Diversifying Approaches to Biodiversity

By: Rachel Doretsky  |  November 1, 2020

By Rachel Doretsky, Staff Writer 

Biodiversity loss is a concern among consumers and is gaining more traction during COVID-19. To put it simply, biodiversity is the variety of all life forms here on earth. It provides us with food, energy, breathable air, fresh water, soil, and climate regulation. After considering all this, it’s shocking that biodiversity is declining at a faster rate than ever before in human history. One million species, about 20% of estimated total species, face the threat of extinction. The fashion industry is a large contributor to the growth of this problem. Supply chains are directly correlated with soil degradation, conversion of natural ecosystems, and waterway pollution. This article will discuss the fashion industry’s major contributors to biodiversity loss, how brands can strategically minimize that loss, and what companies can do to spearhead the industry’s biodiversity efforts.

Almost all of the negative impacts come from three stages in the value chain: raw-material production, the actual garment manufacturing, and disposal of items. The five most notable contributors within these stages of the value chain are: cotton cultivation, wood-based natural fibers/man-made cellulose fibers (MMCFs), fabric dyeing and treatment, microplastics, and waste. Cotton is both the most commonly used and  most desired fabric globally. Growing cotton uses more pesticides and insecticides than any other crop, as well as a colossal amount of water, approximately using 713 gallons of water to make one T-shirt. Over 150 million trees are cut down per year in order to produce MMFCs and 30% may be sourced from endangered forests. In addition to tree logging, MMCFs contribute to water and soil pollution due to the chemicals used in these processes and lead to habitat loss and further endangering species. In terms of fabric dyeing and treatment, this part of the value chain contributes to about 25% of industrial water pollution. Of the 1,900 chemicals used to do so, 165 are classified by the European Union as hazardous to the health or the environment. Also, half a million tons of microplastics, plastic pieces less than five millimeters long end up in oceans annually. About 35% of the main microplastics in the world’s oceans stem from the washing of synthetic fabrics. If companies were to change the textiles used to make clothing this number would decrease dramatically. In terms of garment disposal, only 12% is recycled. Almost 73% of textile waste is burned and then sent to a landfill which contributes to habitat loss (between 30 and 300 species can be lost due to the development of one landfill). 

Fortunately, there are ways to solve these problems. The first way is for companies to more widely use innovative processes and materials. For example, implementing less harmful agricultural techniques to produce cotton, MMCFs, and synthetic materials as well as investing in textile innovation will help to reduce biodiversity loss. Of course, textile innovation is expensive, but with economies of scale and a real desire to become more socially responsible, it can be done. 

Second, water pollution is rampant. The dyeing of fabrics is a large contributor. In many developing countries, they don’t have the resources to track the chemicals they use or ways to measure the damage they’re causing. In leading countries, enough regulations aren’t put into place; there are technologies that can be used to fix this problem, such as Netherlands-based DyeCoo’s waterless dyeing technology. It saves 32 million liters of water and 160 tons of processing chemicals a year. While this is a well established and proven solution, it’s pain point is its price. Governments and suppliers need to work with brands to finance and invest in innovative solutions that will decrease water pollution in a sustainable way. 

Third, consumer education and empowerment can have a large positive impact. A few ways consumers can take part in the movement to decrease biodiversity loss are: washing clothes in cold water, filtering microfibers, using water efficient washing machines, and garment recycling, resale, and repurposing. Consumers can actually have a very large impact on this matter. To put it in perspective, using a piece of clothing for nine extra months can reduce its associated CO2 emissions by 27%, its water use by 33%, and its waste by 22%. According to Forbes, businesses such as H&M Conscious, Patagonia, Everlane, Rothy’s, Levi’s, and more are fashion brands leading the way in sustainability. 

The fourth way, and arguably the most powerful way, is to simply stop overproducing clothing. Overproduction is currently measured at 20%. Manufacturers recycle only 75% of pre consumer garment waste. The left over 25% mainly ends up in landfills or is burned without ever having been worn, though some of it is donated. 

Biodiversity is a matter of interest for consumers and companies alike. At the end of the day, all of the technology and strategic plans for reducing GHG emissions and biodiversity loss mean nothing without bold leadership. Companies need to start valuing managing biodiversity like they do value creation; they should collaborate with suppliers as well as other companies in the industry which can help scale innovation as well as the impact it will have. Also, while the fashion industry is very large, it is interconnected with other industries such as agricultural, livestock, and chemical industries. Teaming up with multiple industries will make a sizable difference. 

Lastly, they should work with policy makers and support tighter regulations to help make sustainability a shared responsibility.  

*** ***