Is fashion causing a biodiversity crisis?
In 2020, McKinsey called biodiversity ‘the next frontier in sustainable fashion’.
Many of us are already aware of the link between the fashion industry and climate change: the clothing industry generates more greenhouse gases than international aviation and shipping combined. Less well-known is the contribution fashion is making to the biodiversity crisis. We are living through an unprecedented decline in many animal populations. The reason? Human intervention in the environment that has affected the habitats of millions of species.
In 2020, the World Wildlife Fund’s ‘Living Planet Report’ stated that an average 68% decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish had taken place between 1970 and 2016. That’s a staggering fall in the variety of life on this planet, in just a few decades. There are many factors behind this trend. The European Parliament summarise the main ones as being:
- Changes in land use (e.g. deforestation, intensive monoculture, urbanisation)
- Direct exploitation such as hunting and over-fishing
- Climate change
- Invasive alien species
The fashion industry has a role to play in three of these five: As mentioned, the industry is an important contributor to climate change. Changes in land use is another: the clothing industry demands that huge swaths of land be dedicated to growing cotton, wood that can be turned into cellulose material, or rearing cattle that provide leather for shoes and bags. Finally, fashion is one of the most polluting industries there is. One form of pollution caused by clothing is the release of microplastics into the ocean, which is very harmful to marine life.
So, although fashion brands will probably continue to talk about decarbonisation primarily for now, expect to see more focus on biodiversity in future. In fact, some of the most forward-looking clothing brands are already addressing the topic.
What is biodiversity?
Biodiversity is the variety of life forms on earth, and is defined as the variability among living organisms from all sources (1). Biodiversity is in crisis, as species extinction has accelerated throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (see Figure 1). In 2019, approximately 25% of species in most animal and plant groups were threatened with extinction (2). The eradication of an estimated 1 million species within decades is projected – a frightening prospect likened to a ‘Sixth Mass Extinction’ (3). The prior fifth mass extinction occurred 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs became extinct.
Why is biodiversity important?
Of course, it would be incredibly sad if more species were to disappear from the planet. Not only that, declining biodiversity also threatens serious consequences for humanity: Bee populations have diminished, and the decline of pollinators has serious implications for human food security and the environment due to their role in seed production of edible species. Biodiversity is also critical for other essential natural processes besides pollination. Species play vital roles in water filtration and soil replenishment: humanity wouldn’t last long without fresh water or soil.
As Marco Lambertini, Director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) puts it, “we depend on nature more than nature depends on us.”
We now have a keen appreciation of the importance of ecosystems. Ecosystems are the dynamic complex of plant, animal and microorganism communities and their non-living environment interacting as a functional unit. A highly complex web of interactions takes places between the various plants, animals, bacteria and their physical environment. The truth is, it is impossible to predict the effect on a total ecosystem of any one form of life declining or disappearing. The high degree of uncertainty about what could happen if biodiversity continues to decline on the same trajectory is one of the most alarming aspects of the ecological crisis. We simply don’t know what the consequences could be – but we know they won’t be good.
Why is biodiversity declining?
Of the five factors listed by the European Parliament as drivers of biodiversity loss, one that’s particularly acute is land use change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), state that, “Human use directly affects more than 70% of the global, ice-free land surface” (4). People are using a high proportion of Earth’s land for a number of purposes, the major one being agriculture. As a consequence, deforestation has occurred at a rapid pace. Figure 2 shows deforestation by country for the year 2015.
It’s notable that Brazil, the location of the Amazon rainforests, had the steepest decline in forest cover, a trend which has continued and destroyed the habitat of native flora and fauna. The loss of animal and plant species, many not yet identified, is just one among many negative results of Amazon deforestation.
Deforestation is the most dramatic way in which land use has changed, but it’s not the only one. Here in the UK, Kew Royal Botanic Gardens estimates that in the UK, we have lost 97% of our wild flower meadows since the 1930s. They note that as meadows disappear, so do pollinators (like bees), as well as other insects, and animals that eat insects, such as birds, hedgehogs and bats.
And while biodiversity and climate change are distinct issues, they are closely linked: Climate change has accelerated as plants that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere have vanished. As the climate changes, habitats can become less hospitable to native species – one study identified devastating effects of rainfall deficiency and increasing average temperatures on bird populations.
Unfortunately, the fashion industry has a part to play in deforestation: the trees of ancient and endangered forests are exploited to make produce fabrics such as viscose, modal and lyocell. According to non-profit Canopy, “Forests in Indonesia, Canada’s Boreal and temperate rainforests and the Amazon are being logged for next season’s fashion and apparel.”
How is the fashion industry responding?
Biodiversity decline has a number of causes, which means that there are a variety of ways can approach the issue. McKinsey’s research revealed that the two areas for the industry to focus on are (1) raw material production and processing, particularly conventional cotton agriculture and the production of wood-based fibres and (2) pollutants, specifically pollution from synthetic microfibres and pollution from landfill, incineration and leakage into waterways.
Some mainstream brands are beginning to think through how they address the crisis. H&M has published this statement. Currently it’s full of good intentions – “we will continue to map out our impact on biodiversity” and “we want to collaborate with stakeholders such as IPBRS, WWF …” – but lacks specific and measurable commitments. However, H&M have committed that they will only source manmade cellulosic fibres from low-risk suppliers that have attained a green shirt in Canopy’s Hot Button Ranking of Global Viscose Producers. That’s positive, but it cannot be overlooked that currently a high portion of H&M’s clothes are made from synthetics such as polyester which contribute to the microplastic pollution problem, nor that the majority of their products have a short lifespan and are not recyclable.
Inditex, which owns Zara, also has a biodiversity policy – but this is similarly vaguely worded: “Progressively and consistently increasing the use of more sustainable alternatives ‐ certified, where possible,” is a start but “more sustainable” is very open to interpretation and “where possible” sounds like a loophole.
Brands should be committing to completely eliminating ecologically important wood sources from their supply chain, investing in fibres that don’t shed microplastics, and avoiding Amazon leather. So, while some mainstream brands have started formulating policies, the actions they have committed to so far aren’t stringent enough. Mission-driven brands including Veja, Patagonia and All Birds are better choices. It’s also important to let brands know if you care about this issue, by commenting on social media or contacting brands to tell them they must do more to protect biodiversity.