Global Change

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: Why Fashion Matters

The influence and power of fashion extends far beyond the runways. NOT JUST A LABEL CONTRIBUTOR RUTH MACGILP brings us deeper inside the role fashion plays in some of the world's most important issues, and how it can work to make a difference.


The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) have been described as ‘a plan of action for people, the planet and prosperity’. They are a collection of 17 global goals, with an overall aim to completely end poverty, take care of and protect the environment, and ensure international prosperity for all people as part of a new sustainable development agenda. Each ambitious goal has specific targets to be achieved by the year 2030, with clear indicators to assess the progress at regular intervals.

So what does this have to do with fashion? 

Firstly, it is more important than ever to remember that fashion doesn’t live in a bubble; we have to look beyond our own industry in order to find viable solutions for the multiple problems that threaten people and the planet as a direct result of the processes and systems involved in designing, creating, selling and consuming clothing. Cross-disciplinary action is not just recommended, but should be required in order to solve wider global issues like those addressed in SDGs, including housing, employment, sanitation and education, and also the more specific problems that exist within fashion, like the human rights violations that are endemic in garment manufacturing, the lack of gender, class and racial diversity in senior job roles, and toxic destruction of the natural environment for the sake of cheap, fast fashion.

Fashion’s global impact on the economy and the environment is certainly not to be ignored. Indeed, Karen Newman and Cara Smyth commented on this topic for their essay ‘Role of the Fashion Industry in UN’s Sustainable Development Goals’:

“Fashion is not a sector that exists in a vacuum. In fact, the fashion industry is not unlike any other key economic drivers; it is a key component of a global economy and certainly an important sector to consider when thinking about the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). If you consider that the fashion industry is one of the largest employers in the world, especially of women, with some estimates that women make up roughly 80% of the supply chain, it makes sense that fashion and apparel are involved in not only sustainability discussion—but development—where the sector is a powerful driver of job creation. And not for nothing, fashion is a $2.5 trillion-dollar industry and considered a top user of natural resources and polluter of the communities in which it operates. It’s not surprising then that fashion as an industry is now having a moment, especially in the sustainability dialogue.”

It is clear that the fashion industry can, and should, play a huge part in every sustainable development goal. Let’s look through some of the key UN SDGs and explore how fashion could help push those agendas forward.


No poverty | End poverty in all its forms everywhere

The fashion industry should play an active part in improving the economic livelihoods of the communities in which it operates, by paying fair and equal wages to all its employees and ensuring that no one within the supply chain is living beneath the poverty line while working for a full time income.

Zero hunger | End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

In order to support a more sustainable food system, key textile crops—cotton, in particular—should be organic to avoid damage to soils, animals and other food crops, and the industry should work with global agricultural organisations to ensure land share is fair and able to provide sustenance for an exponentially growing population.

Good health and wellbeing | Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

Health and safety regulations in textile and garment factories should be strictly audited by third party authorities. In addition, there should be further legislation on toxic chemicals and pollutants being used and disposed of by manufacturers which threaten the health of those using nearby water sources.

Quality education | Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

Our industry should be educating the world about the ethics of fashion, and how consumers can make better purchasing decisions and learn to care for and repair their own clothing. Also, companies operating in disadvantaged communities should actively endeavour to create and sustain educational opportunities like work-related training qualifications, and should also ensure all employees are able to earn enough money to send their families to school and afford quality childcare.


Gender equality | Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

While the majority of people working in the fashion industry are female, this tends to be in junior roles, while the larger stakeholders and decision makers are men. We need to ensure women are able to reach and sustain executive positions in fashion, like creative directors and CEOs. Sexual harassment in areas of the fashion industry such as including modelling, also needs to be addressed and targeted.

To embrace truly ethical fashion, it is imperative that the industry embraces the SDGs. These goals go beyond philanthropy, they are about governments, businesses, charities, civil society, consumers and activists coming together to safeguard the future of life on this planet.

We should be seeing more conversations both online and offline about this important new agenda, and less self-auditing and greenwashing, within the fashion world. It offers us not an obstacle to simply overcome, but a unique opportunity to bring fashion to the forefront of the worldwide sustainability debate, and show the world the vast potential our contribution could make towards achieving these goals.