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Environmental Sustainability in the Fashion Industry



The Environmental Cost of Fashion

The fashion industry represent an important part of our economies, with a value of more than 2.5 trillion $USD and employing over 75 million people worldwide. The sector has seen spectacular growth over the past decades, as clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014. While people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than in 2000, they only kept the clothes for half as long (McKinsey & Company, 2016).

While the fashion sector is booming, increasing attention has been brought to the impressive range of negative environmental impacts that the industry is responsible for. Fashion production makes up 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions, dries up water sources, and pollutes rivers and streams. What’s more, 85% of all textiles go to the dump each year (UNECE, 2018), and washing some types of clothes sends significant amount of microplastics into the ocean.

The Environmental Footprint of Fast Fashion

  • The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second (UNEP, 2018)
  • Approximately 60% of all materials used by the fashion industry are made from plastic (UNEP, 2019)
  • 500,000 tons of microfibers are released into the ocean each year from washing clothes — the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017)
  • The fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of humanity’s carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined (UNEP, 2018). If the fashion sector continues on its current trajectory, that share of the carbon budget could jump to 26% by 2050 (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017)
  • Some 93 billion cubic metres of water – enough to meet the needs of five million people – is used by the fashion industry annually, contributing significantly to water scarcity in some regions (UNCTAD, 2020)
  • Around 20% of industrial wastewater pollution worldwide originates from the fashion industry (WRI, 2017)

More facts and sources on Business Insider

Fast fashion also has a human cost:  textile workers, primarly women in developing countries, are often paid derisory wages and forced to work long hours in appalling conditions (UNEP, 2018; WRI, 2019). In many places, these conditions create infringements on human rights (Human Rights Watch). Use of chemicals in clothes production also raise serious health concerns, both for the workers in the industry and consumers. Additional impacts on health also arise from the pollution described previously.

The environmental and social cost of the fashion industry forces us to rethink fast fashion, and stresses the need for more sustainable business models and practices. Resources hereunder provide additional information on the environmental impacts of fashion, and potential pathways for change.

Plastic in Textile

After the Second World War, the development of synthetic textiles, such as polyester and nylon, transformed the fashion industry.  From only a few thousand tonnes in 1940, global consumption of synthetic fibres rose to more than 60 million tonnes in 2018. Since the late 1990s, polyester is the most commonly used fibre in textiles. Today, an estimated 60% of clothing and 70 % of household textiles are made of synthetic fibres.

These plastic-based textiles have a significant impact on the environment and climate throughout their life cycle due to emissions of greenhouse gases and pollutants. The textile sector is a growing contributor to the climate crisis, with about 1% of crude oil production used to produce synthetic fibres. The sector is also an important source of plastic leakage into the environment. With between 200 000 and 500 000 tonnes of microplastics from textiles enter the marine environment each year, the textile industry amount for 35% of microplastics pollution in the ocean.

Consideration of the textile sector will thus be important for tackling the ongoing plastic crisis. Plastic pollution is one of the major environmental crises of our times, and efforts from various actors are underway to address it. This includes negotiations towards an international legally-binding agreement on plastic pollution, initiated by the resolution adopted at the UN Environment Assembly in March 2022. Learn more about the plastic pollution crisis, governance processes to address it and the work of Geneva-based organizations on the matter in our Plastics and the Environment series.

International Cooperation on Sustainable Fashion

As fashion value chains are globalized and the industry has a significant impact on the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), international cooperation is important to foster sustainable fashion.

Impact of the fashion industry on the SDGs (UNECE, 2018)

Launched at the fourth UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-4), the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion is seeking to halt the environmentally and socially destructive practices of fashion. The Alliance is improving collaboration among UN agencies by analyzing their efforts in making fashion sustainable, identifying solutions and gaps in their actions, and presenting these findings to governments to trigger policy. Additionally, the Forests for Fashion Initiative, led by UNECE, FAO, and partners, supports innovative solutions in fashion through sustainable forests-based materials.  Several other international organizations are working on global efforts to foster more sustainable fashion. Additional information on these initiatives can be found in the links below.

The Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action

Launched at COP24 in 2021, the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Change serves as a roadmap to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 within the textile, clothing and fashion industries.

Signatories and Supporting Organizations under the Charter work within Working Groups aiming to identify and amplify best practices, strengthen existing efforts, identify and address gaps, facilitate and strengthen collaboration among relevant stakeholders join resources and share tools to enable the sector to achieve its climate targets. More resources on Charter and related activities can be found here.

World Cotton Day

Cotton is one of the most common fabrics used for clothes. Producing cotton sustains the livelihood of 28.67 million people and provides benefits to over 100 million families across the globe (WTO, 2020). Recognizing the critical role of cotton for economic development, international trade, and poverty alleviation, the UN General Assembly decided to proclaim World Cotton Day on 7 October (A/RES/75/318).

Cotton production can have consequent impacts on the planet due to the use of pesticides, high water consumption, and the conversion of habitat to agricultural use. Conventional production practices can result in soil erosion and degradation, water contamination, and other forms of pollution. Therefore, supporting sustainable models of cotton production is essential if we are to achieve the SDGs. Learn more about environmental sustainability in the cotton sector through the resources below.

2023 Celebration | Making cotton fair and sustainable for all: from farm to fashion

On the third official UN World Cotton Day, under the theme “Making cotton fair and sustainable for all: from farm to fashion”, the United Nations wants to raise visibility of the cotton sector and awareness of the critical role that it plays in economic development, international trade and poverty alleviation. The observance also aims to highlight the importance of sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

Many actors in Geneva are involved in promoting sustainable production and consumption patterns in the cotton industry (see section below for details). This year’s official celebration that took place on 4 October in Vienna had the participation of Geneva actors such as the World Trade Organization, International Trade Centre, UN Conference on Trade and Development, International Labour Organization, and Better Cotton Initiative.

Sustainable Fashion in Geneva

By alphabetical order

Better Cotton Initiative

The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world, aims to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future.

International Labour Organization

ILO promotes decent work in the textiles, clothing, leather and footwear sector through social dialogue, knowledge sharing, international labour standards, capacity building, partnerships and policy support.

ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative

EFI is a flagship programme of the International Trade Centre, which connects marginalised artisans from the developing world – the majority of them women – to international fashion houses for mutual benefit. EFI also hosts the Secretariat of the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

UNECE’s work on trade in the textile and leather sector focuses on improving transparency and traceability in order to identify and address labor and human rights violations and environmental impacts while embracing more sustainable production and consumption patterns. UNECE also promotes sustainable innovation in the fashion sector through its work on sustainable forest products.

United Nations Environment Programme

The UN Environment Programme’s work on sustainable and circular textiles applies a value-chain approach, which leads to changes at each stage in the value chain while involving players of all sizes and from all market segments. In order to develop a roadmap,   UNEP conducted a Global Stocktaking. Updates on UNEP’s activites on this fastly-evolving topic are publishe and accessible on the One Planet Network platform.

World Trade Organization

At the WTO, cotton is the sole commodity discussed separately following an initiative launched by the Cotton-4 in 2003. The initiative aims to make international trade in cotton fairer and to shed light on the linkages between trade, cotton and development.

UN system’s engagement is larger than the Geneva-based organizations presented here. Members of the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion also include UNDP, UNEP, UN Global Compact, UNFCCC and UNOPS.


What Can I Do?

While international organizations, governments and businesses work on solutions to shift the fashion industry toward a more sustainable pathway, consumers can also play a role with their daily actions. This section provides resources on the actions individuals can take to support sustainability in their apparel choices.


Further resources and events to learn about environmental sustainability in the fashion industry are provided below. This page is regularly updated.

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