Mapping the Fashion Industry: Introduction

Fashion is a huge, multi-trillion dollar global industry. Its supply chains span continents, employ millions of workers, consume resources and produce goods – both on a massive scale. With so great a reach, fashion has the potential to have an enormous positive impact on the world. 

Vogue magazine declared 2017 as the year that ‘sustainability got sexy’. But beyond the pages of glossy magazines and the glamour of the catwalks, what is really happening in the nuts and bolts of the fashion industry – and particularly within its complex and multi-tiered production supply chains? Where exactly does ‘sustainable’ fashion sit within all that?

In this inaugural research, Mapping the Fashion Industry, Common Objective (CO) takes a data-driven approach to picturing the overall landscape of the fashion industry and its impact. 

  • What is being made and sold, and where is this happening? Which countries dominate which aspects of the industry? 

  • What impact does this have on the planet? How many people work in the industry and what is life like for them? 

  • Who is doing what to change the industry for the better?

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. Drawing on wide-ranging and authoritative sources, CO has taken information where it does exist, made some informed assumptions and attempted some conclusions.

CO is about collaboration not competition. In that spirit, CO encourages you to read this report in conjunction with two other key reports – the Pulse of the Fashion Industry (2018 and 2017 editions) from the Global Fashion Agenda which draws on granular data from the members of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition; and A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, looking at production and consumption. Also worth a look is the Business of Fashion’s State of Fashion 2018 report which explores developments and trends in fashion retail.

As well as those defining publications, CO referenced more than 500 other reports and sources in order to produce this mapping. All these sources were incredibly valuable in helping to shape the structure and findings of this work. 

Around 430 million people work in the fashion industry, including all garment and textile workers, and all those involved in cotton farming and services relating to cotton. That’s one in eight people in the global workforce. 

A better industry, a better world

Imagine a world where, thanks to fashion, all of those people could earn a decent income. Imagine how that would radically transform their lives – and their communities, economies and countries. Thanks to higher incomes, their health would improve through better nutrition and the ability to afford medical care, enabling them to remain economically productive for longer. Their children would be both healthier and better educated and thus would contribute more in their turn, establishing a cascade of prosperity. Imagine how many of the Sustainable Development Goals could be met if the fashion industry got its act together.

However today, this $2 trillion industry is not realising its full positive potential. Its social and environmental impacts are still too hefty and its efforts to change this too slight. 

Each year fashion consumes 79 billion cubic metres of water and 31 billion litres of crude oil, enough to fill 12,402 Olympic pools. Each year it uses 43 million tonnes of chemicals. A quarter of the chemicals it releases into rivers and waterways are toxic to aquatic ecosystems. 

Only 2% of factories participate in an ethical scheme

Fourteen million workers in fashion do not earn enough to live on and around 181 million are in precarious, insecure work. 2% of the world’s factories participate in a sustainable or ethical certification scheme and 85% of global fashion brands rank poorly in sustainability indices. 

The sheer volume of the industry is dwarfing current sustainable initiatives. Amid the debate around sustainability, there is 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. Too often companies present their sustainability targets as percentages, not as real-time figures – ignoring the impact that volume has. Fashion is predicted to keep growing. As it does, so will its impact – and so will the need for change. 

Seizing the opportunity

The good news is that over the past decade or so there have been a raft of responses to encourage and support the fashion industry into improving. CO focused on responses concerning the global fashion industry and found, alongside the global trade union of workers, more than 100 – ranging from standards and certification schemes, to collaborative initiatives, campaigns and rankings.  

These initiatives demonstrate that there is knowledge and technical support for better, more sustainable production, for more sustainable design and for more sustainable consumption. There is knowledge and support for a more sustainable, integrated model that looks holistically at how the whole chain of fashion production through to consumption works. There is also partnering and support across some sectors in the industry to find solutions. 

The challenge is turning this information and these intentions into action – in particular action where the whole industry gets on board, uses the tools and initiatives available, and actually implements its intentions. 

As this research shows the sheer volume of the industry is huge – over a hundred billion items of clothing and 15 billion pairs of shoes sold annually.  Fashion is predicted to keep growing – and as it does, so will its impact. Industry leaders need to show bold commitment to change – for instance, moving to business models that are circular instead of linear (and dependent on growing volumes). Or by offsetting targets on quality changes against growth in the volume of goods produced. 

The scale of this challenge begs questions about the direction of the efforts so far. Does the plethora of different initiatives and certifications overwhelm rather than support businesses? Could these responses be more harmonised and aligned? This requires leadership and collaboration.  

Collaboration is key

CO’s mission is to enable fashion businesses to put sustainability into practice through better collaboration. The CO platform gives millions of professionals the means to build efficient and sustainable supply chains by matching buyers, suppliers and collaborators with tailored connections and information to enable better practices in their day-to-day work.  

As well as offering a vital baseline for progress, CO hopes that the data in this research will inform more sustainable decision-making by fashion businesses – whatever their size – and help them in their communications, both internal and external. By helping fashion businesses to turn good intentions into practical action, CO supports moving sustainability from niche to norm.


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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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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