What do we mean when we talk about ‘BIODIVERSITY’?

  • 6 min read

What do we mean when we talk about ‘BIODIVERSITY’?

“Biodiversity is all the different kinds of life you’ll find in one area—the variety of animals, plants, fungi, and even microorganisms like bacteria that make up our natural world. Each of these species and organisms work together in ecosystems, like an intricate web, to maintain balance and support life. Biodiversity supports everything in nature that we need to survive: food, clean water, medicine, and shelter.”1

Watch our Biodiversity explainer HERE.

Watch Sir David Attenborough explain why biodiversity is vital in A Life on Our Planet in less than two minutes HERE.

THERE ARE FIVE MAIN MAJOR THREATS TO GLOBAL BIODIVERSITY:

1. Habitat loss and degredation

2. Species overexploitation

3. Invasive species and disease2

4. Polution

5. Climate change

The greatest threat by far in all regions is habitat loss, followed closely by species overexploitation. 

THE ROLE OF FASHION IN BIODIVERSITY

Fashion currently plays a direct role in biodiversity loss; the production, use, and disposal of the textiles has a significant impact.

THERE ARE FOUR MAIN HUMAN ACTIVITIES INEXTRICABLY LINKED TO FASHION AND BIODIVERSITY LOSS:

1. Energy

2. Infrastructure

3. Forestry

4. Agriculture

Modern human society, with all its benefits and luxuries, is reliant on nature and subsequently we will always be dependent on natural resources to survive and thrive. Biodiversity loss is outlined as one of the top ten risks in terms of likelihood and impact on the planet.3

Conventional cotton production alone accounts for 22.5 percent of the world’s total pesticide use and is in itself one of the biggest drivers of water consumption in the supply chain. 72 percent of all clothes end up in landfills which is a substantial waste of resources. In fact, we risk losing up to 300 species per hectare every time a new landfill site is developed.4

A prime case study of how the fashion industry has impacted upon biodiversity is the Aral Sea. Once the fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has now largely disappeared as direct result of intense cotton farming causing the extinction of twenty fish species. Biodiversity is also largely threatened by the cellulosic fibre market in countries including Indonesia, Canada, the United States and Brazil, as result of deforestation which once again destroys the ecosystems which provide a home for a plethora of endangered species.5

About 80 percent of land-based biodiversity depends on forests, and once a forest is cleared, gone with it are also the plants and animals that called it home.6 This is especially true for the Amazon, which has more plants and animal species per square meter than anywhere else in the world.7

Fashion directly contributes to deforestation in a number of different ways, perhaps most significantly so in regard to the leather industry. 

Every year we produce 11 billion pairs of leather shoes using 65 percent of the world’s leather. Brazil, home to majority of the Amazon rainforest, is one of the world’s top producers of bovine leather and the cattle ranching necessary for this is responsible for 80 percent of all deforestation in the region.8

21 March 2021 marks INTERNATIONAL DAY OF FORESTS. In order to better address the current biodiversity crisis, this year, the UN have suggested the point of focus be, “Forest restoration: a path to recovery and well-being”.9 We must both recognise and raise awareness of the critical role forests play in our ecosystems. 

The Living Planet Index10 shows an average rate of 68 percent decline worldwide in monitored populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish between 1970-2016. Population trends within species tend to be an indicator of general ecosystem health. A substantial decline is representative of the undoing of nature.

BIODIVERSITY: THE NEXT FRONTIER IN FASHION

According to MCKINSEY & COMPANY, the sustainability effort has been focused on reversing fashion’s impact on climate change for too long, but not as much has been said about its deep impact on biodiversity.11 This is further complicated by the fact that biodiversity is such a complex issue with many mechanisms at play, demanding targets and measures that are much more challenging to keep track of, than a single metric such as greenhouse emissions. However, FOUR SPECIFIC PARTS OF THE VALUE CHAIN ARE SINGLED OUT AS HAVING THE BIGGEST NEGATIVE IMPACT ON BIODIVERSITY:

1. Raw material production

2. Material preparation and processing

3. Goods transportation

4. End of use

WHAT CAN THE FASHION INDUSTRY DO TO REDUCE ITS IMPACT AND COUNTERACT BIODIVERSITY LOSS?

Research by MCKINSEY & COMPANY predicts that the concern for biodiversity will grow for both consumers and investors in the coming years.12 This positive trend development has been further accelerated by Covid-19 as people are more aware of the interdependence of humans and animal ecosystems. This concern is a positive step in the right direction towards driving better industry practice.

The fashion industry must act now and there are many ways in which it can. 

VITAL POINTS FOR BRANDS TO CONSIDER ARE:

1. Material choices

2. Regenerative agriculture

3. Energy efficiency

4. Adopting a strong stance on waterway pollution

5. Educating consumers

As one example alone, REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE is an exciting consideration for the fashion industry. Not only does the practice omit synthetic chemicals but goes a step further in order to replenish and strengthen the soil and plants. It is a system that leverages the existing power of plants in order to store carbon in the soil and increase crop resilience.13

Critically important for brands and retailers is the MATERIAL MIX. 

It is paramount that the industry understands the impact of their materials and trade-offs when they switch to different fibres. 

Cutting-edge innovations mean that the choices today are aplenty. 

For example, the pineapple industry globally produces 40,000 tons of waste pineapple leaves each year. The waste from 16 pineapple plants creates enough leather-like material to make one pair of men’s shoes and the leftover biomass from the process can be used as a fertiliser. Sustainable bio-leather can also be made from oranges, cactus, mushrooms, seaweed, cork, or even grown in a lab.14

Alternatively, brands can consider bio-synthetics which use renewable resources with the potential to mitigate climate change. Moreover, recycling synthetic waste streams can aid in the preservation of biodiversity. A frontrunner is this space is Parley For the Oceans; an organisation who seek to raise awareness for the beauty and fragility of the Oceans, and to inspire and empower diverse groups in the exploration of new ways of creating, thinking and living on our finite, blue planet. They are renowned for creating products from ocean plastic and in turn reducing the plastic in our oceans which is causing great threat to marine ecosystems. 

According to Cyrill Gutsch, Founder of Parley for the Oceans, making products from, for example, ocean plastic is a great first step, but we can and should do more.

“Ocean plastic, even if it sounds great and a big improvement from virgin plastic, is not the solution. When looking at the solutions, we are looking at biofabrication, green chemistry. It is about learning from nature, really. It is to see how we can grow algae, enzymes, and learn from nature that have had millions of years of research and development and how can we apply these factories of nature to our own materials. This needs billions of investments. It starts with willingness; it starts from demand.”15

WATCH THE CFS+ DESIGNER CHALLENGE “FROM OCEAN PLASTIC TO TRACKSUIT” HERE to follow Designer Jide Osifeso’s sustainable design journey in designing a tracksuit from ocean plastic together with Parley for the Oceans. Watch Jide Osifeso talk about working with responsible fibres HERE.

For more information on what the fashion industry can do, read our CEO AGENDA 2020 report with a special spotlight on biodiversity.         

REFERENCES

1. WWF, n.d. WHAT IS BIODIVERSITY

2. WWF, 2018. LIVING PLANET REPORT

3. World Economic Forum, 2019. THE GLOBAL RISKS REPORT 2019

4. Global Fashion Agenda, 2020. BIODIVERSITY EXPLAINER

5. Ecotextile, 2018. EVENT SERIES EXPLORE’S FASHION’S BIODIVERSITY FOOTPRINT

6. WWF, n.d. FOREST HABITAT

7. WWF, n.d. INSIDE THE AMAZON

8. Global Fashion Agenda, 2020. BIODIVERSITY EXPLAINER

9. United Nations, 2021. INTERNATIONAL DAY OF FORESTS

10. WWF, 2020. LIVING PLANET REPORT 2020

11. McKinsey & Company, 2020. BIODIVERSITY: THE NEXT FRONTIER IN SUSTAINABLE FASHION

12. McKinsey & Company, 2020. BIODIVERSITY: THE NEXT FRONTIER IN SUSTAINABLE FASHION

13. The Sustainable Angle, 2020. FROM FOOD TO FASHION: A SPOTLIGHT ON REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE

14. The Guardian, 2014. WEARABLE PINEAPPLE FIBRES COULD PROVE SUSTAINABLE ALTERNATIVE TO LEATHER

15. Global Fashion Agenda, 2020. CFS+ FROM OCEAN PLASTIC TO TRACKSUIT — DESIGNER CHALLENGE PANEL 

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