What our overconsumption of clothing means for the living planet?


If we continue on this trajectory, there simply are not the resources to sustain the fashion industry.

We will destroy the planet and its biodiversity in a senseless race to buy more and more items of clothing that, the facts are telling us, we won’t actually wear.

Oil consumption used by the fashion and textile industry for resource consumption – according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – is estimated to triple from 98 million tonnes today to 300 million tonnes by 2050.

Nature is essential for human existence and a good quality of life, providing and sustaining the air, freshwater and soils on which we all depend.

It also regulates the climate, provides pollination and pest control and reduces the impact of natural hazards. While more food, energy and materials than ever before are being supplied to people in most parts of the world, the overexploitation of plants and animals is increasing.

The last 50 years our world has been transformed by an explosion in global trade, consumption and human population growth, as well as an enormous move towards urbanisation.

These underlying trends are driving the destruction and degradation of nature, with the world now overusing natural resources at an unprecedented rate.

Only a handful of countries retain most of the last remaining wilderness areas.

Recently, a series of catastrophic events – wildfires, locust plagues and the COVID-19 pandemic – have shaken the world’s environmental conscience, showing that biodiversity conservation should be a non-negotiable and strategic investment to preserve our health, wealth and security

We are the first generation to face the impacts of human-made global heating and the last generation with the opportunity to avert the climate crisis. What we choose to do in the next ten years will decide the future of life on this planet.

Limiting warming to 1.5˚C is still possible, but it requires revolutionary changes in all areas of life, especially in management of land, energy, industry, buildings, cities, and behaviours. Active commitment, collaboration and rapid action are now urgently needed from individuals, governments, industry, advocacy organisations, education institutions and the media, to radically cut the human ecological footprint before 2030. The fashion sector has a vital role to play as it is implicated in the current situation through its practices and its role in influencing culturally and socially accepted behaviours

Negative impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services from unsustainable business operations pose a number of risks to corporate performance.

Some of these risks include for example the following areas: 

  • Operational: increased scarcity and cost of raw materials such as freshwater; disruptions to business operations caused by natural hazards; and higher insurance costs for natural disasters. 

  • Market: customers switching to more sustainably sourced or certified products; and governments implementing new sustainable procurement policies. 

  • Regulatory: emergence of new government policies such as taxes and moratoria on extractive activities.

  • Reputational: damage to corporate reputation from media and NGO campaigns; shareholder resolutions; and changing consumer preferences. • Access to capital: restricted access as the financial community adopts more rigorous investment and lending policies. 

What can we do?

Against deforestation:

Forests are more than just a collection of trees and other plants—they are integrated ecosystems and home to some of the most diverse life on Earth. They are also major players in the carbon and water cycles that make life possible. When forests are lost or degraded, their destruction sets off a series of changes that affect life both locally and around the world.

Move to deforestation-free supply chains:

Ensure that major product lines using raw materials that are based on terrestrial ecosystems (such as cotton or plantation agroecosystems, or natural forest ecosystems), will only source from existing managed landscapes for agriculture or forestry activities. 

  • o Promote land restoration: For raw materials or commodities that have a potential impact on land use (for example cotton), join or develop land restoration initiatives at the landscape level (i.e. help bring back productivity to adjacent areas, thereby reducing the risk of natural habitat conversion for other land uses, including food production). 

  • o Substitute more hazardous chemicals with less hazardous ones: As evidence improves on impacts of industrial chemicals on human and environmental health, best practices, laws and international norms related to such chemical use, substitute more toxic substances with less toxic ones, and improve the targeting and precision of chemical use to minimize non-target impacts. 

  • o Sustainable water management: Across the value chain, commit to using and managing water resources sustainably. Advanced corporate strategies should aim to recognise, map and reduce water risks for wider multi-stakeholder benefits at river basin scale. This approach should underpin work on mitigating biodiversity risks (for example water quality), and encourage business to support better public sector policy development, regulatory mechanisms and monitoring.

  • o Contribute to sustainable livelihoods: Benefit local communities in your supply chains (particularly in developing countries) that are dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods by creating opportunities for sustainable natural resource management (for e.g. good agricultural practices, water stewardship) with the aim of transforming these supply chains for both community and conservation benefit. 

Integrate credible certification schemes in your supply chains.

Identify what would be the most suitable standard and certification systems, based on company’s areas of sourcing (e.g. are environmental regulations in place and effective in the sourcing countries) and operation and the company’s values. Eventually define ways to support relevant certification systems and/or national 20 or sub-national governments to improve their capacity to respond to sustainability, quality and market requirements (i.e. origin of the cotton).

Adopt the mitigation hierarchy. In developing a sustainability strategy for biodiversity, it is advisable to use the mitigation hierarchy as a framework for action.

This calls for three main steps:

  • Define what impacts can be avoided and address them first (for e.g. avoiding sourcing of wild species that are globally threatened) 

  • Define options for minimizing environmental impacts and maximizing conservation opportunities (e.g. purchasing organic or sustainably-certified cotton minimises the impact of intensive agrochemicals on local biodiversity in production regions; identifying areas near cotton plantation for restoration).

  •  Assess your residual impact (including the sourcing of raw materials) and consider compensation actions such as biodiversity offsets or other conservation actions (e.g. improving the management effectiveness of legally protected areas in managed landscapes where offsets are not possible because of the absence of natural areas with similar biodiversity to that being negatively impacted from residual effects). Develop, in collaboration with other end users, a Net Positive Impact strategy to offset the impacts at the landscape level (IUCN, 2015). 

Protect biodiversity

Identify sustainable value addition your company can contribute to.

In the assessment of negative impacts from supply chains, also consider the potential for positive impacts from certain activities (including on local livelihoods) such as sustainable wild species sourcing and sourcing from smallholder farmers as a means of supporting local livelihoods and employment. 

A Sustainable Use Policy Statement was also adopted at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in 2000

The strategy should include: 

1. Assessment of the species 

2. Identification of best practices for harvesting/colleting 

3. Develop a monitoring plan to assess practices and identify benefits 

4. Developing a trusted and cost-effective traceability system for sourcing species 

5. Determine credible claims that can be made in relation to the use of these species in its production lines.

Key to ensuring that wildlife trade does not threaten biodiversity is making sure that it does not exceed biologically sustainable levels, i.e. is unsustainable. 


Sustainable use is defined by the Convention on Biological 24 Diversity (CBD) as the ‘use of components of biological diversity in a way and at a rate that does not lead to the long-term decline of biological diversity, thereby maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of present and future generations’ (CBD 1993). 

An example would be where a species is lost in an area where it is the primary prey for a predator, so with the loss of the prey species can be the loss of the predator species.

Loss of species can also impact on other ecosystem services such as nutrient cycles, seed dispersal or pollination, as is the case with unsustainable harvest of species for bushmeat in Africa and Asia (e.g., Harrison et al. 2013), resulting in the erosion of ecosystem function. 

There are good examples from around the world where these conditions have enabled legal, sustainable trade which has been beneficial both to species and people’s livelihoods.

Examples include the sustainable harvest and trade of vicuña in South America, crocodiles in some African countries, and trophy hunting of Markhor in Pakistan, which have 25 resulted in increasing populations of these species in the wild and social, economic and development benefits to local communities who live with or close to these species. 

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ is the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status (threat of extinction) of animal, plant and fungi species and their links to human livelihoods. It provides information and analyses on the status, trends and threats to species in order to inform and catalyse action for biodiversity conservation. 

Some additional information on business engagement in CITES can be found in the World Economic Forum publication entitled “Green Light – Creating the Business Case for CITES: A New Finance Mechanism” which has a section on Traceability and Technology.

Also, in terms of traceability, the CITES Secretariat with leading business entrepreneurs launched a smartphone application in 2013 called ‘ASKING', which allows consumers to query the wildlife source their products are made from, with the intent of ensuring the sustainable use of species for food, medicine or fashion products. 


A key part of the solution is making good decisions from the forest floor to the sales floor. That's where WWF's Global Forest & Trade Network-North America (GFTN-NA) program comes into play. The program engages companies, trade associations, public procurement entities and institutions across North America that are committed to responsible production and sourcing of forest products. It is a network made up of a diverse group of people: forest managers, forest product producers, forest product buyers, and many more.


Humans have used forests for fuel for thousands of years, and 2.6 billion people today still use biomass—mainly wood and charcoal—for cooking. WWF works to promote bioenergy from scrap wood, oil and fats, sugar and starch crops, residues and wastes, and even algae to reduce reliance on forests and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. WWF’s vision is that by 2050, 100% of the world’s energy will come from sustainable, renewable sources, including bioenergy.


Effective policies help stop deforestation. That's why WWF helps countries, like Myanmar and Belize, assess the value of their natural resources and the services they provide, such as forests that absorb carbon and provide habitat for endangered wildlife. Decision makers use the assessments in a variety of ways, including promoting a green economy approach—one in which the sustainable use of natural capital is integrated into a country's new plans and policies for the economy, agriculture, energy, and more.

“There is no such thing as clean coal, and coal should have no place in any rational recovery plan. It is deeply concerning that new coal power plants are still being planned and financed, even though renewables offer three times more jobs, and are now cheaper than coal in most countries.




The world is facing a number of unprecedented and urgent environmental crises.

Rising temperatures will have a profound impact on the world’s water sources, including rising sea levels, higher risk of flooding and droughts, accelerating water scarcity, pollution, disruption of freshwater systems and more.

Water crises remains within the top five risks to society (ranked by severity of impact) according to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risks Report. 90% of the world’s natural disasters are water-related.

2 billion people live in countries exposed to high water stress – population growth, increased water demand, and climate change are likely to exacerbate this.

When we talk about water crises, we consider three key dimensions:

  • Water scarcity – the abundance, or lack thereof, of freshwater resources

  • Water stress – the ability, or lack thereof, to meet human and ecological demand for freshwater; compared to scarcity, “water stress” is a more inclusive and broader concept

  • Water risk – the possibility of an entity (community, country, company) experiencing a water-related challenge (e.g. water scarcity, water stress, flooding, infrastructure decay, drought)

Forests are more than just a collection of trees and other plants—they are integrated ecosystems and home to some of the most diverse life on Earth. They are also major players in the carbon and water cycles that make life possible. When forests are lost or degraded, their destruction sets off a series of changes that affect life both locally and around the world.

Water is a contextual issue, being both localised and impacting fashion businesses in different ways — through a company’s direct operations, supply chains and sometimes both. This makes water a highly complex and globalised problem and one that can have significant positive impacts if solved.

Do our clothes add to microplastic in the oceans?

When we wash our clothes, and they are swishing and swirling around in the washing machine, plastic microfibres can detach off our clothes and go into the wastewater. The wastewater then goes to the sewage treatment facilities. As the fibres are so small, a majority can pass through filtration processes and make their way into the marine environment. Up to 700,000 fibres can come off our clothes in a typical wash [1]. Now imagine that for how many times you wash your clothes in a year. Then multiply that for your street, town, city, country. It is a huge proportion of tin microplastic fibres potentially entering our oceans. Fibres can also come off our clothes even when they are not being washed.














We make over 300 million tons of plastic every year, and 8 million tons of that is predicted to go into our oceans. Due to the tiny size of microfibres, they 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, altered feeding behaviour and reduced energy levels, which impacts growth and reproduction. Due to this, the balance of whole ecosystems can be affected. Additionally, the polymers that make up the microfibres contain chemical additives such as plasticisers (a substance added to improve plasticity and flexibility of a material), flame retardants and antimicrobial agents (a chemical that kills or stops the growth of microorganisms like bacteria), which could leach out of the plastic and into the environment.

Good water management must include board-level oversight of water-related risks and thorough water risk mapping processes.

River basins are important water sources for textile and apparel suppliers and their surrounding communities. If one company happens to be polluting the water basin upstream, the downstream residents may end up drinking and bathing in polluted and unsafe water and other downstream suppliers who rely on that river basin may be negatively affected.

Fashion companies need to understand who else is using the same 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 that water source for their everyday needs. This is why fashion brands and retailers must effectively assess these risks and develop holistic water management strategies and systems, covering both direct operations and supply chains – through the supply chain is even more important, given that is where the majority of the risk lies for clothing brands.