next year. Connect with Jessy on LinkedIn.