Michael Stanley-Jones: The UN Sustainable Fashion Alliance

Michael Stanley-Jones of the UN Alliance of Sustainable Fashion, in conversation with environmental advocate and mission driven music artist, Elle L.

Michael Stanley-Jones of the UN Alliance of Sustainable Fashion, in conversation with environmental advocate and mission driven music artist, Elle L.

This March, a significant new initiative - helmed by the UN, no less - landed on the sustainable fashion scene. The United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, launched during the 4th U.N. Environment Assembly in Nairobi, was created to co-ordinate the UN's then scattered response to the enormous challenges faced by the textiles and fashion industries in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The rota of participating agencies the new Alliance is impressive - encompassing UN Environment, the UNFCCC, The World Bank Group. 

Earlier this year, I spoke to the Alliance’s Co-Secretary Michael Stanley-Jones about his work. In Part 1, we look at fashion’s enormous impact and its ability, if transformed, to bring positive change to the planet. We also talk about how any approach to make fashion more sustainable requires integrating across programmes that have been, in the past, institutionally separated.

The interview would not have been possible without the assistance of environmental advocate and mission driven music artist, Elle L. With thanks.

Bel: You’ve had a variety of roles within the UN. How did you end up in the Alliance? 

Michael: I used to help countries set up national pollutant release registers and harmonise them globally. [In pollutants] you have a global value chain with no uniform standards - not even methods of exchanging information about what goes into textiles and clothing, and how they are managed. It was good preparation for working in textiles and fashion. I feel like I’ve come back to the basics: the public right to know, how to eliminate toxic substances from products, how people can make choices to protect their health and the planet. It’s a different way of looking at [fashion] - through the medium of fabric, which essentially is the basis of the fashion economy.

Bel: You see fashion as very much part of something bigger.

Michael: I’ve just been told that 2021 will be nominated as the ‘International Year of the Creative Economy’, which means that fashion will be a centrepiece of a year that encompasses cosmetics, styling, design, music performance. And we’ve seen reflections of that [attitude] in our partners’ work. The Impact Fund for African Creatives [launched by Simone Cipriani from Ethical Fashion Initiative and Roberta Annan from the NGO African Fashion Fund] has already seen how something that starts as a discussion of clothing spreads to encompass design, lifestyle and the performing arts as expressions of how to live more sustainably. 

Elle: [Fashion and creativity] are how we identify ourselves as individuals. But we still don’t realise how much of that will impact the planet.

Michael: It’s one facet of this whole discussion: that [fashion] has great potential for supporting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We often see fashion as a problem. But, at the same time, it’s an area of our lives where we can learn and then apply what we learn to other forms of consumption and production, to fundamental questions about how we live. And we could solve [those questions] by asking ‘What do I wear? What do I know about what I wear? How can I make better choices so that what I wear is better for the planet, for my family, my health and my community?’…

It’s a learning space that has been untapped by the environmental community - until now. The UN - even my own agency, the UN Environment Programme - has been on the margins of this discussion and hasn’t seen the full potential of what engaging in this debate could bring to the 2030 Agenda overall. 

Elle: And we have been disconnected as a society. It’s the same with the food industry. We see meat as ‘meat’, not ‘animal’. We don’t think about the processes that go into creating something we think we deserve. We aren’t thankful. Now, it’s fashion’s turn to play its part in this radical transparency, asking whether we're participating in something that is murderous, that is harmful to Mother Nature. And it’s never been a more critical point to address this.

Michael: You touch on part of this problem which is that we silo issues by looking at them through single lenses. We fail to look holistically at what this all means across several parameters. The way that gets reflected in organisations like the UN is that we tend to divide things up functionally. That’s fine until you get to an issue as fundamental as fashion when you’re talking about [many issues] at once and there is no institutional structure to pull those together. 

So, if I look at my own agency, someone over in the Economy Division is working on sustainable lifestyles and fast fashion; somebody in Ecosystems Division is working on waste water and micro-fibre debris; somebody on the Oceans Campaign is working on plastics at sea - but some of that is micro-fibre and it’s coming from the wash cycle, and that’s coming from the fast fashion habits we’ve developed. 

Coming up with a solution requires integrating across programmes that are institutionally separated. That’s one thing that Poverty-Environment Initiative taught us [Stanley-Jones is also  Programme Officer with the UNDP-UNEP Poverty-Environment Initiative]. We were the pilot initiative looking at integrative approaches to achieving the 2030 Agenda. Poverty reduction or elimination, gender equality, sustainable management of natural resources, soils, forests, water, fisheries and so on: you can’t address these problems by just starting with one media, like water, or one community like farmers. 

The UN was set up in 1945 when political economy looked for ‘multi-stakeholder solutions’. It was a corporatist model, where the big pinnacles of social action were bought together under umbrella organisations by government and they would make decisions. Those processes broke down in the 1970s because they didn’t include women and minorities, they didn’t include the green movement or even include the consumer movement. People don’t call themselves ‘worker’, ‘producer’, ‘housewife.’ Housewives are workers, workers are also involved in production. So you saw rebellions among advocates for ecology/equality, who no longer wanted to be called a member of the working class, or a member of the ruling class. They didn’t see the world in that way. 

Elle: It’s great, for example, that the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion integrates different departments within fashion and beyond that - but people also need simplified solutions. There needs to be an approach that brings everything together. Look at polyester. Some people say it’s a good thing because it’s durable but others point out how it’s produced and processed.

Michael: The science isn’t robust. We have alarming factoids; we have a sense that the industry itself understands how unsustainable it is. Look at the annual Pulse of the Fashion Industry report. It’s sponsored by a consortium which includes the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which is a huge quasi-trade association representing about half of global trade in fashion. They give a score every year on a scale of 0-100. Their first score was abysmally low; the second year, they made mild improvement - but nothing like what they would need to be able to claim the industry is sustainable. And they’ve also forecast falling profits if they don’t start rapidly improving their performance. 

So they are pushing the envelope within industry, using finance to say ‘you need to up your game.’ They’ve seen long term trends of improvements among major players in the industry but small and medium enterprises are not making progress. More needs to be done. 

One of the interesting things about the Coalition is that they are interested in regulation. They don’t know [whether] they can make further progress on some issues unless government steps in and gives stronger guidance. That’s unusual. You don’t often see major industries so distressed by their own performance that they would entertain a dialogue with what kinds of guidance government could give to help shape a market so it can become more sustainable. 

Bel: How do you, as the UN, measure progress?

Michael: We have the 2030 Agenda; we have 17 Sustainable Development Goals that we are mandated by all member states to support their achievement. For that, we have 169 targets [that companies can meet] to measure progress. What’s more challenging is making sure that, when you progress towards achieving one target, you’re not backsliding on another. 

Stanley-Jones and Elle L at a recent UN event.

Stanley-Jones and Elle L at a recent UN event.

That forces you to look across those targets to integrate. For those companies who say ‘I’m contributing to sustainable fashion’, I don’t want to say ‘Here’s my 12 box check list.’ That approach is unsatisfactory. It might simplify things for some - and you can go to any number of websites and see claims such as ‘our product has the lowest carbon footprint per cubic metre etc’ - but let’s looks at the lifecycle of production; let’s look at human rights practices. Let’s look across a range of indicators.

And, if a company can claim it’s making progress against one or more indicators, without degrading the opportunities to achieve others, then I’m willing to say ‘yes, you seem to be on board.’ But, if you’re not willing to tell me which targets your actions are supporting, then I, as a UN Officer, can’t say whether you are sustainable or not. 

The UN Alliance has been asked countless times to certify a company or product as sustainable. We are not a certifying organisation. We are not even a standards setting organisation. The targets were already adopted by the Member States of the UN. What we need to ask is what evidence we can bring forward and share about how we can accelerate solutions that would bring you closer to that target. 

That’s where there’s a huge gap. We don’t quite have our arms around the problem; it’s enormous and it’s scary. Whether fashion is the second biggest producer of industrial waste water or the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, there are a lot of numbers flying around that have some basis but, when I try to track them down with my researchers, I find they are either very old data, or they are very weakly documented. Or there’s an echo chamber, where someone repeats what someone else says. You chase the fact around and you never find the real source. There was a claim that 10% of all carbon emissions come from the fashion industry. Question is: are we talking about apparel or textiles? Because textiles include wall coverings, carpeting, upholstery …

Bel: Maybe it’s enough to know it’s highly polluting?

Michael: It’s highly polluting.


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The fashion industry is the second-biggest consumer of water.

The industry accounts for a staggering 8-10 per cent of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.

Part of these emissions come from pumping water to irrigate crops like cotton, oil-based pesticides, machinery for harvesting, and emissions from transport.

The industry is responsible for 24 percent of insecticides and 11 percent of pesticides.

The industry is the second-biggest consumer of water, generating around 20 percent of the world’s wastewater and releasing half a million tons of synthetic microfibers into the ocean annually.

The average consumer buys 60 per cent more pieces of clothing than 15 years ago. Each item is only kept for half as long.