Mapping the Fashion Industry: Executive Summary

Sustainably produced and used fashion should be the key to unlocking this potential. But the sheer volume of the industry is dwarfing current sustainable initiatives. 

Common Objective’s mission is to move sustainability from niche to norm – enabling fashion businesses to put sustainability into practice through better collaboration. 

In this inaugural research, Mapping the Fashion Industry, Common Objective (CO) takes a data-driven approach to map the current landscape of the fashion industry. The aim is to provide a baseline from which to measure progress towards greater sustainability, to see where more needs to be done and to help businesses to make practical, sustainable choices. 

Vogue magazine decreed 2017 as the year ‘sustainability got sexy’ – but what exactly does that mean in terms of existing practices, scale and impacts? Answering that question was a core aim of this report. As well as mapping the current state of fashion, CO asks who is doing what to fix the industry for the future – and if these actions are headed in the right direction. 

Sustainability may be ‘sexy’ as a concept, but measuring it as a sector by value, volume and impact is difficult. Quantitative data on general fashion production and retail is rarely disaggregated into sub-sets on sustainability. By drawing on wide-ranging, authoritative sources, the report highlights dominant trends and lesser-known issues, and makes informed assumptions and conclusions. 

Key Findings

A vast industry

Fashion is a complex, multi-layered and sprawling industry with sectors that generate incomes to rival the economic output of entire countries. 

The length and fragmentation of supply chains make it difficult for any one player to create enough impact alone. Far more cross-industry collaboration is needed – among and between brands and suppliers, and among governments and regulators to name a few.

China dominates 

Although fashion is global, it is dominated by a handful of players. China emerges as the front-runner in almost all aspects of the industry.

  • For retail volume, China’s market is twice that of the US, which is almost three times as big as the third largest, India – the consumer market tipped to see the most future growth.
  • China and the US are leaders for retail value ($284 and $267 billion respectively), with Japan third at $66 billion.
  • Roughly one in three of all garments sold globally is ‘made in China’.
  • For footwear, China and the US dominate retail in value and volume, while China is the world’s leading exporter. 

The message here is that to have the biggest positive impact, more efforts and initiatives must focus on China – but not at the detriment of places where sustainability efforts have concentrated so far, such as Bangladesh. 

Massive, unequal impacts

Enough data exists to show that fashion has a massive impact on resources and the climate.

  • Fashion depletes limited natural resources – it consumes 79 billion cubic metres of water, and uses 31 billion litres of crude oil, enough to fill 12,402 Olympic pools. 
  • Each year it uses 43 million tonnes of chemicals and releases 1.75 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.
  • The industry and garment end-of-use generates 92 million tonnes of waste, 80 per cent of which is primarily disposed of in landfill.

Most fashion production occurs in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in Asia, where labour costs are lower and regulations may be less strictly enforced.  

  • At least 430 million people work in fashion production, including cotton farming and services. Of these, 181 million people have insecure work, and 14 million do not earn enough to live on.
  • 19 countries use forced labour in garment or jewellery supply chains, some of which will involve child labour.
  • The early stages of production – fibre cultivation and processing – are some of the most toxic. Local environments and workers bear the brunt of the subsequent pollution and adverse effects on health.

Who is doing what to fix fashion?

Over the past decade or so there have been several moves to nudge the global fashion industry into improving. Alongside workers themselves organising in over 120 unions affiliated to a global union, CO found more than 100 standards and certification schemes, collaborative initiatives, campaigns and rankings. These offer fashion businesses support and technical help on more sustainable production, design and consumption.

That is good news. But the danger is that these efforts are too fragmented and fashion is still too opaque. There is too little transparency or traceability within supply chains for both big and small companies. 

Only 2% of the world’s factories participate in a sustainable certification scheme while 85% of global fashion brands rank poorly in sustainability indices. Dedicated measures to gauge industry improvements are also lacking.

There is also too little discussion about the utter enormity of the industry, about the huge volumes of goods it produces – and about how tiny the sustainable response is by comparison. Fashion is predicted to keep growing – as it does, so will its impact. Industry leaders need to show bold commitment to change.

CO hopes that the data in this research will inform more sustainable decision-making by fashion businesses big and small, and help them in their communications, both internal and external. By helping fashion businesses to turn good intentions into practical action, CO aims to have a positive impact socially and environmentally.


This research covers five areas:

Mapping the Market

Mapping Production

Mapping Fashion's Impact on People

Mapping Fashion's Impact on Planet

Mapping the Solutions Providers

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Common Objective

Welcome to Common Objective - your hub for sustainable fashion business.

You've been redirected here from the Ethical Fashion Forum website because, as of May 2018, EFF is supporting its network through this new, online platform that helps fashion professionals succeed in the most sustainable way.

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