By guest author Rachel Cernansky from Vogue Business
In part one of a two-part series, contributing sustainability editor Rachel Cernansky outlines the ways clothing production is contributing to biodiversity loss. Next week’s instalment will spotlight the solutions.
- Fashion is not only increasing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere — it is also contributing to a rapid decline in biodiversity, the other environmental crisis facing the planet.
- The earth has lost an estimated 60 % of vertebrate animal populations since 1970, and less than 20 % of the world’s ancient forests remain large enough to maintain the biological diversity that’s there.
- Leather and viscose are among the worst culprits, leading to deforestation in critical ecosystems including the Amazon.
Nature is declining at unprecedented rates, scientists concluded this year. Although it’s the result of many contributing and complex factors, fashion might be one of the most overlooked.
A huge percentage of clothing starts out on a farm or in a forest. Its production has caused not just an uptick in carbon emissions, contributing to climate change, but also a decline in biodiversity — the other environmental crisis facing the planet and the focus of an alarming report the UN issued earlier this year.
“If no action is taken, fashion brands will find themselves likely squeezed between falling average per-item prices, deeper discount levels, rising costs and resource scarcity along the value chain,” the Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group wrote in a joint 2017 report evaluating the industry’s impacts on the environment, including biodiversity.
Leather and viscose — which is often touted as an eco-friendly fibre — are among the most damaging materials, contributing to deforestation in precious ecosystems including the Amazon. About 80 per cent of land-based biodiversity depends on forests, and once a forest is cleared, gone with it are the plants and animals that called it home. Cotton, too, has damaged natural habitats by replacing indigenous vegetation, while intensive use of pesticides has caused pollinator populations and biodiversity in the soil to plummet. Wool and cashmere are likewise driving habitat loss and soil degradation at breakneck speed.
An urgent crisis
Impacts vary by category, but by far the biggest is habitat loss, which is pushing species “to the brink of extinction”, says Nicole Rycroft, founder and executive director of US environmental organisation Canopy. Across the planet, populations of vertebrate animals have plummeted by about 60 per cent since 1970 — and less than 20 % of the world’s ancient forests remain large enough to maintain the biological diversity that’s there.
In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature highlighted an “urgent need” for the apparel sector to take action on its role in biodiversity loss. The industry didn’t quite jump into gear, but this year biodiversity did feature as one of the three main pillars in The Fashion Pact, the set of sustainability objectives released at the G7 Summit in August with signatories including Zara parent company Inditex, H&M Group, Kering and Chanel.
The first step brands take as part of their biodiversity commitment is to measure their impacts on key species and ecosystems.
The results can be surprising. Kering, for example, learned when it compiled its Environmental Profit & Loss statement that even though its brands do not buy very much cashmere relative to other materials, it had an outsize environmental impact and was degrading ecosystems. (It has since changed its sourcing strategy — more from Kering in our next instalment.)
Cotton is the most common natural material used in clothing, making up a third of all textile fibres. It uses 2.4 per cent of the world’s crop land, but a full 16 per cent of the world’s insecticides, according to Pesticide Action Network. “When you spray everything with chemicals, you destroy all the life,” says Helen Crowley, who heads sustainable sourcing at Kering. (She is currently on sabbatical and serving temporarily as senior advisor for resilient supply chains at Conservation International.)
The impacts of this intensive agriculture are not unique to fashion — much of the world’s food is grown in a similar manner, with similar impacts. While parts of the food industry have begun to shift practices in response to public pressure, it’s not fast enough for conservationists, who would like to see drastic changes across the board, including on farms that supply fast-fashion brands, luxury houses and everything in-between.
“The fact that there is biodiversity — or used to be biodiversity, even worse — on farms is really invisible,” says Julie Stein, executive director of Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network. Especially on farms that are part of global supply chains and grow only one crop on a large scale — a system known as monoculture — the wildlife is already gone. “And then our cultural memory that there used to be wildlife on farms is also gone, and it becomes the new normal that wildlife isn’t part of that equation.”
Evolved farming practices can help
Because of how much of the world’s land is used for farming, this has profound impacts — but there is also profound opportunity. Wildlife often lives in protected areas, but it doesn’t, and can’t, exist there exclusively. “Agricultural lands are the last frontier for wildlife,” says Stein. “Species need to be able to move out of their little protected island at some point, especially with climate change and all the threats that brings to wildlife. They may have to migrate for mates, for food, for shelter.”
Her organisation works with farmers to make their lands accommodating for wildlife — with a particular emphasis on large predators because of their importance not only in the food chain, but in the ripple effects that chain has on things like water quality and carbon storage in soil. “If you don’t have apex carnivores in the system, everything from the top down is affected, down to the microbes in the soil,” she says.
Soil has come under its own spotlight. It is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet — with microscopic life most people will never see, yet is directly linked with the diversity of life above ground. But, it is under threat: scientists have said if current practices persist, the world’s topsoil can only support another 60 crop harvests. “We’ve just been hammering the soil. But soil, it’s like the skin on our earth. It’s a living thing,” says Crowley.
Unsustainable agriculture and deforestation are culprits, but so is overgrazing by animals. A majority of Mongolia’s grasslands, for example, have been degraded and are slowly turning into a desert. Overgrazing of livestock — cashmere goats in particular — is responsible for more than three-quarters of the decline, which is intricately linked with soil erosion.
But it is not just about grass and soil: those changes threaten the range of wildlife that inhabit the area, many of them already rare or endangered, including snow leopards, ibex, golden eagles and boreal owls. Elsewhere, overgrazing for wool and other fibres can shift the vegetation balance — increasing grass-like plants and decreasing woody shrubs and trees, while also eroding soil.
Plant-based fibres can have negative impacts, too
Viscose and other cellulose-based fibres are directly driving deforestation in the Amazon, Indonesia, North America and elsewhere. More than 150 million trees are logged for these fibres annually and use of the raw material has been climbing quickly, according to Canopy. It’s especially troublesome, says Rycroft, because viscose is a “very inefficient fibre”. It takes up to 4.5 tons of trees to make one ton of viscose. “In a resource-constrained world, I just don’t think we can afford that level of inefficiency.”
A growing number of brands have sought more sustainable sources of viscose, but it’s not always an easy switch. Stella McCartney, a partner of CanopyStyle, cancelled a purchase of viscose after learning the supplier did not adhere to the standards of not sourcing from ancient or endangered forests, according to Rycroft. (Stella McCartney declined to comment.)
Leather and fur are escalating the damage
Leather is one of the most profitable products of the livestock industry, which is a major cause of deforestation and uses about 80 % of agricultural lands globally. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has said the livestock industry is also likely the largest source of apparel-related water pollution, causing “dead” zones in coastal areas and degradation of coral reefs, among other environmental and human health problems.
While a small percentage of sourcing, wild animals killed for their skins and furs are direct hits to ecosystems. Removing predators such as large cats can not only threaten that species, but shifts the relationships between all the animals below it on the food chain. Trappers also catch unintended animals, which then has its own unpredictable ecosystem impacts.
Then there is the issue of packaging. Regardless of what clothes are made of, the packaging they are shipped in is another driver of deforestation, and something the industry needs to reckon with.
On the whole, there has been some movement.
LaRhea Pepper, managing director of Textile Exchange, says more than 60 brands that her organisation partners with have committed to finding more sustainable solutions for 100 per cent of their cotton by 2025. While that is significant, it remains a drop in the ocean. “It’s about getting to critical mass, getting to 100 % of brands having fully responsible solutions across the board.”
Part two of this series will look at how brands can start doing that, and which ones are already on their way.