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Redesigning the future of fashion and packaging through forest-based materials is possible


Fashion and packaging have one thing in common: both rely heavily on plastics. Oil and gas companies look to plastics as a key area of growth. Global plastic production doubled since 2000, to reach an astonishing 460 million metric tonnes – per year. This means that more plastics have been produced in the past 20 years than in the five decades following World War II. The environmental costs are enormous: scientists have found microplastics in places few humans have visited, like the deep sea and the Arctic, in drinking water, and the placenta of pregnant women. 

According to a recent OECD report, packaging accounts for 40% of plastic waste, while 11% comes from clothing and textiles, and 12% from consumer goods. Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled; the rest either accumulates in landfills, uncontrolled dumpsites or incineration plants.

Withing this context, experts at the online event “Forests for sustainable lifestyles and a circular economy” organized by the Joint UNECE/FAO Forestry and Timber Section to celebrate the International Day of Forests 2022, provided evidence that things can be done differently:  Forests can offer solutions to reduce the fashion and packaging industries’ reliance on non-renewable materials. The journey to sustainability will rely on new technologies and the engagement to move from a linear, plastic-based economic model to a sustainable circular economy. Forests are therefore a key resource in the shift towards renewable and biodegradable solutions as wood can be used for diverse purposes, with lower environmental impacts than many alternative materials.

Wood-based products, such as paper and paperboard for packaging, are a great example of products that once used can be reused and recycled, thereby extending their life, and further reducing their material footprint. Paper and paperboard packaging is highly efficient in terms of its carbon balance, only emitting 3-5% of the carbon compared to the average product they protect. A recent study even concluded that paper and cardboard have the potential to be recycled an astonishing 25 times and possibly more. Innovative products could replace Styrofoam. The main advantage of cellulose-based products over plastic is that they easily decompose without leaving traces in organisms. In sum, the shift from single-use plastic packaging to wood-based alternatives is economically feasible, with an estimated market growth potential of US$5 billion.

The forest and fashion sectors intersect in many ways. Award-winning eco-designer Tiziano Guardini is not only conceptually inspired by forests; in his newest “Into the Forest” collection, which was presented during the event, Guardini relies exclusively on innovative bio-based and renewable materials. And these should be sourced from sustainably managed forests, with wood-products certified to ensure that they come from legal and sustainable sources.

The role of the consumer is key to any change as they are often guided by low prices. Pricing of sustainable fashion is therefore a crucial aspect when discussing material alternatives and changing consumption patterns. In addition, the current fast fashion model, which generates enormous amounts of waste as well as the oftentimes opaque second-hand garment ‘donations’ supply chains, needs further attention. Increasing amounts of low-quality second-hand textile donations impact local textile manufacturing in many places in Africa, for example. Recycling technology is not yet well developed and innovations in this sector are urgently needed.  

To mark the Day, UNECE also launched its first podcast in a new series focusing on forests’ contribution to the circular economy: “One World, Zero Waste? The circular economy explained”.

The Joint UNECE/FAO Forestry and Timber Section supports the development of evidence-based policies for sustainable forest management and communicates about the many products and ecosystem services provided to society while assisting countries of the region to monitor and manage forests. Check out our work on forest products markets, and on sustainable fashion.

Watch the recording of the International Day of Forests 2022 sessions here: Part 1 on Fashion, Part 2 on Packaging.

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