Report 2021: Focus on the Fashion Industry
Business for Ocean Sustainability: One Ocean Foundation's multi-year research on the Blue Economy
Image by ©Kurt Arrigo
Objectives of the Report

This report represents the continuation of the journey undertaken with the two previous publications “Business for Ocean Sustainability - Focus on the Mediterranean” and “Business for Ocean Sustainability - A Global Perspective”, published in 2019 and 2020 respectively, developed thanks to the contribution of SDA Bocconi Sustainability Lab, McKinsey & Company and CSIC.

In particular, this study stems from “Business for Ocean Sustainability – a Global Perspective” and deep-dives into a specific industrial sector: the fashion industry. It uses an in-depth analysis of the sustainability reports of 28 major fashion companies and multiple sources: academic publications, statistical data, government reports and practitioner-based literature.

The insights offer a snapshot of the fashion industry’s main pressures on the environment and, more specifically, on marine ecosystems, and provides a clear view of sustainable best practices along the value chain.

The fashion industry is a leading force of economic growth, but also a major cause of environmental pressures, including on the ocean.

The fashion industry is one of the world’s biggest manufacturing industries. It generates more than USD 2.5 trillion in global annual revenues1, employing more than 300 million people along its value chain2. Besides its relevance in the global economy, the industry plays a fundamental role in social and cultural life. From an environmental point of view, the industry presents numerous critical issues which are still not fully known. According to several studies, fashion is considered one of the most polluting industries in the world3.

1 McKinsey & Company, BOF (2020), The State of Fashion 2020 Coronavirus Update
2 Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017), A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future
3 For example, according to the United Nations and the EllenMacArthur Foundation it is the second most polluting industry after the oil industry

According to our findings, the pressures exerted by the sector on the environment are worsened by several structural and generational phenomena such as population growth and increasing wealth, and new business models such as fast fashion. Key pressures include extreme water usage, chemicals and waterways contamination, waste and pollution including microplastics, and energy and greenhouse gas emissions.

1 McKinsey & Company, BOF (2020), The State of Fashion 2020 Coronavirus Update
2 Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017), A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future
3 For example, according to the United Nations and the EllenMacArthur Foundation it is the second most polluting industry after the oil industry
With respect to the marine environment, the fashion industry’s main pressures are on contaminants, marine litter and eutrophication

According to the analysis we carried out in Business for Ocean Sustainability – A Global Perspective, which analyzed the level of pressure exerted by 17 industrial sectors on each of the 11 GES indicators through the involvement of a panel of experts and scientists4, the textile and apparel industry shows higher criticality with respect to the problems of marine litter, eutrophication and contaminants (including contaminants in seafood).

4 The questionnaire was completed by 56 experts in different natural science areas (e.g. marine ecologists, environmental scientists, biologists, etc.) from leading international universities and research centers in Europe, North and South America and Australia.

In fact the fashion industry creates a huge amount of marine litter in the form of microfibers, which are flooding our oceans and becoming toxic; many marine ecosystems are affected by the eutrophication processes which occur during the cultivation of raw materials for the fashion industry; and cultivation and processing of raw materials cause the release of contaminants into the oceans and freshwater systems.

4 The questionnaire was completed by 56 experts in different natural science areas (e.g. marine ecologists, environmental scientists, biologists, etc.) from leading international universities and research centers in Europe, North and South America and Australia.
A collaborative effort along the value chain is fundamental to achieve sustainable transformation in the fashion industry

Our studies reveal that a collaborative effort along the value chain is fundamental to achieve sustainable transformation in the fashion industry. To effectively lower their impact, firms need to gather together and coordinate their environmentally conscious practices within an overall sustainability strategy (which, in turn, should be coherent with the company’s general strategy). A holistic approach is required in order to address the many challenges that arise along the extended value chain, from raw materials extraction to product disposal, and to plan specific actions aimed at reducing overconsumption of natural resources and pollution.

The report introduces a framework which visually summarizes such an approach by illustrating a strategic planning process, deep-diving into the implementation of activities along the value chain, and describing support tools and key features. This framework aims to create awareness with regard to the opportunities related to each step of the supply chain. Any firm can reduce its pressure on the ocean at each stage, both by implementing best practices within its operations, and by collaborating with stakeholders along the value chain.

To incorporate best practices within a company’s overall sustainability strategy, strategic planning is crucial - assessing the footprint, setting clear goals and targets, implementing activities along the value chain and monitoring the outcomes:

  • Assessment tools and practices are needed to obtain thorough knowledge of the pressures exerted on marine ecosystems;
  • Clear goals and objectives need to be coherently included in a firm’s overall strategy;
  • In order for a firm to improve the sustainability of its operations, key activities must be implemented along the entire value chain;
  • Constant monitoring is key to continuous improvement.

Adopting a holistic approach means implementing sustainable best practices, from raw material extraction to consumption and product disposal, across the entire value chain:

  • The production of raw materials is responsible for a large proportion of the environmental impact of the fashion industry. Adopting sustainable practices during cultivation is paramount;
  • To make apparel & footwear manufacturing more sustainable, companies need to rethink their products and packaging, from design to manufacturing and disposal;
  • Improving the sustainability of the logistics phase is key in order to reduce GHG emissions and, in particular, CO2 emissions, 30% of which are absorbed by the ocean;
  • It is fundamental to educate customers on sustainable consumption patterns through innovative business models and detailed instructions for garment care;
  • Research and development activities at each stage of the value chain are needed to tackle urgent and unsolved ocean-related issues.

Companies need to consider three key features and tools in their journey towards sustainability: transparency & traceability, standards & certifications and partnerships aimed at pushing their commitments to ocean sustainability further:

  • Traceability of companies’ pressures on marine ecosystems is key to transparency;
  • Standards and certifications can help companies to strengthen and formalize their commitment to sustainability;
  • Partnerships for sustainability are a key tool to enable resource and knowledge sharing.
Examples
Next steps and beyond

The report provides a view of the key issues that companies in this sector need to acknowledge and act upon promptly. More specifically, the report provides an understanding of critical areas with respect to marine ecosystems, with a distinction between direct and indirect pressures by companies, and systematizes existing best practices to understand the relationships between the various activities and the corresponding effects.

In general, as identified in the previous reports, leading companies committed to sustainability and aware of their pressures on the ocean also exist in the fashion industry, and they adopt innovative supply chain practices to mitigate their pressures on the ocean. However, there is vast room for improvement.

  1. Firstly, the awareness gap must be closed: companies need to identify, understand and quantify their pressures on marine ecosystems in order to tackle them effectively. In this regard, the One Ocean Foundation is already working on the development of a tool aimed at facilitating disclosure on ocean pressures.
  2. Specifically, companies should start tackling the issue of microfibers in a concrete and scalable manner during production and consumption, moving from research to action.
  3. Furthermore, for a complete industry transformation, focal companies need to reinforce their relationship with suppliers both by implementing sustainability criteria and by supporting them in the application of sustainable best practices.
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