Alexander McQueen famously found a muse in the natural world: “I have always loved the mechanics of nature," the British fashion designer remarked, “and to a greater or lesser extent my work is always informed by that."
He was not alone in finding inspiration in nature's patterns, as the pervasiveness of flowers, feathers and animal prints in current and past fashions shows. Yet mink fur coats and crocodile-skin handbags tell the darker side of this story. Our enchantment with certain textiles has led to animal cruelty and the overexploitation of several species, leading to population decline and even, in some cases, extinction. The high demand for raw materials like cotton, wool, silk, and leather has also led to irresponsible sourcing practices that alter entire ecosystems. And that's not to mention the climate impacts associated with the fashion industry.
Are we loving nature to death through our clothes? This blog post uncovers the sustainable solutions and initiatives that recognise the harms that have been embedded in fashion's relationship with nature and which are now transforming the fashion industry. Learn how leading fashion brands, governments, and individual consumers are putting the balance back in by adopting ethical, sustainable practices.
Many fashionable garments end up at landfill or in incinerators after being worn only a few times.
Our clothes contribute to climate change. According to a recent United Nations study, fashion is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions. The industry is heavily dependent on natural resources, contributes to a loss of biodiversity, and generates huge amounts of waste (with many clothes ending up at landfill or in incinerators after being worn only a handful of times). Water pollution and deforestation are also harmful side-effects, particularly as dyeing processes require high amounts of water and chemicals and are a major source of water system contamination.
Consumers, however, are increasingly aware of the damage done by their fashion choices and want to know more about the environmental and social impacts of their clothes. Brands, too, are recognising the urgency of taking steps to reduce their environmental footprint, assessing their impacts and dependencies under new, environmentally conscious frameworks, and implementing more sustainable fashion practices.
Interventions to reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry come in a variety of forms:
The dyeing of fabrics is a resource-intensive process that requires large amounts of water and chemicals, contributing to water pollution and environmental degradation.
In particular, there is growing recognition of the issues caused by dyeing, with some fashion brands adopting practices with a lower environmental impact, such as replacing synthetic dyes with natural dyes, made from plants, vegetables, and fruits, which are biodegradable and don't contain harmful chemicals.
Growing environmental concerns have also prompted leading fashion brands to collaborate on making fashion more sustainable. The Fashion Pact, comprising 60 major fashion brands, is an initiative launched in 2019 that aims to promote sustainability in the fashion industry, grouping action under three main goals: stopping global warming, restoring biodiversity, and protecting the oceans. The pact has already led to positive changes, with many brands committing to using sustainable materials, reducing waste and carbon emissions, and implementing sustainable production processes.
Better Cotton, launched in 2009, has also gained significant traction: over 2 million farmers are participating in the programme to make cotton farming more sustainable. Thanks to reductions in the use of pesticides and fertilizers, over 1 million tonnes of cotton have been produced sustainably.
The shift towards more sustainable and ethical fashion practices has also focused on the elimination of animal cruelty. Many brands are now using alternative materials such as faux fur to replace animal fur, and are implementing ethical sourcing practices for leather and wool.
While many designers and fashion brands are aware that they take their inspiration from nature, they may be less aware of the importance of biodiverse ecosystems, and even less aware of their own impacts on biodiversity. Many companies also haven't taken the time to consider the risks that their business may be exposed to from ecosystem changes, which in some cases take place far away from their design studios or production facilities.
For example, the demand for crocodile and python skin has led to a decline in their populations in some parts of the world. This can have a substantial influence on the ecosystems in which these animals live. Crocodiles and pythons are the top predators in their respective environments, and their disappearance can disrupt local food chains, leading to an overpopulation of particular species, which in turn results in competition for resources and can even lead to population collapse. Crocodiles also contribute significantly to the health of wetland ecosystems by managing the populations of prey species and by building homes for other organisms, and their absence can affect an ecosystem's entire equilibrium.
As just one example, as crocodile and python populations continue to dwindle, it may become more challenging for the fashion industry to get materials from these animals in a sustainable manner. This may result in additional regulation to protect at-risk species, and increasing costs for industry as these materials become less accessible to fashion designers and customers.
Governments have an important role to play in promoting sustainable and ethical fashion practices via policy and regulation. Yet the power of individual consumers should also not be underestimated. By choosing to support brands that embed sustainable and ethical practices within their production processes, avoiding purchasing clothing made from animal products, and promoting awareness of animal welfare issues, consumers can make a big difference to fashion's relationship with nature… and fashion labels that want to remain competitive must stay in tune with evolving consumer demands.
For brands that may not know where to start, Fashion for Good is an organisation that is doing phenomenal work promoting sustainability in the fashion industry. Its Accelerator Programme stands out as a forward-thinking model within the sector that supports innovative start-ups working towards sustainable fashion practices, such as through the Good Fashion Fund, which provides funding to companies committed to sustainable and ethical fashion practices. Fashion for Good has also collaborated with brands, NGOs, and industry professionals to promote sustainable fashion practices and to reduce the industry's impact on the environment.
The relationship between nature, biodiversity, and the fashion industry is complex, but it doesn't have to be toxic.
As consumers, we have the power to make a difference by choosing sustainable fashion brands, increasing awareness of the fashion industry's impact, and embedding concern for nature within our buying choices.
For companies, the relationship between fashion and nature is a significant factor in the industry's success, and it is clear that most industry players recognize the importance of sustainable practices. By using natural materials responsibly and implementing sustainable processes, the fashion industry can continue to work to maintain this important relationship while minimizing its impact on the environment.
Companies can also take an active role in determining their impacts on biodiversity, identifying the risks they face from less biodiverse ecosystems, and changing their processes with this in mind. Through a four-step process, companies can assess their impacts and dependencies related to biodiversity, create a strategy that defines their ambition and a roadmap to get there, transform their practices for the better, and compensate for their ongoing impacts by investing in the integrity of ecosystems in the company's value chain.
The fashion industry can continue benefiting from nature, but only by creating, recognising, and embedding an inherent value for nature within the industry.
South Pole, as a leader in biodiversity solutions, is working together with the fashion industry towards a more sustainable and ethical future. Our staff can assist you in measuring and understanding your impacts and dependencies on nature and can provide you with the necessary tools and methods to make biodiversity an opportunity for growth and success for business.