12 July 2018
HLPF Side Event Considers UN Partnership on Sustainable Fashion and SDGs
Photo Credit: Lynn Wagner
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At the HLPF side event themed, ‘UN Partnership on Sustainable Fashion and the SDGs,’ co-hosting organizations described their efforts to put the fashion industry on a path to sustainable development.

Participants from the ILO, ITC, UNDESA, UNECE, UNEP, UNCTAD, UNFCCC, UNGC, UNOP and World Bank Group outlined initiatives to date and the value-add of joining forces.

10 July 2018: On the sidelines of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), a group of UN organizations convened a side event on the theme, ‘UN Partnership on Sustainable Fashion and the SDGs.’ Addressing the lack of a coordinated approach to ensure that the fashion industry contributes to sustainable development, the side event outlined how a UN Partnership on Sustainable Fashion could materialize.

Moderated by Robb Skinner, UN Office for Partnerships (UNOP), speakers from each of the co-hosting organizations offered perspectives on how their agencies can contribute to such a partnership.

Marie Chatardová, President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), opened the event by recalling a meeting convened in March 2018 during the Regional Forum on Sustainable Development in the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) region that discussed the route the UN should take when it comes to fashion and the SDGs. She reviewed the importance of establishing a partnership on fashion, noting that the US$2.5 trillion industry employs more than 75 million people worldwide, but is currently in a state of “environmental and social emergency.” Linking to the SDGs, she highlighted that, globally, the industry emits 10% of carbon emissions (SDG 13), produces 20% of wastewater, is often linked to dangerous working conditions (SDG 8), and has deleterious health impacts due to hazardous substances used in production (SDG 3).

Olga Algayerova, Executive Secretary, UNECE, built on Chatardová’s opening remarks, reviewing fashion’s environmental, economic and social impacts. She described the 2030 Agenda as a roadmap, with the SDGs as the tools to achieve sustainable development, calling for sustainable fashion to be a part of the roadmap. Algayerova underscored the need to change behaviors, including through supply chain transparency.

Following opening remarks, panelists described their organization’s potential contributions to the Partnership as well as initiatives to put the fashion industry on a path to sustainability.

Paolo Naldini, Cittadellarte and B.E.S.T. Fashion, discussed the importance of symbols, logos and flags, focusing particularly on the infinity symbol used in the SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production) logo. He described fashion as merging the natural and the artificial, but noted that the two are unbalanced. Highlighting existing guidelines such as those on eco-toxicological requirements for clothing, he provided a snapshot of businesses and associations working towards more sustainable fashion and called for traceability across the value chain.

Laura Choi and Alva Holmes, Fashion for Conservation, emphasized that one reason sustainable fashion has only recently come to the fore is because “who wore a red dress better is a sexier topic than discussing the environmental and social implications behind the dress.” They announced two initiatives, on artisan training to promote fair labor capacity, and sustainably sourced mass market apparel, noting that society does not have to choose between sustainability and style.

UN Environment’s One Planet Network seeks to make progress towards SDG 12, and addresses issues such as marine plastics.

Birgit Lia Altmann, UNECE, outlined recent events and current initiatives undertaken by the Commission, including Forests for Fashion and deriving wood-based fibers from trees, which are less harmful than cotton or polyester. She highlighted joint efforts with the UN Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (CEFACT) and International Trade Centre (ITC), noting work on traceability of sustainable value chains in the garment and footwear sectors.

Chloé Mukai, ITC, described how the Centre has worked for ten years to connect informal artisans to high end brands. She noted the sustained nature of market access and connections, citing an initiative in Kenya, kicked off in 2012, that is still operational today.

Elisa Tonda, UN Environment Programme (UNEP, or UN Environment), discussed building circularity into economies to promote sound chemical management, tracing chemicals in products, resource efficiency, and sustainable lifestyles. She also described labeling and communications efforts to reach consumers, and UN Environment’s strategy to convene, collaborate and accelerate impact, highlighting the One Planet Network not only as a means of making progress towards SDG 12, but also addressing issues such as plastics, which often end up in marine environments.

Amber Barth, International Labor Organization (ILO), highlighted the importance of workers, describing ILO’s Better Work Programme, which operates in seven countries and engages over 1,400 factories employing 1.9 million workers. She underscored that, contradictory to some beliefs, better working conditions do not decrease companies’ profitability, but rather increase it.

Lilian Liu, UN Global Compact (UNGC), outlined UNGC’s principles-based approach to business, working with over 9,000 companies through more than 70 local networks. She noted UNGC’s support to companies that can contribute to a UN partnership on fashion, including through the CEO Water Mandate, Science-Based Targets, SDG Compass, Guide to Traceability, and a jointly developed Code of Conduct and Manual for the Fashion and Textile Industry.

Lindita Xhaferi-Salihu, UNFCCC, recalled a gathering of stakeholders in January 2018 to discuss whether the fashion industry was on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change. The meeting found, she noted, that climate change was not a priority for the fashion sector because of lax regulations in production countries coupled with lack of consumer demand. Xhaferi-Salihu said the UNFCCC’s work with fashion focuses on three different themes: enabling “within sector” collaboration; facilitating engagement with policymakers; and catalyzing action and providing recognition.

Francis Dobbs, Connect4Climate, World Bank Group, showed a trailer for Fashion4Climate, emphasizing the aim to reach a wider, younger audience. He framed the communications initiatives as being flexible to connect stakeholders and help with advocacy efforts to get the word out, encouraging behavior change.

Leonie Meier, UNECE, presented on behalf of Teresa Moereira, UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). She referenced UN Guidelines on Consumer Protection last revised in 2015; the importance of engaging consumer associations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and business to promote self-regulation; and international cooperation to implement joint work. Meier also noted a need to focus on developing countries and economies in transition (EITs).

Ola Goransson, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), praised the 3,800 initiatives collected on the global registry of voluntary commitments and multi-stakeholder partnerships on the Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. He flagged that recent partnerships have come in on SDG 14 (life below water) and ocean plastics, outlining the range of bodies and conferences that have spurred interest.

Karen Newman, independent expert, described the UN as being similar to the fashion industry, featuring many verticals that do not always collaborate. Thus, she said, the SDGs are important in that they give common issues to work collaboratively on. She noted that the fashion sector’s competitive nature may have made it difficult to cooperate, especially on knowledge sharing, sourcing practices and costing.

Concluding remarks by Monika Linn, UNECE, outlined next steps for the Partnership on Sustainable Fashion. She indicated that UN Environment is acting as the first hosting organization, and will organize a first meeting before the end of the year. The Partnership, she noted, will be formally launched in March 2019 at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi, Kenya.

The event was co-hosted by ILO, ITC, UNDESA, UNECE, UNEP, UNCTAD, UNFCCC, UNGC, UNOP, and the World Bank Group. [HLPF Side Event Programme: UN Partnership on Sustainable Fashion and the SDGs]

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