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OPINION: Let’s make sustainability a fashion statement

by Michelle Yeoh | UNDP
Thursday, 20 February 2020 11:15 GMT

Models present creations from the Moncler Autumn/Winter 2020 collection during Milan Fashion Week in Milan, Italy February 19, 2020. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Let your fashion choice be your expression, your voice and your vote for a sustainable future

Michelle Yeoh, Goodwill Ambassador, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

With the buzz of Fashion Week in the air, I am feeling nostalgic for the days when buying an outfit was something done with care. Fashion has become more affordable, and we have more of it. But the actual costs are much higher, and much more devastating, than we realize.

The increased production of clothes requires more natural resources, to grow crops like cotton or for livestock to produce wool, cashmere or leather. This is further stressing our forest, land and water resources. Chemicals used in dyes and processing are polluting rivers, harming ecosystems and people’s health. Despite fashion being a trillion-dollar industry, workers still face low wages and unsafe working conditions. On the opposite side of production is waste. We are wearing clothes for a shorter time, resulting in millions of tons of clothing going to landfills each year.

The good news is that things weren’t always like this. It’s only over the last 30 years or so that we’ve seen this shift towards increased volume. This gives me assurance that we are not so stuck in our ways. We can change. But how?

We can check labels. We can do a bit of research before buying. We can ask questions about the material and labor that went into a garment, in the same way that we assess its quality or fit. We want to feel good in our clothes. And we want to feel good about our clothes.

People all over the world have started demanding more of fashion. Since the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse that killed 1,134 people, Fashion Revolution has us asking #WhoMadeMyClothes? Greta Thunberg has brought our attention to the urgency of climate change, the fragility of our natural resources and the dangers of complacency – demanding action from the world’s political and business leaders. In support of this wave of activism, author Naomi Klein said, “A fresh generation are marching for revolution and they want to wear clothes that tell a new story. Let’s give it to them.”

And brands have started to respond - from corporate responsibility strategies to international commitments. In 2018, over 90 brands signed the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, committing to reduce GHG emissions by 30 percent by 2030. In 2019, 32 companies representing 150 brands, signed the Fashion Pact, which includes commitments and targets on climate, biodiversity and oceans. The Pact recognizes “that our living natural capital is in danger and that this needs to be remedied to have a foundation for a thriving society and business.”

A sustainable fashion industry would have benefits across the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed by world leaders as a roadmap to end poverty and protect the planet by year 2030. Through my work with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), it’s been wonderful to learn about related ongoing work. In Mongolia, where the drying effects of climate change and overgrazing are contributing to land degradation, UNDP is supporting climate-informed management of natural resources and sustainable livestock practices. Blockchain technology for traceability is being tested, which can eventually help herders get a premium for sustainably sourced cashmere.

In Timor-Leste, where conflict disrupted a long tradition of weaving, UNDP is helping communities to both preserve this important piece of cultural heritage, as well as to build business skills towards economic empowerment. Related to jewelry, in Indonesia through the GEF GOLD Program, UNDP is helping to reduce the use of mercury, which is harmful to ecosystems and human health, in the artisanal scale gold mining (ASGM) sector.

There is much more, including through other UN agencies. The UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion was established to support coordination between UN bodies, promoting projects and policies that ensure that the fashion value chain contributes to the achievement of the SDGs.

Being an informed consumer is therefore part of something bigger. Ask questions about material and labor before buying. If you’re not getting the responses you want from environmental, social and ethical perspectives, then demand better and look for alternatives. Or maybe you’ll decide to mend an old favorite instead. Let your fashion choice be your expression, your voice and your vote for a sustainable future.