Fashion and the Sustainable Development Goals

This talk was delivered on the 95th Global Voyage of Japanese NGO, Peace Boat (August - November 2017). I was working with the NGO as an English teacher and International Division volunteer. With my background in fashion design, I was asked to organize a series of lectures and events on the topic of sustainable fashion. in this first lecture, I chose to tie in the Sustainable Development Goals, which are central to Peace Boat’s activities and campaigns.

This lecture was composed with consecutive interpretation in mind (Japanese).

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Good afternoon everyone and thank you for coming today. My name is Lisa Wynne and I am from Ireland. On the ship I am one of the GET English teachers, but today I will be talking about a different subject. I studied design in Ireland’s National College of Art and Design, and I worked as a fashion designer for two years. Today, I want to introduce the topic of sustainable fashion.

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Let me tell you a wondrous story about craft and beauty. Once upon a time, clothes were precious, because a lot of time and skills went into making them. Fibers were harvested from plants or animal skins. These fibers were washed and dried. The fibers were spun into thread and wound onto spools. The warp threads were strung onto the loom and the weft thread passed back and forth on the shuttle. The woven cloth was dyed with natural colors collected from plants or berries. The colored cloth was cut into carefully measured shapes and the pieces were sewn together with needle and thread.

The truth is, this is still how our clothes are made today. We call the many steps in this process the “supply chain.” However, most of these processes have been sped up by machinery, automation, and technology. Now, on the journey from the cotton fields to the high street stores, clothing involves more people, more movement of goods, and generates more money than ever before. According to industry magazine Business of Fashion, if the global fashion industry were a country, it would rank as the seventh largest economy in the world.

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Let’s look at the fashion industry through the lens of the Sustainable Development Goals. I picked the three goals which I see as the biggest challenges for the fashion industry.

Goal 8 is for decent work and economic growth. If fashion is truly a global industry, its prosperity should be shared by all of those working in it. However, for trend-following consumers, clothes are getting cheaper, and new clothes are constantly arriving in stores. How is this possible? Companies want the cheapest materials, the cheapest labor, and the fastest delivery. To protect profits, the cost of labor is squeezed. This has meant that countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and China have become the garment factory hubs. In these countries, the minimum wage is low – often much lower than a living wage – and there is little regulation to protect or empower workers. For example, there is estimated to be about four million garment factory workers in Bangladesh. In 2013, an eight-story factory building collapsed in Dhaka, killing 1,129 workers, and injuring 2,500 more. Earlier in that day, some workers had complained about cracks in the building, but were sent back to their machines by management. The industry cannot continue to enjoy corporate profit from the exploitation of labor. Companies might choose to outsource labor, but they cannot outsource responsibility for the lives and livelihoods of the people. Companies who are actively trying to ensure fair pay and conditions for workers are increasingly transparent about their supply chain.

Goal 15 is for life on land. Ethical and sustainable approaches to fashion are needed to lower the industry’s environmental impact. Problems include the huge amount of waste going to landfill, fertilizers used in cotton farming, and chemical pollution of the rivers. Dangerous chemicals are used for some dyes, waterproofing, and tanning of leather. Contaminated waste water can enter local freshwater sources and cause illnesses or even birth defects in local populations. Institutions like BlueSign are helping to protect vulnerable workers against harmful chemicals by certifying safe practices. Because it uses less water and no chemical fertilizers, organic cotton farming has much less environmental impact than conventional cotton farming.

Goal 12 is about responsible consumption and production. The infinity symbol used here is a strong image for how the fashion industry needs to address sourcing, waste, and recycling. The planet cannot meet the demand for raw materials, while also absorbing increasing amounts of waste. By recycling garments, materials, or even basic fibers, there could be both less waste and less demand for raw materials. Advances in recycling technology are making the process quicker, cheaper, and producing higher quality new materials than ever before.

Fashion, and its dependent agricultural, chemical, and logistics industries, is one of the biggest employers on earth. Ethical fashion is about empowering and protecting that workforce. Fair Trade prices for raw materials, and living wages for factory workers, are essential to make a sustainable industry for all working in the supply chain. Furthermore, sustainable fashion is about redesigning the industry’s impact on the environment; to decrease demand on resources, to decrease pollution, and to decrease waste.

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In the move toward sustainability, we can all participate as smart consumers.

Educate yourself about the ethics of your favorite brands or stores. You might find information about sourcing and production on brand websites. Internet searches might bring up news stories about unethical practices. Companies who are making efforts towards sustainability are usually loud and proud about it, so see what you can learn from their websites and catalogues.

To combat waste, reconsider your shopping habits. Buy less, and make your clothes last longer with care. Repair is a radical intervention we all can make, and it can delay or even prevent landfill waste.

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That’s all we have time for today. Thank you for coming, and I look forward to continuing this conversation about ethical and sustainable fashion.


This was the first in a series of lectures I gave about sustainable and ethical fashion on Peace Boat’s 95th Global Voyage (August - November 2017). The second lecture is here. Following both lectures, I facilitated a Clothing Care & Repair Workshop. About twenty people came to the workshop, bringing ripped or damaged garments. As well as enabling everyone to make simple, hand-sewing repairs, the workshop provided a great opportunity to discuss quality, consumption, and shopping habits, especially when buying souvenirs overseas.