Fashion Industry Considers Biodiversity When Sourcing Materials

Though it is a term that is arguably clunkier than "sustainability" -- biodiversity is slowly becoming a topic of interest within the sphere of sourcing and design.
03/12/2012 05:43 pm ET Updated Oct 11, 2012

It is commonly known among conservation biologists that biodiversity -- or the totality and variability of genes, species and ecosystems of a region -- is integral for optimum health and sustainability of a region. Though it is a term that is arguably clunkier than "sustainability" -- biodiversity is slowly becoming a topic of interest within the sphere of sourcing and design.

This was spurred by the United Nations, who designated 2011-2020 as the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity. In the summer of 2011, the UN unveiled three initiatives to promote biodiversity in fashion -- namely through competitions in the United Kingdom, Netherlands and Spain. Amsterdam's Green Fashion Competition was a recent recipient of the UN's support. Holly Syrett, Project Manager for The Green Fashion Competition said that their goal was, "to create awareness of what biodiversity is and why it needs to be sustained throughout the fashion industry... biodiversity provides us with our materials, clean water and a stable climate. It safeguards our future and forms the basis of our prosperity and economic development. We truly believe in the innovative talents and creativity of the fashion industry and therefore challenge fashion entrepreneurs to create catwalk-worthy fashion while sustaining biodiversity."

Earlier this year the European Commission announced a new "Business and Biodiversity" award to a European company with outstanding achievements in halting biodiversity loss and supporting natural ecosystems. And still, two years earlier, the UN hosted a business and fashion event in Geneva highlighting exemplar companies in biodiversity, including the a.d. schwarz label that is part of the Mezimbite Forest Centre, which highlights forest conservation and sustainable development as part of the everyday business operations. Efforts such as these emphasize the integral role that the private sector will continually play in global environmental concerns -- from climate change to conservation.

"The fashion industry relies heavily on biodiversity, through its use of different fibers and other raw materials for textiles" says Eduardo Escobedo, Economic Affairs Officer at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

Natural systems can be understood, conserved and managed to find unique and fine fabrics while conserving the world's flora and fauna. Companies that took the lead in integrating more ecologically-sound principles into their business not only differentiated themselves from competitors but also enhanced their revenues by attracting new customers and infiltrating new markets. Current markets for bio-based and eco-friendly products and services showed growth regardless of the decline in economic activity. For example, in 2008 the U.S. organic sector showed a 17.1 percent annual growth rate and the 2009 Cone Consumer Environmental Survey exposed that 34 percent of consumers are more likely to buy environmentally responsible products, and 44 percent mentioned that their environmental habits have not changed as a result of the economic downturn.

Creative players in the apparel industry, hand-in-hand with policy shapers at the United Nations, are playing a major role in protecting our fragile ecosystems. Fashion companies, especially in the luxury industry, seized the opportunity to be at the heart of dialogue on supporting biodiversity through strategic alliances with NGOs and governments. In September 2009, Tiffany & Co, Gucci Group, Levi Strauss, and dozens of other fashion brands responded to Rainforest Action Network's plea of Don't Bag Indonesia's Rainforests by highlighting the illegal cutting on Indonesia's biodiverse forests for the use of paper in luxury shopping bags. "When we reached out to nearly a hundred fashion companies to inform them that the paper used in their bags was tied to Asia Pulp and Paper, a company notorious for pulping Indonesia's rich rainforests, the response was overwhelming," stated Robin Averbeck, Rainforest Action Network Forest Campaigner. "Companies like the Gucci Group responded by creating forward-looking paper policies that would steer them away from controversial suppliers like Asia Pulp and Paper and towards responsible alternatives like recycled paper. Most recently Levi Strauss & Co. released a revamped paper policy that ensures it is not sourcing from endangered forests."

Zegna Group, a member of the International Vicuᅢᄆa Consortium, took in hand a project to protect the endangered South American camelid from poaching. The group, today, by investing in irrigation projects and working with local communities helps to keep vicuᅢᄆa in their habitat. "I think our project is the first one done by a private brand in Peru, which can be a good example for other enterprises or even to the Peruvian government," comments Paola Zegna, head of luxury men's outfitter Ermenegildo Zegna. Loro Piana, Zegna and Incapalca are three companies that convinced the Peruvian government in 1994 to revive the vicuᅢᄆa wool export after it was forbidden in 1969 to avoid its extinction. These companies by helping to maintain biodiversity have access to a scarce material -- named "the fiber of the gods" -- that allows them to sell coats as exclusive as $18,000.

When asked to cite another successful 'biodiverse' story, Mr. Escobedo did not hesitate to state the Yacare caiman skins used by Bolivian communities. The sustainable management plan implemented in this area ensures that harvesting does not exceed reproduction rates and doubles the income of hunters selling legally-hunted crocodiles. The reptile skin industry, which developed widely in the 20th century, historically provided reptile skins coming from wild reptiles killed for commercial use. Today the context is changing with wildlife conversation public concerns. Though quite a bit of controversy can ensue as to whether it is ethical to harvest animal skins to begin with for fashion-based products, it no doubt important to enact proper policies, community sustainable development measures, and overall awareness to ensure that our world's ecosystems remain intact.

This is a joint article written by Nahida Sinno, Source4Style Journalist-in-Residence and Summer Rayne Oakes, Co-founder, Source4Style .