Sustainable Fashion

Everything you want to know about the sustainability of the textile and fashion industry

Creative Economy and the Challenge of Sustainability: the Case of Fashion and Lifecycle Assessment

By Michael Stanley-Jones, Program Management Officer, United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)

The 2019 United Nations General Assembly resolution declaring 2021 “The International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development” marked an evolution in thinking about “creative economy”. “Recognizing that the creative economy…involves, inter alia, knowledge-based economic activities and the interplay between human creativity and ideas, knowledge and technology, as well as cultural values or artistic, cultural heritage and other individual or collective creative expressions…”.1

The resolution calls for “creating an enabling the environment for the promotion of the creative economy, such as the development of digital technology, innovative and digital economy, e-commerce, building relevant digital infrastructure and connectivity for supporting sustainable development…”.  

This recognition of the marriage of fashion and digital technology – two of the most dynamic sectors of the creative economy – which previously had been viewed as marginal in several of the early classifications,2 raises a challenge to assessing fashion’s sustainability.  The digitalization of fashion will profoundly impact fashion’s environmental and social footprint on the planet.

Due to its long value chain, encompassing a wide range of sectors such as agriculture, forestry, and manufacturing as well as concerning issues regarding gender, inequality and sustainable resource management, the majority of the Sustainable Development Goals – including Goals 1 (No Poverty), 3 (Health), 5 (Gender Equality), 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), 9 (Industry Innovation), 10 (Inequality) 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), 13 (Climate Action), 14 (Life Below Water), 15 (Life on Land)  and 17 (Partnerships) – are all interlinked and directly influenced by fashion.  Sustainable Development Goal 12 notably commits to ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns. Its eight targets address the use of natural resources, chemical waste, fossil fuels and the integration of sustainable practices into the production cycles – all of which are relevant to the fashion industry. 

To inform on the current state of these industries’ environmental performance and provide robust data to inform and empower them to use a science-based approach to reduce their impact, all identifiable upstream inputs for every lifecycle stage of the given sector’s activities need to be taken into consideration. For fashion and footwear, all inputs should be traced back to the original extraction of raw materials, and then followed throughout their lifecycle.3

To capture fashion’s impact on sustainable development, analysts have employed ever more sophisticated lifecycles assessments (LCA) of the sector’s value chain. United Nations Environment Program’s 2020 report, Sustainability and Circularity in the Textiles Value Chain, provides an evidence-based, value chain approach to identifying the hotspots and priority actions needed to advance sustainability and circularity in textile value chain.

Since its adoption in 1990, LCA use has continued to expand as it seeks to encompass impacts as diverse as resource accounting and social well being.4 The expansion of LCA into this more holistic approach is found in the growing use of indirect and/or consequential analyses. Since 2006, consequential LCA (cLCA) has increasingly grown in popularity among academic literature. cLCA explores not only the impacts of the production and use of a particular product in isolation, but the wider changes to the overall system that may arise from using that product or service.

cLCA expands the system boundaries beyond those that have been traditionally set. Policy decisions must consider a broader range of factors, including environmental, social and equity dimensions embedded in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Social and economic effects are increasingly receiving the same weight as environmental ones, along with increasing emphasis on integrated sustainability assessments.5

Additionally, cLCA is an appealing tool for policy makers. To illustrate, within the debates over policies to promote sustainability within the fashion industry, the selection of eco-friendly commodity fiber for textile production lends itself to LCA, with impacts on water consumption and quality, chemical use, soil management, energy consumption, poverty reduction (particularly among smallholder farmers), and gender equity among those associated with the choice of fiber (synthetic, natural, organic) used in textile production. 

Various methodological approaches to quantifying the impact of the fashion industry on sustainability may lead to discrepancies in assessment and policy prescriptions for action. UNEP (2020), drawing upon a LCA of Swedish clothing consumption, uncovered additional benefits of circular economy policy in transport at the use phase – transport by the user back and forth to the store – make a high contribution accounting for 11% of the overall climate impact.6 This contribution had been missed in earlier analyses. Quantis (2018) had found distribution and retail contribute only 1% to the climate impact of global apparel.

UNEP’s cLCA is holistic and places greater emphasis on measures to promote sustainable consumption behaviors. Among the most promising are those accelerating behavior shifts that could reduce the impacts of fashion by digitalizing apparel, which could substitute for physical apparel, and strengthening e-commerce applications to reduce retail apparel return rates and their associated transport impacts.

Further behavioral changes may be supported by increasing transparency and accountability in the fashion value chain, through more visible sustainability standards, consumer education and access to information, validated in some cases by blockchain applications, another outgrowth of digitalization.

The United Nations General Assembly resolution’s call for strengthening an enabling environment for the promotion of the creative economy, including development of digital technology, e-commerce, and digital infrastructure and connectivity, points to new potential for promoting sustainable development through digital transformation.

As the global digital economy gains momentum, we will need to include the footprint of digital technologies in our consequential assessments of the sustainability of the creative economy sectors in the post-pandemic world.


1. UNESCO and UNDP (2013). Creative Economy Report 2013. Special Edition, p. 185.  The term ‘creative economy’ was first proposed by British media writer John Howkins in 2000, followed by two foundational reports prepared by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in 2008 and 2010, and the seminal United Nations Creative Economy Report 2013 of UNDP and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

2. The Symbolic Texts Model classifies Fashion within “Borderline cultural industry”, while the early Concentric Circles Model excluded it from “Core creative arts”, “Other core creative industries” and “Wider cultural industries”, placing it among “Related industries” along with Advertising, Architecture and Design.  Software was labelled “borderline” in the Symbolic Texts Model, in contrast to the WIPO Copyright Model which counted it among “Core copyright industries”.

3. Quantis (2018). Measuring Fashion: Environmental Impact of the Global Apparel and Footwear Industries Study, p. 10-14.

4. McManus and Taylor, 2015:

5. Buytaert, B. Muys, N. Devriendt, L. Pelkmans, R. Kretzschmar JG,Samson (2011). Towards integrated sustainability assessment for energetic use of biomass: A state of the art evaluation of assessment tools. Renew Sustain Energy Rev, 8 (15) (2011), pp. 3918-3933.

6. Sandin et al., 2019