Fashionistas to the fore in UN battle to preserve biodiversity

Tibetan antelope

8 January 2010 – The United Nations is mobilizing the fashion and cosmetics industries in an “eco-fashion” battle to curb the unprecedented loss of the world’s biodiversity, from the over-harvesting of wild species for their skins or natural fibres to the pollution caused by manufacturing processes.

At the initiative of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), more than 500 prominent figures from government, international organizations and the above industries will meet in Geneva on 20 and 21 January to call for ethical action by producers and consumers against the rapid loss of the world’s species as part of the International Year of Biodiversity.

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.

“Eco-fashion does not involve the unsustainable harvesting of species such as the Tibetan antelope, which has declined in number from over 1 million in 1900 to 75,000 today because poachers sell the skins for the production of luxury shawls,” UNCTAD said today in a news release, stressing the role that governments, businesses, and consumers can play in promoting biodiversity conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources.

“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. 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.”

The Geneva gathering will begin with a high-profile business seminar and conclude with an “EcoChic” fashion show and exhibition launch 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.

In addition, established “sustainable” fashion labels such as Edun, Noir, Ciel, and Kumvana Gomani will contribute garments and accessories from their latest collections.

UNCTAD 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, and that communities maintain a clean environment to enable the species to thrive.

Citing harmful production practices, the agency 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. Leather 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.

Loss of habitat is the principal cause of loss of species and some 11 per cent of the natural areas remaining in 2000 may soon disappear, chiefly as a result of conversion for agriculture, the expansion of infrastructure, and climate change, UNCTAD warns.

Some 60 per cent of coral reefs could be gone by 2030. Longer-term damage is still more extensive: in the last 300 years, the global forest area has shrunk by approximately 40 per cent, completely disappearing in 25 countries, and since 1900 the world has lost about 50 per cent of its wetlands.

After the gathering, the EcoChic Geneva Exhibition will be open for two weeks, exploring the multifaceted nature of sustainable fashion with particular focus on uses of biodiversity that provide benefits and income for communities in developing economies, through a range of creative displays of eco-friendly garments, accessories and cosmetics.

A host of other events – meetings, symposia, multi-media exhibitions – will follow throughout the year in venues around world, from Trondheim, Norway, to Delhi, India, from Doha, Qatar, to Cartagena, Colombia, and from Shanghai, China, to Nairobi, Kenya, culminating in a high-level meeting at UN Headquarters in New York at the start of the General Assembly's 65th annual General Debate in September and an official closing in Kanazawa, Japan, in December.


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