The United Nations has mobilized the fashion and cosmetics industries in an “eco-fashion” battle to curb the unprecedented loss of the world’s biodiversity, from over-harvesting wild species for their skins or natural fibres to pollution caused by manufacturing processes.
More than 500 prominent figures from government, international organizations and the above industries have been meeting in Geneva over the past two days at the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) ‘Best Use of Nature’ forum to promote ethical action by producers and consumers against the rapid loss of the world’s species as part of the International Year of Biodiversity.
Michel Mane, President of Mane USA, a leading supplier of natural ingredients for perfumes, told participants that biodiversity is a source of creativity and new products for his industry, which is worth billions of dollars annually, and it is vital for supply chains to be transparent so that natural ingredients are responsibly harvested and valuable plants are not exhausted.
Techniques are now being established for the growth of perfume ingredients in developing countries that use both cutting-edge, environmentally benign agricultural practices and provide local employment, he said.
“Changing the way consumers and markets value biodiversity offers an opportunity to maximize the positive and minimize the negative impact on communities, economies and the environment,” UNCTAD said in advance of the conference, citing the case of the Tibetan antelope, which has declined from over 1 million in number in 1900 to 75,000 today because poachers sell the skins for the production of luxury shawls.
“By further redefining sustainable development to include greater business engagement in policy and strategy debates, prospects for tackling the global challenges presented by poverty and environmental degradation are strengthened,” it added.
It cited as an example of successful sustainable management the export of caiman skins and products by Bolivian communities – over $1.4 million in sales to Italy, up 282 per cent over 2003, and $500,000 to the United States, up 364 per cent – under plans ensuring that harvesting does not exceed reproduction rates.
Turning to harmful production practices, it noted that washing wool, separating flax fibres from stalks, tanning leather, bleaching, dying, printing, and finishing consume large amounts of water and energy, use toxic chemicals and produce effluents that can pollute air, water and soil. Tanning is particularly polluting, having one of the highest toxic intensities per unit of output.
By contrast, “eco-fashion” firms adopt approaches that take into account the preservation of the environment. For example, organically grown cotton does not involve the use of pesticides and other chemicals that can cause species damage. Worldwide, cotton now accounts for 11 per cent of pesticides and 25 per cent of all insecticides used each year.
Giulia Di Tommaso, an external affairs official of Unilever Corporation, a multinational manufacturer of cosmetics and soaps and a major buyer of agricultural commodities such as palm oil, stressed the importance of the sustainability and transparency of supply chains, citing greatly increased consumer interest in environmental standards. Her firm is focusing increasingly on the sustainable use of water and soils, and respect for flora and fauna of rainforests, she said.
Edna dos Santos, Chief of UNCTAD’s Creative Economies and Industries Programme, noted that marketing fashion products, including not only clothes but cosmetics and perfumes, can lead to significant employment gains in developing countries, often involving small businesses, an important player in economic progress but often in short supply.
This evening the conference will close with an “EcoChic” fashion show and exhibition celebrating sustainable fashion and accessories, of which over 50 have been donated by designers from around the world, including the renowned figures Diane Von Furstenberg, Manish Arora, Bora Aksu, and Thakoon.
The General Assembly proclaimed 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity in a bid to halt the unprecedented extinction of species due to human activity – at a pace some experts estimate to be 1,000 times more rapid than the natural rate typical of the Earth's long-term history – and multiple events are scheduled throughout the 12 months to produce blueprints for action.