Inside the UN Environment Programme’s New Report: Elisa Tonda Talks ‘Sustainability and Circularity in the Textile Value Chain’

Image: A worker collects pairs of dyed jeans from rooftops in the apparel hub of Keraniganj in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Credit: Shutterstock

A new report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) gives an extensive overview into the effects of an industry that has been engineered to overproduce: yes, we’re talking about textiles. Music artist and environmentalist ELLE L interviews Elisa Tonda, Head of Consumption and Production Unit of the UN Environment Programme’s Economy Division, to discuss some of the report’s key findings, and the main areas for improvement.

Textiles are interwoven into the very fabric of our everyday life, from the clothes we wear to the bed linen we sleep on. We all participate in the textile value chain through our purchase power, but do we know the true cost that the industry is having on our future?

Unravelling the stakes posed by the textile value chain is a complex task. The textile industry has been formed on a matrix of asymmetrical systems, where high volume production needs to be delivered on tight margins. To achieve sustainability and circularity, it’s clear we need systemic change that slows down the wheel of manufacturing and moves current fashion trends towards more timeless, less disposable forms of expression.

Progress is beginning to take shape to transform the vicious cycle of the textile value chain into a circular economy, but the challenge is now to move sustainable efforts from the niche to the mainstream as quickly as possible. In order to drive positive and collaborative action forward in this space, more information, transparency and guidance is required. To help us understand where we can improve, a new report by UNEP seeks to shine a light and provide the most up-to-date and informed analysis of current environmental and socio-economic hotspots along the entire value chain. ‘Sustainability and Circularity in the Textile Value Chain’ looks closely at how current practices impact climate change, land, water resources and ecosystems quality, and also proposes a set of actions that could advance sustainability and circularity along the value chain too.

In our interview, Elisa Tonda, Head of the Consumption and Production Unit at the UN Environment Programme’s Economy Division, shares her expert insight into the report’s findings. Tonda makes clear that re-stitching the fabric of a healthier textile value chain is possible and can be a positive and inclusive experience. Social responsibility is at the core of creating sustainability and circularity across the textile value chain and all industries; the future is literally in our hands and we have the opportunity to be part of the change by making more informed decision and through the power of our purchases. We helped create this system so we can help reshape it too.

How did the report on ‘Sustainability and Circularity in the Textile Value Chain’ come to exist, and how do the findings serve the UN, stakeholders and the public?

UNEP is looking at how we can advance in addressing environmental challenges by identifying a system-wide response, a response which brings together all the actors of value chains to act towards a common vision and objective. This same approach is applied across different industries and sectors. This connects to the Sustainable Development Goal [SDG] 12: Sustainable Consumption and Production. Our approach also focuses on the responsibility of all stakeholders in the consumption and production system to co-create a more sustainable future.

This report on the textile value chain builds on the outcomes of consultations with leaders on this subject, which enabled us to consolidate strong scientific knowledge in this sector, and to discuss it with a wide variety of stakeholders from governments of different geographies, businesses of different sizes, and initiatives that have in different ways been approaching this subject. This was the ideal starting point for us to create the knowledge base and the necessary understanding on how to identify solutions that will help bring sustainability and circularity into the textiles system.

More rapid progression of the discussions on the social issues of the textile value chain has been triggered by deadly tragedies such as the Rana Plaza collapse, which took place in 2013. The same progress has not been made in the discussions on the environmental dimension. We therefore felt that it was timely for us to convene experts and networks to discuss how to raise the bar on sustainability and circularity of the textile value chain. Our report aims to inspire solutions that put sustainability and circularity into the value chain of that sector.

Image: Laborer’s wearing face-masks working in a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Credit: Shutterstock

Which initiatives have contributed to the report and do you see as leading the way?

We have counted on the contribution of multiple initiatives to identify critical areas and hotspots in the textile value chain and to discuss which hotspots and critical areas are already receiving attention and which ones are not.  We have benefitted from insight from organisations including: CircleEconomy, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Global Fashion Agenda, Kering, WWF, Advertising Agencies and Government entities (to name a few). The discussion we had with those initiatives and experts enabled us to distil what requires further focus moving forward to build circularity and sustainability into the textile value chain.

Our consultations started with a first workshop that took place in 2019 in the UNEP Paris office, followed by sessions at the 4th UN Environment  Assembly in Nairobi and at the World Circular Economy Forum. We continue to ensure that these entities that contributed to those discussions are engaged in a network to increase the exchange of information and knowledge developed on the textile system.

How does sustainability and circularity within the textile value chain impact UNEP’s work to protect the environment?

UNEP recognises that we are facing a triple planetary crisis of i) climate change, ii) pollution and waste  iii) nature loss.

Unless we act to protect nature and reverse biodiversity loss, this triple crisis will threaten human health, prosperity and equity. Our unsustainable production and consumption decisions and practices are the drivers of these three planetary crises. If we manage to re-think that consumption and production system, we can create a positive impact to address this triple crisis. By bringing circularity and sustainability across the textile value chain we can drive positive change.

This is also why it will be crucial that the recovery from COVID-19 becomes an opportunity  to recover, re-establish, restart the economy and industry towards a sustainable trajectory. We are potentially at a turning point where we have an opportunity to accelerate change towards sustainable consumption and production.

The report highlights a number of serious issues requiring urgent attention and a need for action and change. What, in your opinion, are the most concerning findings?

It’s hard to prioritise one urgency above another. We have been concentrating our work on the key hotspots, meaning the key impact areas, of the textile value chain. One of the elements that stands out is the growing demand from the consumer for textile products, mostly in apparel (fashion). 

More is being produced to respond to that demand. Many items are not used for long and therefore transform themselves into waste very quickly, which further intensifies the problems. The pace at which the textile system is requiring resources is growing. We have already dealt in an earlier reply with the social risks associated with this sector.  After the Rana Plaza tragedy of 2013, a number of initiatives have been launched and we have seen advancements in that area – however much more needs to be done. We then see environmental impacts arise along the value chain from the use of fossil fuels (impacting climate change), hazardous chemicals, water and land. These are amongst the hotspots which are captured and described in depth in the report itself.

Image: A young boy working in a local clothing factory and hanging up the freshly dyed fabrics in Dhaka, Credit: Shutterstock
Image: A build up of textile waste from unwanted items of clothing, Credit: Shutterstock

Are there particular fabrics and fibres UNEP chose to specifically focus on in this report? Are we able to determine yet which fibres are more detrimental for the environment and are we able to rank fibres in terms of Environmental, Social and Health impacts?

The report assesses the composition of the current textile system. We chose a representation of the fibre mix that makes up what is currently part of global apparel. We took the 2016 baseline which is constituted 64% by synthetics (polyester), 24% by cotton, 6% by other natural fibres (linen), and 6% by cellulosic fibres (viscose).

In order to analyse different fibres, we have to take into account the context. Fibres grown in one location will have a different impact than fibres grown in another geographic location due to the land characteristics, access to water and the practices of the communities and industries handling production. We have advanced our efforts to provide a scientific response to such questions in other sectors, for instance the plastic sector. Here, with the support of the Life-Cycle Initiative, we have been comparing selected single-use products with alternatives, so we can then look at the implications. What always comes out is that all alternatives that are reusable perform better than alternatives that are single use.

300 million individuals operate along the textile value chain, yet we are overproducing at rates that are unsustainable. What does that say for the future of employees when we move towards creating a more circular future of fashion?

We definitely need to talk about a transition towards a more circular and sustainable value chain. A transition that needs to be managed carefully.  People who may lose their job will need to have alternative livelihoods. We will have to make sure that this provides them an opportunity to grow professionally, diversify their skills and integrate into a new system which has been designed to be more sustainable and circular.

How do end of life cycles contribute to our current environmental crisis? If more textiles were recycled, what improvements could we begin to see on the textiles value chain?

It’s about rethinking the system. Whilst recycling is one process contributing to circularity, we should not think of recycling as the only solution. There is no one silver bullet that will solve the problem – therefore we need to work along different fronts. We should be thinking of many ways of promoting closing the loops in the system, such as repurposing, reducing and reusing. Essentially, we need to give new, or longer, life to our products without disposing of them so quickly, valuing and cherishing for longer what we have purchased.

Image: An Indian farmer picks cotton, also referred to as white gold, in Amravati, Maharastra, Credit: Shutterstock

When we look at fast fashion as a dominant sub-industry, how can we work with stakeholders to begin to shift the mindset of consumers away from single-use apparel?

One of the key areas that really requires a lot of attention is indeed to try and change consumer habits. This requires trying to make people enjoy being part of the solution, rather than making them feel guilty. This is so important because what we are wearing is often part of our identity. Talking about consumer mindset shift, two areas that deserve our attention are  brand communications, and transparency and traceability.

In terms of how brands communicate, this means how advertisements are framed, how shop windows are set and how fast they are changed, and who brands use as role models. People who are seen as role models or influencers on that agenda have the power to inspire others to take more positive and sustainable action. Role models can lead by example and show how it can be done, for instance to care for one’s clothes for a long time.

Meanwhile, promoting transparency and traceability involves making sure that people know a little more about the history of what they are buying. Many of our purchase decisions are currently made somewhat uninformed, for instance few of us know what has happened to our t-shirt prior to it being in the shop. We need to be more aware and front-runner companies who are starting to offer such information can provide an important signal in this direction.

What has the pandemic taught us about accountability in the textile value chain?

When we look at impacts relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, what we have seen and continue to see is very worrisome. The pandemic has highlighted the fragility and fragmentation of the textile value chain, and the disruptions have, in turn, deeply affected the livelihoods of workers in many regions.

When building back better, attention should be paid to strengthening or building  deeper and more responsible relationships in the value chain. Developing more responsible value chains creates a level of trust that goes beyond a purely contractual relationship. It also makes business sense that along a value chain all those who contribute to a specific system of production should flourish together in that system and support each other in times of crisis. The nature of the impact of the pandemic on the textile sector flags that not enough has been invested into making that value chain relationship based on responsibility and trust flourish. UNEP’s vision is to embed responsibility and circularity into the textile value chain as we describe in the report.

Image: Textile factory dyehouse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Credit: Shutterstock

How can we begin to facilitate true transparency in the apparel industry?

As we already discussed, it is important to convey information across the entire value chain and have that information associated with the product. This will enable us to know  for instance which chemicals have been used, how the product has been processed, and who has processed it. In consultations we convened for other value chains, the suggestion of developing a product passport, to ensure a greater understanding of the products which are used, has been raised.  It would be interesting to explore how to develop an equivalent solution, which will enable to track the context of a textile product and its potential of recovery and reuse, as well as its following cycles into the economy.

While tracking comprehensive information on a product’s value chain is important, it may not necessarily be the information that drives consumers’ decisions. For this purpose, we need to find a simpler way that quickly tells the consumer what they are buying. The high pace of changes in the digital world may allow us to reach this objective sooner than we may foresee. Meanwhile other forms of communication could be imagined, learning for instance from the ‘traffic light’ labeling system already applied to electric appliances and food products. In the end, it is about conveying complex traceability information in a way which can be easily understood by the user, in a simple and straightforward way.

How fast do you think we can move towards these types of solutions?

The pandemic has triggered more interest, awareness and demand for more information across many industries.  We have recently seen more initiatives concentrating on shifting towards more sustainable consumption, recognising their potential to promote changes across the entire value chain. This is, for example, also a component where further attention is paid in the European Green Deal, where consumers are one of the leading actors in the transformation towards a greener future.

How can every consumer take back power through their purchasing decisions and contribute to be part of the change?

It’s hard to think of just one action that can bring back the power to the consumer but what empowers us as consumers is information. If we don’t know, our decisions will be blind. When such information is not made available to us, we should start wondering why and ask for more transparency.

For UNEP, now that this report is complete, the challenge is to move the conversation forward and translate our findings into actions. UNEP is currently in the process of creating a second report which aims to develop a roadmap, outlining how and by whom priority actions for a more sustainable and circular textile value chain can be taken, whilst continuing to partner with governments, businesses, civil society and other actors in countries to advance this agenda.


With special thanks to Elisa Tonda, Michael-Stanley Jones, Bettina Heller and UNEP.