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The UN’s global goals for fashion

In 2015, the United Nations set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals for all member states, creating a global call to action and pushing the cruciality of environmental, social and cultural initiatives for the betterment of our world.

The Sustainable Development Goals build upon decades of UN work. Beginning with the Brundtland Report in the 1980s, which outlined fundamental components for sustainable development, and which remains the backbone of the organisation’s work on sustainable development.

These 17 comprehensive goals feature 230 indicators, by which progress can be measured, with the aim of fulfilling many of them by 2030. Each year, states come together to report on their progress towards achieving their SDGs.

As reported by fashion business innovator Sunman Export, we may feel disconnected from goals around economic growth or water supplies. Yet, these certainly affect all of us as our world becomes more interconnected than ever. It may appear as if our what we wear isn’t at all connected to the SDGs, but below we will explore how they’re intrinsically linked.

SDG 12: Responsible Production and Consumption

At the current rate, reports the UN, natural resource consumption is increasing, particularly within Eastern Asia. The organisation notes that changes needs to be seen within supply chains, from producer to consumer. Crucially, this involves educating consumers about sustainable consumption and living. This would allow fashion’s consumer base to gain autonomy from brands who consistently market themselves as ‘green’, or make minimalistic changes, with little interest in ethics and a remaining focus on revenues.

  1. Achieving environmentally sound management of chemicals and waste throughout their life cycles by 2020

  2. Substantially reducing waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse by 2030

  3. Promoting sustainable public procurement practices, in accordance with national policies and priorities

  4. By 2030, ensuring that people globally possess comprehensive information and awareness of how to live in harmony with nature

So, are we seeing any tangible improvements based on these targets? In its 2019 Progress Report, The UN Secretary-General explained that worldwide material consumption continues to expand rapidly. With this jeopardizing the achievement of SDG 12, and the 16 other goals, it’s easy to feel disheartened.

However, almost all UN member states continue to address challenges linked to air, soil, water pollution and toxic chemicals.

UK Fashion Retail and Legislation

As a response to limited development in line with the SDGs, the British Retail Consortium has set out an initiative entitled Better Retail, Better World. Its aim is to mobilise the retail industry to better meet some of the challenges highlighted within the SDGs.

Undoubtedly, encouraging retailers that have historically thrived on a consumerist, fast-paced market to slow down their practices and work sustainably is no easy task. The future for most businesses is based upon more people consuming more goods, with a global population swelling to over 9 billion by 2050.

Yet, the Ethical Corporation reports that “business as usual” would require three times as much consumption of already overstretched resources. Vast, systemic change needs to advance rapidly. As argued by Fashion Revolution, the UK Government must “rewrite the rules of the economy” in order to come close to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.

Dispiritingly, it seems the government isn’t yet taking this into account. In 2019, it rejected a number of crucial recommendations from the Environmental Audit Committee. These encapsulated a systematic plan of changes for the fashion industry, culminating in a Fixing Fashion report which called for an end to “the era of throwaway fashion”, through wide-ranging recommendations.

The report’s author and MP Mary Creagh responded, accusing ministers of failing to recognise the urgency of the report’s findings. She explained the fast fashion business model must be altered, and argued that UK legislators are “content to tolerate practices that trash the environment and exploit workers… all whilst having committed to net zero emissions targets.”

Fashion Consumers: Be The Change

So, it is disheartening to consider the progress of SDG 12 at a governmental or retailer level. But, we shouldn’t forget the widespread shift happening within fashion consumer attitudes to shopping. In 2019, Forbes reported on a growing call for sustainable fashion. Research from Deloitte found that 80% of Millennials across developed countries consider ethical brand values to be important, and take active measures to reduce environmental impacts. Furthermore, consumers aged 25-35 are projected to spend nearly £114 billion on sustainable products by 2021.

Fashion in particular is so intimately linked to consumers’ sense of self and style, which encompasses personal ethics and values. As a result, some brands have begun to respond to consumers changing attitudes with a higher sense of urgency than that required by SDG 12. This cynical approach to sustainable development demonstrates fashions brands’ continued prioritisation of profit over planet. The rise in greenwashing tactics are a key example here.

Consumer attitudes, people power and grassroots efforts

  1. Conscious Fashion Campaign

  2. Mindless Mag community

  3. Campaigns bring like-minded advocates together

  4. Combined efforts of concentrated group can legitimately push brands to do better…

  5. ‘taking matters into our own hands’

Legitimately Sustainable Brands

  1. Body Shop, founder Anita Roddick’s legacy

  2. what can we learn from sustainable brands

  3. doing away with brands altogether and shopping secondhand

  4. how is the ‘thrifting’ movement impacting UK retail?


  1. We need to see much more change if we are to hit targets

  2. UK fashion has made some steps, but nowhere near drastic enough

  3. Brands responding only to consumer attitudes rather than urgent systematic change is frustrating, but at least some change is taking place…


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