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Why the Biodiversity Crisis Matters to Fashion


By Samantha Deacon, Senior Environment Manager at Ramboll

The fashion industry is determined to go carbon neutral reported FashionCapital in September, but will these actions address the biodiversity crisis too?

The industry is increasingly recognising the importance of the Paris Agreement, the central aim of which is to prevent a global temperature rise of 2ºC with major brands, such as Gucci, leading corporate strategies for reducing carbon emissions.

However, nature loss is climate’s twin planetary emergency. The figures are stark: according to the UN’s latest Global Biodiversity Outlook, none of the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets agreed in Japan in 2010, aimed at slowing the loss of the natural world, have been met. The WWF’s recent report, ‘The Living Planet’, is equally alarming, finding that humanity has already wiped out 83% of wild mammals and half of all plants, while three-quarters of ice-free land and two-thirds of marine environments have been severely altered. In the coming decades, one million species are at risk of extinction. 

Most businesses simply cannot afford to ignore nature loss; the World Economic Forum 2020 Nature Risk Rising report states that $44 trillion (half of global GDP) is moderately or highly dependent on nature. However, many fashion and retail businesses are still ignoring the wider impact of their operations and supply chains on nature.

Reducing carbon footprints is a good first step, but many industries are only just acknowledging the part they must play in tackling the biodiversity crisis. As most clothing begins life as a crop, livestock or forest, the fashion industry has a critical role. The production of raw materials hugely burdens natural resources (from pollinators to fresh water), while the cultivation of fibre and farming of livestock increasingly results in land take, such as deforestation. Large-scale production can severely affect nature leading to a vicious cycle of degradation, and negative economic and environmental consequences.

In response to this pressing issue, The Fashion Pact was launched at last year’s G7 summit by President Macron and Kering’s CEO. Signatories included ready-to-wear, sport and luxury brands, suppliers and distributors, who made commitments to stop global warming, restore biodiversity and protect the oceans. Kering Group, for example, has pledged that, by 2025, it will restore and regenerate one million hectares of farm and rangeland in its supply chain, and protect one million hectares of irreplaceable habitat. This is fantastic progress, but could they be missing a trick? The commitments to oceans miss out marine biodiversity, yet a single blue whale can sequester carbon equivalent to 30,000 trees.

Kering’s strategy highlights the importance of actions that offer both biodiversity and carbon benefits to address both crises. These are nature-based solutions (NbS), which can protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural and modified ecosystems providing human wellbeing and biodiversity benefits. The IUCN and Oxford University research suggests that NbS could provide around 30% of the cost-effective mitigation that is needed by 2030 to stabilise warming to below 2°C offering a powerful defence against the impacts of climate change.

The fashion industry’s first step is to develop a biodiversity strategy together with climate decision making. Decide what is wanted from a corporate biodiversity strategy (business resilience, reputation risk, reducing impacts), then assess baseline conditions and understand impacts and dependencies on biodiversity. Once a company identifies these it can prioritise and select actions, set science-based targets and then implement them. There are tools such as the Natural Capital Protocol, which includes a sector guide specifically for apparel, helping businesses to identify, value and measure their impacts and dependencies on natural capital.

Additionally, business decisions should adopt the conservation hierarchy to ensure nature gains through conservation actions by avoiding, minimising, restoring and offsetting impacts on biodiversity. There is no single measure for achievement, just as there isn’t one type of ecosystem or a single remedy.

It is welcome to see the UK Government embracing biodiversity net gain, which will soon be enshrined in environmental law for the property and development sector – the net gain being a measurable 10% additional biodiversity. The same policy could (or should) be adopted by other sectors, such as fashion. Whilst an achievable target, companies could be more ambitious, or set tailored science-based targets. Conversations may start in the boardroom, but have a far greater reach through organisations and into public opinion.

Progress can be seen in recent initiatives such as CanopyStyle, which has been working to eliminate the use of the world’s Ancient and Endangered Forests in viscose production. Representing 198 clothing brands and designers who are collaborating to meet the long-term goal of lasting conservation for the world’s forests, the initiative is working to kickstart new industries that make viscose and fabrics from next generation sources, like recycled clothing and leftover straw.  

Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum is preparing a series of New Nature Economy reports in 2020, making the economic case for safeguarding nature. Other milestones include the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s summit (COP15) in Kunming, China, and the related Business for Nature mobilisation. Just this month, the finance sector, which may ultimately enable corporate action, announced a ‘Finance for Biodiversity Pledge’ encouraging investors to sign up.

Given this progress and the clear connections between fashion, farming and nature, it is critical that fashion businesses, including retailers and consumers, work to collectively halt biodiversity loss now. Creative industries must take inspiration from nature to be part of the design solution and build the connection with consumers in working towards a more sustainable future.

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