Supplying sustainable fashion: traces of promises, but no accountabili…


The current policy landscape is not stringent enough to tackle the environmental impact of the fashion industry. The supply of unsustainable garments requires more regulation.

We know the environmental
impacts of unsustainable fashion

The latest news about the 2.5
trillion USD industry accounting for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions

might have been shocking, but they make sense. The long supply chains and
energy intensive production that go hand in hand with affordably priced
seasonal garments catalyse environmental problems globally. Most of the damage
is being caused during the production and processing phase, where the journey
from raw material to garment is a hazardous one.

The core of the issue is that we
cannot seem to escape these fabrics. Synthetic materials, sourced from fossil
fuel, account for more
than 60%
of all fibres used as of today. Such textiles are not just
non-biodegradable, they even release microplastics
into our oceans during the washing
, affecting the food chain,
thereby degrading not just the environment but human health, too. Cotton, a
natural, biodegradable fibre, is commonly seen as a sustainable option. On the
contrary, the farming and production of it relies
on the use of pesticides and extreme amounts of water
before the end
product is reached. And how about leather, the supply of which is underpinned
by the use of chemicals and bringing about excessive amounts of methane through
raising cattle? These wardrobe staples are all culprits when it comes to sustainable
fashion. As long as the same methods of production and use of fabrics persist for
the majority of the supplied garments, we should ensure that the industry’s
practices get more sustainable and hold suppliers accountable for heightening
unsustainable garments on the market.

How are these impacts
currently addressed?

On the merits of the fashion
industry’s forecasted increase of
emissions by 63% by 2030
and degrading impact on ecosystems and human
health, one would expect that progressively stricter rules have been adopted in
the recent years, to counter such negative effects. Yet, the current policies
leave great margin for industry players and do not equip for reforms that could
address the issue’s severity. While the G7’s
Fashion Pact
earlier this year may have come as a relief that action is
being taken, the brands’ commitments to mitigate and adapt to climate change,
restore biodiversity and protect the oceans are no obligations. Other
initiatives including the Fashion
Industry Charter for Climate Action
and the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion
aim to ensure sectoral engagement, but the policy outputs remain voluntary nonetheless.
On matters of due diligence and responsible supply chain management in the
fashion industry we also find a non-binding guideline
for enterprises
, compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and
Development and International Labour Organization, which emphasizes that
regarding this matter domestic legislation should ‘establish and enforce
adequate legal frameworks’.

If we further the discussion by looking
at how the biggest importer of
, the EU, regulates this industry, we find that Member States and foreign
exporters must follow rules on the use
of chemicals, product safety, packaging and packaging waste
. Such
fundamental environmental safeguards have been on the agenda of policy-makers
for years, but how about the more progressive notions? As the concept of
sustainability is evolving and encompassing more and more diverse factors, establishing
an up-to-date and harmonized legal framework seems rather appropriate. Instead,
however, we are presented with sporadic voluntary schemes that are perceived as
proofs of sustainable manufacturing practices. Certification schemes, such as the
Global Organic Textile Standard,
and EU
, are in place to testify textiles’ sustainable manufacturing,
while assessment tools, like the Higg
Index by Sustainable Apparel Coalition
, and labelling, by using e.g. EU
Ecolabel, can help characterise products as ‘sustainable apparel’.
Nevertheless, because none of these schemes’ use is prescribed by the current
policies, accountability is not part of the system yet.

Based on the foregoing, it is
evident that some major policy gaps need to be filled urgently, if we are to
tackle drastic environmental challenges like climate change. To fill those
gaps, standardisation alone might not be enough. Thus, one could suggest that introducing
a tax or limitation on the use of (new) synthetic fibres would be in line with
current efforts addressing plastic pollution, such as the EU’s
recent ban on a number of single-use plastic items
, considering that primary
sources of marine litter include microplastics. Also, incentivising more
sustainable farming and production through subsidies, like the EU
to boost sustainable farming in select countries, could promote
environmental sustainability and economic development, too. By strengthening
and making the current schemes mandatory, the sustainability goals of the
fashion industry could just be achieved in time.


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