Saturday, 20 October 2018

we have 12 years to stop climate change: what does this mean for fashion?

How can we reverse the damage to the planet that humans have caused? This is the question running through everyone’s mind since the UN announced that we only have until 2030 to limit the impact of climate change. Motivation for saving the planet is no longer just concerning the staunchly eco-conscious. The threat is looking very real within our lifetime. For centuries, humans have used and abused our planet’s resources and now we are paying the price. Price, in fact, has a lot to do with it. We must rethink the value of our wardrobes, as the fashion industry is one of climate change’s key culprits.

Despite over 70% of global emissions being caused by just 100 companies, the ethical consumer still wants to know what can personally be done to reduce their carbon footprint. We need to introduce effective but realistic change at every level; from industry to individual. This post is going to explore what the fashion industry needs to do, and what consumers can do to enforce it. Consumers, brands, scientists, and lawyers need to work together to stop fashion killing the planet.
Fashion sustainability has been a point of contention since the 19th century when animals were ruthlessly hunted for their skins, and chemicals and dyes carelessly poured into rivers across the globe. Although modern laws prevent some of this malpractice, the ever-expanding modern fashion industry with its furiously fast cycle of trends is drying up the planet one cotton t-shirt at a time. Technology has advanced greatly since the Victorian era and there are now many more sustainable alternatives, but fashion’s environmental conscience is still catching up. It would be naïve to assume that practices labelled harmful to the planet do not still go on. Fashion is still one of the most polluting industries in the world. Cost- cutting, and profiteering are the main offenders in catalysing climate change, and they are objectives that large fashion businesses know too well. With big corporations responsible for the majority of environmental damage, it is time for consumers to hold them accountable. Here is what the industry and its customers can do over the next 12 years to try to slow the rate of climate change.


Introduce more instore recycling
High street giants Zara and H&M are not at the top of the list of ethical brands. Just last year they were both linked to polluting viscose factories in Asia. However, what they are getting right closer to home is the introduction of in-store recycling facilities. In light of clothes burning and high turnover rates, this initiative might seem like sticking a Peppa Pig plaster on a broken leg. However, looking at the brands’ long-term goals inspires more hope for the high street. Zara aims to no longer send anything to landfills by 2020. Meanwhile, H&M is hoping to become 100% circular meaning that it treats its workers fairly, the planet well and improves sustainability in fashion overall.
Instore recycling does not get to the root of fast fashion’s problems, but we will hopefully see it introduced into all high street stores soon. Most consumers want to be more sustainable. It is down to brands to make eco-friendly choices more accessible. In-store recycling is an accessible way for ordinary people to reduce their clothing waste. However, it is important to remember that recycling initiatives do not indicate that fashion is throwaway. Not all materials can be recycled, and sometimes this is only one more step before the landfill. Extending the lives of our wardrobes will always be more effective than seasonal recycling.
Upcycle, upcycle, upcycle
Upcycling might sound like a new gym class, but it is actually a process that is even more energy efficient than recycling. Whilst recycling involves breaking down waste products to form something new, upcycling is reusing waste without destroying it. If looking to go one step further than instore recycling, brands should offer upcycling services. Fashion trends and personal tastes change so rapidly that something we bought six months ago might no longer spark joy. Instead of getting rid, wouldn’t it be great if you could take it back to the store and work with a designer to give it a seasonal update? Return with a unique piece that you are actually excited to wear. As you can imagine, this service would not necessarily be cheap, but it is more sustainable than chasing fast fashion. Few independent upcycling services operate like this at the moment, but we can hope to see the process become more mainstream in the coming years.
Paris’ current fashion darling Marine Serre is well-versed in upcycling. Repurposed fabrics have taken centre stage at both of the young designer’s shows. Serre uses second-hand materials to experiment with texture and form, proving that sustainable fashion is anything but boring. For her Spring 2019 collection the designer used upcycled denim, t-shirts, blankets and rugs to create high fashion pieces. Other brands who are leading the way in upcycling are American Deadstock, Fadeout, Germanier, and ASOS Reclaimed Vintage.

Rethink water consumption
It is estimated that making a single t-shirt uses the same amount of water as you would drink over 3 years- that’s over 2,000 litres. T-shirts might have that effortless allure, but they are far from effortless on behalf of the planet. The fashion industry uses billions of gallons of water each day, whilst over 600 million people go without access to clean drinking water. Fashion is also responsible for drying up some of the world’s largest lakes. In the 1970s the Aral Sea in Central Asia was the fourth largest lake in the world but, as a result of unsustainable cotton farming, it now only covers 10% of its original area. This has had devastating effects on the surrounding community as well as the ecosystem that the lake supported. Too often dyes and chemicals end up in the ocean where they are fatal for sea life.
Uzbekistan is one of the largest exporters of cotton in the world. Its cotton industry is also a leading culprit responsible for drying up the Aral Sea. Toxic chemicals used in pesticides and fertilisers damaged the seabed as well as being inhaled by people on land. Xintang in China is the denim capital of the world, and its rivers are so polluted by dyes that they turn bright blue. Factories spill dye and bleach from the denim straight into the East River. The city’s water waste goes mainly untreated.
To reduce water pollution and try to repair some of the damage done to our rivers and lakes around the world, brands need to prioritise investing in certified organic cotton. Organic materials are produced without pesticides, which means they will not contribute harmful chemicals to our water. Waterless dyes are also being developed to tackle water pollution. In 2015, Nike and Adidas announced that they were beginning the transition towards more sustainable dying practices. However, this is much more expensive and would see a significant increase in prices if adopted fully.
Develop biodegradable materials
When it comes to eco-friendly fabrics, there is plenty to choose from. Lab-grown leather, milk fibre, seaweed, methane, and wine corks are among just some of the options available. The most exciting advances in sustainable fashion are not occurring on the runway but in laboratories. Scientists are working on new materials to make our wardrobes more sustainable, but they are yet to be accessible to all. The future is in bio-based polymers that are recyclable, biodegradable and made from sustainable materials.
With all these materials to choose from, designers have an exciting opportunity to experiment. Innovative fabrics create originality in an increasingly saturated fashion industry. Consumers are interested in pieces that come with a story. The history and conscience of our wardrobes is as important as its appearance.
Stella McCartney has been working towards this for years. McCartney has always been a brand with a conscience, but the label stepped its sustainability up a notch for Autumn 2018, releasing glue-free trainers. Glue contains solvents that are toxic and nonbiodegradable so the production of trainers that do not require glue could revolutionise footwear. Just think of all the other new directions fashion could go in if we gave all our clothing a sustainable update.
Stringent auditing and international regulations
Brands continue to look for loopholes and take advantage of relaxed sustainability laws in developing countries. Even when companies do not go out of their way to cut expenses at the cost of the environment, they often turn a blind eye to the actions of factory owners. If brands want to continue exporting their manufacturing to other countries, stricter auditing and international regulations are necessary.
Auditors in the fashion industry are tasked with assessing the facilities and procedures in factories. However, all too often, factory owners are pre-warned, so they can clean up, hide unsustainable practices and threaten staff to stop them speaking out. For auditing to be carried out successfully it is necessary for it to be unanticipated. There need to be stricter international laws regarding sustainable fashion, as well as auditors to make sure they are enforced if we are ever going to reverse the damage that fashion has done to our climate.


I believe it is irresponsible to suggest that the planet is in the state it is in due to any moral failings of individuals because 70% of carbon emissions are created by only 100 companies. However, there are some things we can do as fashion consumers to pressure brands to take a more sustainable approach.

Research and educate
The best way to be is informed. No one becomes a more sustainable shopper overnight. It is a process. Yes, you might still be seduced by the occasional fast fashion purchase. There is nothing wrong with that. What is most important is that you educate yourself so that you are making informed decisions rather than remaining blissfully ignorant about your wardrobe’s footprint.
Once you have educated yourself, raise awareness for others. Most people want to live more sustainable lifestyles, but the time it takes to gather information about the best way to do this puts some people off. Luckily social media has made spreading information easier than ever. You can also use it to discover more ethical brands and style icons. Adita Mayer (@aditamayer), Corina Alulquoy Brown (wildandfree.corina) and Alden Wicker (@ecocult) all combine style and sustainability on their aesthetically pleasing Instagram feeds.

Set new consumer trends
We have the power to insist that brands become more sustainable. Write to them and ask questions about their sustainability practices. You may receive a vague response, or you could gain a greater insight into what sustainable fashion looks like in practice. Either way, you are letting the brand know that their customers prioritise sustainability.
Support smaller, ethical brands when you can. This will prove to the industry that sustainability is worth investing in. Plus, it is always rewarding to shop emerging labels.

Get creative
Of course, the best way to reject the fast fashion cycle is to become completely self-sufficient. Ideal, but not realistic. However, you can become more self-sufficient by upcycling your own clothes. Customise pieces you no longer wear and turn them into items you are excited to have in your wardrobe. Repair clothes yourself or get them repaired rather than throwing them away. We must extend the lives of our wardrobes to move away from throwaway fashion, with is the antithesis of sustainability.

Buy vintage but beware of false marketing
For many, vintage is the most accessible way to shop sustainably. Ideally, we would all support emerging ethical labels, but often they come with a price tag that is out of reach. Therefore, vintage is a perfectly acceptable way to make your wardrobe more environmentally friendly. There is a shortage of vintage shops outside cities, but you can order online at Vintaholic, ASOS Marketplace, and Depop. Charity shops have even better bargains, but they might take a bit more sifting through to find the gems. However, the popularity of vintage means that you have to beware of false marketing. Fast fashion dressed up as vintage is not doing the environment any favours.
Buy less and wear more
“Buy less, choose well, make it last,” is Vivienne Westwood’s mantra. The 77-year-old grandmother of punk is known for being outspoken about fashion’s impact on the environment. It is time to listen to her now more than ever. Where possible, we should increase our clothing budget, but reduce how much we buy. By investing in quality pieces, the need to purchase is reduced. This shift involves nurturing our clothes and remember why we fell in love with fashion; not for its fleeting trends, but for the craft that goes into the pieces that can transform our mood. I hope to soon be living in a world where fashion is less ruled by trends. Trends are becoming increasingly irrelevant as the industry focuses on individualism. A unique statement vintage piece stands out more on our Instagram feeds than the same pair of Topshop jeans that everyone owns.

The fashion industry needs to wake up, stay alert and stay informed.

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