Ask the expert: 11 recommendations

Posted in Life
by Anna Brismar on 24 April, 2015

How can sustainability principles be applied to the fashion industry?

Every other week, Make it last’s sustainability expert Anna Brismar of Green Strategy answers questions about fashion and sustainability. Have a question you want answered? Send it here. And read more about what sustainable fashion really is, or at least how we define it with the help of Anna, here.

This week’s question:

In discussions on sustainability, we often hear about “sustainability principles” or “sustainability frameworks”. Could you give examples of such principles and frameworks? How could they be applied to the fashion industry?

Anna Brismar: Since the early 1990s, several sustainability frameworks or sets of principles have been developed to promote sustainable development on a worldwide scale. The most recognized of these frameworks are: The Hannover Principles (1992), The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992), the Sustainability principles of The Natural Step (1992), and the Millennium Development Goals (2000). Each framework contains a number of unique sustainability principles. The principles are intended to be applied at local, regional and/or global level. Most of these principles are formulated with nations in mind and for government bodies and public organizations to adopt. Yet, the same principles can quite easily be translated into recommendations for industries and companies too.

Possibly the most influential of the above frameworks is the Rio Declaration. The Rio Declaration was an outcome of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. The Rio Declaration is in fact an annex of the UNCED report (i.e. Annex 1). The annex presents 27 principles for sustainable development. At least ten of these have clear and direct relevance to the fashion industry, namely principle 4, 6 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, 17, 20 and 25 (see source).

Although the above ten principles are formulated for states and its representatives in mind, they may well be applied to the private sector and different industries, such as the fashion industry. Thus, after some slight translation, the above ten principles of the Rio Declaration are here converted into 11 universal recommendations or sustainability principles for the fashion industry:

1. In order to achieve sustainable development, the fashion industry shall make environmental protection an integral part of its development process and ongoing activities.

2. The fashion industry shall give special priority to the situation and needs of developing countries, particularly the least developed and those most environmentally vulnerable.

3. The fashion industry shall cooperate with other sectors and businesses in a spirit of global partnership, to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of Earth’s ecosystems.

4. Fashion companies of developed countries shall acknowledge their superior responsibility for sustainable development in view of their pressure on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.

5. To promote to sustainable development at any scale, the fashion industry shall contribute to reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption.

6. Actors within the fashion industry shall cooperate to strengthen its internal capacity building by improving scientific understanding through exchanges of scientific and technological knowledge, and by enhancing the development, adaptation, diffusion and transfer of technologies, including new and innovative technologies.

7. Actors within the fashion industry shall cooperate to discourage or prevent the relocation and transfer of any substances that cause severe environmental degradation or are found to be harmful to human health.

8. In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by the fashion industry to its best capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

9. Environmental impact assessment shall be undertaken for proposed activities and projects that are likely to have a significant adverse impact on the environment.

10. Women have a vital role in environmental management and development within the fashion industry. Their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development.

11. Peace, development and environmental protection are interdependent and indivisible. In practice, this means that the fashion industry may not claim its right to pursue and develop its business without also protecting the environment, nor justify an adverse environmental impact by referring to its positive socioeconomic effects for society.

In conclusion, although the Rio Declaration’s sustainability principles are more than 20 years old, they are still highly relevant today, and easily applied to and of great value for the fashion industry.

Pictured: The Sustainable Development Matrix diagram adapts the concepts of the Hannover Principles originally developed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. 

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