BIOSPHERE INTEGRITY
X
FASHION INDUSTRY

“The rapid loss of biodiversity that we are witnessing is about much more than nature. The collapse of ecosystems will threaten the wellbeing and livelihoods of everyone on the planet.”
– Linda Krueger, Director of Biodiversity and Infrastructure Policy of Nature Conservancy

Biodiversity

According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the term Biodiversity describes “the variety among living organisms from all sources including terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part, incl. diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems” (CBD, Art.2). 

In other words, that means that biodiversity can be split into three subitems: Genetic Diversity, Species Diversity and Ecosystem Diversity. It describes the diversity on these levels in every possible biosphere.

Genetic Diversity

Species Diversity

Ecosystem Diversity

Ecosystems

An ecosystem is the community of all living and non-living objects which interact with each other and their environment within a specified area, their habitat.

Why is biodiversity so important?

We are living in a bio-based economy. That means that all processes happening in this economy are highly dependent on Earth’s living resources like food, fuel, feedstock, fibers and fodder. Through biodiversity and its ecosystem services, people derive many different benefits like medical services, food, fresh water and so on and so on. Biodiversity loss would result in a loss of these services and if the supply of these resources crashes, the whole economy we are living in, would crash. Sooner or later that would threaten human extinction, as we are highly dependent on those benefits.

In addition, diversity makes ecosystems more resilient to changes. If the diversity is lost, ecosystems are not able to adjust as quickly, which in turn leads to more loss of diversity. Adding on top, the climate crisis is happening at high speed, thus ecosystems simply do not have the time to adjust, which makes the vicious cycle of changes due to climate change and the loss of biodiversity spinning even faster.

Ecosystem Services
Ecosystem Services
(WWF: Living Planet Report - 2018: Aiming Higher)
Planetary Boundaries
(Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, based on analysis in Richardson et al 2023)
Planetary Boundaries
(Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, based on analysis in Richardson et al 2023)
Planetary Boundaries

Planetary Boundaries

The planetary boundaries are nine crucial processes which are essential to keep the Earth’s system stable. It defines and measures the levels of disturbances, which need to be kept in certain limits to enable the Earth to stay in its Holocene-like state. The nine planetary boundaries are called Biosphere Integrity, Climate change, Novel entities, Stratospheric ozone depletion, Atmospheric aerosol loading, Ocean acidification, Biochemical flows, Freshwater change and Land system change. Currently all of these processes are heavily disrupted by human activities. Six of the nine boundaries have already crossed their level of safe operating space and four of these six have in parts or completely reached even their zone of high risk. One additional one is right before crossing its boundary.

Holocene-like State

The Holocene-like state describes a condition which has similar functions and properties as those experienced over the last 10,000 years. The Holocene period began with the last ice age and lasted until the industrial revolution. It had a relatively stable mean surface temperature which varied only by ±0,5°C and also the other properties have not fluctuated noteworthy. It is the benchmark for the planetary boundaries framework, as almost all components of the framework have been stable during that time, therefore it delivers a good basis for comparison. 

Biosphere Integrity

The planetary boundary “Biosphere Integrity” describes the state of biodiversity loss. The word “Integrity” in the title of the boundary does not mean that no change at all is allowed, but the change has to happen in such a way, that all dynamics of the biodiversity are kept intact. It can be separated into two dimensions which form the basis of this boundary: genetic diversity and planetary function.

Genetic Diversity

According to Rockström et al. genetic diversity can be explained as the “maximum extinction rate compatible with preserving the genetic basis of the biosphere’s ecological complexity”. The boundary limits are set at <10 extinctions per million species-year (E/MSY). The actual rate of extinction is hard to quantify and very variable, but it is at least tens of hundreds of times higher than during the holocene period. Richardson et al. sets the current rate at >100 E/MSY, which is a very conservative estimation. If we talk about around 8 million species including plants and animals, about 1 million of them are threatened by extinction. Over the last 150 years, more than 10% of genetic diversity has been lost. All together the genetic diversity component of biosphere integrity has majorly exceeded its boundary.

Planetary Function

In former times the Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII), proposed by Steffen et al., has been used to qualify the limits of the planetary function component.

Now Richerdson et al. proposed to use the Human appropriation of the biosphere’s Net Primary Production (HANPP) to measure this component. The Holocene State of the HANPP was set at 55.9 Gt of year^1 and was overall very stable with only ±1.1 Gt of year^-1. A rise of 10% of the pre-industrial Holocene mean would mean the crossing of the boundary. at a rise of 20%, the zone of high risk is entered. In 2020 the HANPP was elaborated at 71.4 Gt of year^-1, which is 30% of the Holocene HANPP. The planetary function component of biosphere integrity therefore clearly crossed its boundary and has reached its zone of high risk.

Net Primary Production

The net primary production, short NPP, is the photosynthetic energy and material flow into the biosphere. The NPP is important to maintain, produce and grow ecosystems as well as human societies. Ecosystems need the energy flows which are created by the NPP, to keep their ecological functions intact.

All of those planetary boundaries which would be able to soften the effects of the climate crises and are strengthening the resilience of Earth’s system are at or close to the high risk zone. Thus the global resilience capacity is reduced when it is needed the most. Crossing the boundaries heightens the risk of creating widespread, irreversible and direct environmental issues. 

In addition, other boundaries like climate change and novel entities including chemical pollution even worsen the effects of biodiversity, and the other way around. For example, protecting biodiversity in the form of protecting forests would help to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and like that help to reduce the pressure of climate change and in turn the rise of global temperature threatens species extinction. 

All changes and developments now happening are impacting the future environmental state. Further pressure on the boundaries could have a long lasting effect on the environment, which could still become visible in the far future.

Biosphere Integrity x Fashion Industry

The global fashion industry is rising and will continue to rise for the next decades. One reason for that is the rising population. In addition, the consumer demand is already rising and will continue to rise, as a healthier and wealthier population is expected to consume more.

The fashion industry has various effects on the planetary boundaries, one of them being the biosphere integrity boundary. The industry is so deeply locked in its environmental harming practices, that it is very hard to change these patterns. In addition, biodiversity loss is having an impact on the fashion industry.

Fashion Industry impacting Biodiversity Loss

The rise of the fashion industry will continue to worsen the current environmental state. The fashion industry takes various impacts on biodiversity loss during its supply chain. One important role plays the cultivation of raw materials, especially during agriculture.

The farming of natural fibers, such as cotton, can lead to soil degradation, deforestation, monoculture cultivation, planting of non-native species and the pollution of soil, air and water. In this case, monoculture cultivation is a key- element, as it prompts soil degradation and pollution even more.

The Problem with cotton

But let’s start at he beginning: The problem with cotton.
Cotton is the most used natural fiber globally. Although it occupies only 2.4% of the world’s agriculture land, cotton farming accounts for the biggest share of the planet’s insecticide use with 22.5% and 10% of all pesticides. One reason for that could be the form of cultivation of cotton, has one very common farming method is the monoculture cultivation. 

Monocultures

So let’s talk about monoculture.
On the first look, monoculture only brings many benefits to the farmers: As they are only planting one crop, they also need only the knowledge and, more importantly, the machinery for one crop. Additionally, a more efficient planting and harvesting is possible. In general, that results in larger yields and therefore higher profits.

But if you look closely, you can see that monocultures bring many negative aspects with them. As only one single crop is planted, they lack other species of plants and also animals which would help to prevent pest outbreaks. Therefore, monocultures are very sensitive to pests and diseases and consequently need a high amount of pesticides. In turn, that leads to high soil and groundwater pollution. In addition, the cultivation of monocultures years in a row reduces the availability of nutrients as they require the same subsistence all the time and there is no variation in consumption. In total that can lead to soil degradation. It therefore also requires a high amount of fertilizers which in turn, if chemical, lead to pollution as well.

In general, monoculture farming creates a high pressure on the biosphere integrity boundary while lowering the species diversity. 

Biodiversity Loss impacting Fashion Industry

As already mentioned, biodiversity is the ground stone for our whole economy. We draw all of our raw materials for the production of fashion from nature. Keeping biodiversity intact reassures us a larger variety of species and therefore raw materials to draw from (at this point it is important to mention, that of course biodiversity does not purely exist to satisfy human needs!).

The rising governmental awareness about the climate crises and crossed boundaries is leading to tighter environmental directives and regulations which in turn restricts the fashion industry in its daily scope of action.
Although the shift to sustainable practices is so important, mitigation and adaptation efforts are very restricted. For example the shift to bio-based fiber production would need way more agriculture land which is very rare as there is a high competition from for example the food or biofuel industry. 

Solutions

There are already many attempts to make the fashion industry more sustainable and stop the harm on biosphere integrity. But most of the current solutions are focused on eco-efficiency. That means that while the value of a product is increased, the environmental impacts of the same product are reduced. The main focus lies on improving the resource usage and waste and pollution reduction during the product’s production process. Often the outcomes of these solutions are measured on a relative scale, which makes them not very comparable and it is impossible to tell whether the solution in total is positive for all pressures or if the reduction of one pressure in turn adds up on another one.

It would be more constructive to focus the solutions on eco-effectiveness. This way, it is not only taken care of improving the usage of resources and the reduction of waste and pollutants, but the whole production process is designed to be regenerative and safe for ecosystems. 

DiverIMPACTS

DiverIMPACTS is a project coordinated by the French Nationals Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment and funded under Horizon 2020, a European Union’s framework programme focusing on research and innovation. The overall goal is to improve the productivity and resource efficiency, increase the sustainable value of a product and ensure a secure delivery of ecosystem services. Under DiverIMPACTS, they run different sub-projects, for example Diverfarming or DIVERSIFY.

Diverfarming

One example of such eco-effective solutions is the Diverfarming Project by DiverImpacts. In the long term, the aim of this project is to increase diversification and biodiversity in agriculture. They came up with innovative farming methods which should replace unsustainable methods like monoculture cultivation in the future. Different kinds of crops are planted simultaneously on the same field to increase soil quality, nutrients availability and pest resistance. Therefore the usage of pesticides and fertilizers can be highly reduced compared to monoculture farming.
In addition to environmental advantages, Diverfarming is supposed to increase the land productivity and the efficiency of farming resources and inputs like water, energy and machinery.

Other Solutions

Next to the Diverfarming Project, there are also other possibilities of sustainable crop planting:

Agroforestry

In Agroforestry trees are planted in for example alleys next to and in between the crops. Like that, additional habitats next to the crop land are provided. It also provides additional ecosystem services and is slowing down the conversion of the habitat of the crop land. But Agroforestry not only benefits biodiversity. It also increases carbon capture and soil fertility and improves the water quality in that area.

Agroforestry: Planting crops in combination with trees

Row Cropping: Planting several main crops or one main crop with several supporting crops in spatial rows together on one field

Row Cropping

For row cropping, several main crops or one main crop with several supporting crops can be planted in spatial rows together on one field. Through the combination of different crops, the soil health can be improved and like that the need for fertilizer is reduced. It also offers natural pest control through the other species instead of chemical pesticides and additionally provides higher yields.

Cultivar Mixture

During cultivar mixture farming, different varieties of crops are planted together on one field. The crops mostly need very similar conditions to grow but vary in traits like pest and disease resistance and can complement each other like that. The advantages of cultivar mixture farming are highly dependent on the types of crops planted and their characteristic, but most often it provides a higher diversity of for example insects and offers natural pest control.

Cultivar Mixture: Planting different varieties of crops together

Crop Mixture: Planting different species together on on field

Crop Mixture

While for cultivar mixture farming different varieties of the same crop are planted together, here completely different species are planted on one field. Of course, this makes the management of the crops more complex but it has the potential to deliver high benefits. Crop mixture planting can provide natural pest and disease control and increase the soil health through a higher efficiency in the utilization of soil nutrients.

Relay Cropping

For relay cropping, two crops are planted in different time periods but in a way that they overlap each other. The second crop is planted when the first one is about to be harvested. Next to environmental benefits like the increase of soil health, also the annual yield is increased through an efficient use of time.

Relay Cropping: Planting two different crops in a way that their grow period overlay each other

Crop Rotation: Planting different crops after each other on the same field

Crop Rotation

For crop rotation, the different crops are growing after each other on the same field, but other than during relay cropping, their periods of growing are not overlapping each other. Each crop is grown separately in different seasons or even years.
Crop rotation is supposed to increase the soil fertility. In addition life cycles of pests and diseases can be interrupted, so in that way pest control can be increased.

References

Balogh, A. (2012): The rise and fall of monoculture farming. In: Horizon – The EU Research & Innovation Magazine. Available under:  https://projects.research-and-innovation.ec.europa.eu/en/horizon-magazine/rise-and-fall-monoculture-farming Last accessed on 26. 06.2024.

Cappelli, S. L., Domeignoz-Horta, L. A., Loaiza, V., & Laine, A. L. (2022): Plant biodiversity promotes sustainable agriculture directly and via belowground effects. Trends in Plant Science, 27(7), 674-687.

Cornell, S., Häyhä, T., Palm, C. (2021): A sustainable and resilient circular textiles and fashion industry: towards a circular economy that respects and responds to planetary priorities. A Research Report by Stockholm University’s Stockholm Resilience Centre for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and H&M Group.

DriverIMPACTS (n.d. a)): About DriverIMPACTS. Available under: https://www.diverimpacts.net/about.html Last accessed on: 27.06.2024.

DriverIMPACTS (n.d. b)): Driverfarming – Crop diversification and low input farming across Europe. Available under: https://www.diverimpacts.net/about/crop-diversification-cluster/crop-diversification-cluster/diverfarming.html Last accessed on 27.06.2024.

Fashion Values (n.d.):  Introduction: Fashion and Biodiversity. Available under: https://fashionvalues.org/methods/Introduction-Fashion-and-Biodiversity Last accessed on 21.06.2024 

Gorsuch, H. (n.d.): What is Biodiversity? Available under: https://eatlas.org.au/content/what-biodiversity#:~:text=Species%20Diversity%20is%20simply%20the,with%20the%20term%20’biodiversity Last accessed on 22.06.2024.

Granskog, A., Laizet, F., Lobis, M., & Sawers, C. (2020): Biodiversity: The next frontier in sustainable fashion. McKinsey & Company.

IFAD (2024): The three types of biodiversity: explained. Available under: https://www.ifad.org/en/web/latest/-/the-three-types-of-biodiversity-explained Last accessed on 24.06.2024.

Jose, S. (2009): Agroforestry for ecosystem services and environmental benefits: an overview (pp. 1-10). Springer, Dordrecht.

Krueger, L. (2020): A Transformative Deal for Nature. The Nature Conservancy. Available under: https://www.nature.org/en-us/what-we-do/our-insights/perspectives/a-transformative-deal-for-nature/ Last accessed on 24.06.2024

Richardson, K., Steffen, W., Lucht, W., Bendtsen, J., Cornell, S. E., Donges, J. F., … & Rockström, J. (2023): Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries. Science advances, 9(37), eadh2458.

Secretariat of Convention on Biological Diversity (2011): Convention on Biological Diversity. Art. 2.

WWF (2028): Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher. Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds).

Victoria Kern

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