Tue, September 22, 2020 - 10:00 AM EDT

Conscious Beauty: A matter for the SDGs?

Leading voices in the fashion and beauty industries talk about their environmental impact and how to develop a more sustainable future.

The fashion industry is the world’s third largest manufacturing sector, valued at USD 2.5 trillion and employing 75 million people throughout the value chain. The global beauty industry has grown steadily in recent decades and is currently valued at over USD 500 billion. Yet these two burgeoning industries are also two of the of the biggest polluters in the global economy.

In fashion, sustainability issues arise at every stage of the supply chain. Synthetic, petroleum-intensive fabrics such as polyester are most often chosen over natural, biodegradable fibers. The treatment and manufacturing processes then have a further impact. For example, UNEP estimates that it takes 3781 liters of water to make a single pair of jeans. Dyeing and treatment processes in the industry generate around 20 percent of wastewater worldwide. The fragmented nature of supply chains means that each piece of clothing is often transported to multiple locations for treatment, manufacturing and packaging before reaching the final consumer. Combined with these production processes, much of the industry now operates a ‘fast fashion’ business model rather than a seasonal one, generating new low-cost designs each week, a model which has led to extreme over-consumption and waste. The average person buys 60 percent more clothing than in 2000, but keeps each garment half as long. Fashion houses also routinely discard large amounts of unsold stock—of the fiber inputs used for clothing, 87 percent is incinerated or sent to landfill. All in all, the fashion industry is estimated to be responsible for 10 percent of global carbon emissions, more than international air travel or maritime transport.
And for those of us attempting to increase the useful life of our clothes, the after-care can be equally polluting. Washing synthetic materials leads to microfibers entering the water stream—these are estimated to account for 15 to 30 percent of plastics found in the oceans—while dry cleaning process typically release carcinogenic chemicals into the atmosphere and water stream.

In the beauty industry, chemicals from personal care products are washed into rivers and oceans, building up in our ecosystems, at a large cost to marine life. Plastic microbeads from exfoliators, now banned in the UK and US, end up in water ways and are consumed by fish and marine animals. Through the water cycle, toxins then often end up in soil, with a resulting impact on livestock and agriculture. The large swathes of discarded (often unfinished) products packaged in non-biodegradable plastic end up in landfill and oceans. Many companies sourcing natural ingredients engage in unsustainable farming practices—the mass harvesting of palm oil, for example, is significantly accelerating deforestation. As a matter of human health, awareness of the toxicity of beauty products and the associated risk to human health is gradually increasing. Our skin is the human body’s largest organ, and a passageway to our bloodstream for all chemical-based beauty products that are applied to it. Chemicals which build up in aquatic food chains or in soil used for agricultural purposes pose a further hazard to our health. Scented products (hairsprays, deodorants) have been found to emit the same level of chemical vapors as petroleum emissions from cars.

As the world wakes up to the realities of climate change and seeks meaningful global action, the fashion and beauty industries have been slow to react. While a number of fashion labels and beauty products have appeared in recent years denoting ‘sustainable’ or ‘natural’ products, most consumers and producers remain either unaware or confused by what sustainability in these industries really means.
This discussion seeks to bring together leading voices in the fashion and beauty industries to discuss the following questions:

  • How can we develop a common understanding of sustainability in fashion and beauty?
  • What are the parameters against which we should be measuring the sustainability of our fashion and beauty habits?
  • How could the current crisis catalyze a change in the fashion and beauty industries towards more sustainable practices?
Sustainable Development Goals addressed in this session include:
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We will explore the impact that fashion has on the environment, and society.