How to dress for climate change


Credit: geograph / David Cameron

Alice Le Dizes

In our ongoing series on addressing climate change, Alice De Lizes looks at ways consumers and retailers can reduce the impact on the environment

One of the prime arguments of environmental activist Georges Monbiot in the introduction of his book Heat is the idea that we cannot reduce our carbon footprint without renouncing some of our privileges. At the beginning of October, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published an alarming report. After two years of investigation, it concluded that the rising of the temperature of the earth should be kept to 1.5°C, and resulting catastrophic events if it were to reach 2°C. The authors concluded that “limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. The impact of our food and our travels have been well assessed but another one is the clothing industry. We know we can cycle to work or try to buy some more local products, but how can we change our habits towards clothing?

In 2017, the Helen McArthur foundation published a report called “A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future”. It stated that the fashion market generates greenhouse emissions of about 1.2 billion tonnes a year. To give an idea of what that means, it’s as much as international shipping and aviation emissions combined. Moreover, the use of synthetic textiles like polyester releases microplastics, that are washed in the ocean, and harmful for our health. The clothing industry is also wasteful of water, oil, and the use of pesticides in cotton fields harms workers and customers.

“Fast fashion” – the quick making of cheap clothing, distributed and changed every week or even every day in stores – is particularly to blame. For the last few decades, the selling of fast fashion has tremendously shifted. This culture of disposable cheap clothes has entered our everyday habits. We buy cheap clothes because we need to keep warm, to protect us, the trends change, weeks after weeks, and then we want new clothes, we throw away the old ones and buy the trendy ones again in an endless cycle. “150 billion items of clothing are delivered out of factories annually yet Americans alone throw away approximately 14 million tonnes of garments each year, that’s over 36 kg per person.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “84 percent of unwanted clothes in the United States in 2012 went into either a landfill or an incinerator.” It’s a vicious circle, difficult to visualise for customers, but this doesn’t mean that it’s irreversible.

Many non-governmental institutions, such as Greenpeace, have investigated and published reports, collaborating with fashion retailers to reduce their impact, and there has been progress. In June 2018, the Guardian reported that the House of Commons environmental audit committee launched an investigation on the impact of the UK fashion industry. “Fashion shouldn’t cost the Earth” said Mary Creagh MP, chair of the committee, “but the way we design, make and discard clothes has a huge environmental impact. Producing clothes requires climate-changing emissions. Every time we put on a wash, thousands of plastic fibres wash down the drain into the oceans. We don’t know where or how to recycle end-of-life clothing.”

The main issue is that too much clothing is made which is highly polluting, and it’s encouraging overconsumption and waste. This is what Greenpeace and the Helen McArthur Foundation want to avoid. They are aiming at constructing a model where clothing won’t have to end up in a landfill, a model shifting towards a circular economy. Fashion retailers should indeed be able to offer clothing that is recyclable, because for now, many of the clothing sold in store is made of mixed fabrics that cannot go through the recycling process. For example, for now, H&M recycles only one percent of the clothing they collect. Industries have their part to play, and so do consumers.

For now, the solution that many environmental activists like Lauren Singer are proposing, is to avoid fast fashion, and turn to more sustainable brands. The more radical idea is to completely ditch fast fashion. A counterargument to this idea is that the textile industry is responsible for hiring millions of workers, and that reducing our consumption could lead to these workers losing their jobs, putting the ones that were already at risk in a complicated situation. “It plays a major role in the global economy, with annual worldwide revenues of well over £1 trillion. The industry supports hundreds of millions of jobs around the world, accounting for over a third of total employment in some of the most important producing countries,” says Carbonwatch. However, in the end, citizens’ actions and involvement in changing policies will ultimately draw companies to change their model and turn to a more sustainable one. “Making clothes that last just three months can longer help cut 3 per cent from the carbon, water and waste impact of companies in the fashion supply chain,” says WRAP’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan.

Turning to more sustainable brands is a good idea, but not everyone has the budget for it. It is possible to give unwanted clothing to charity shops, which are indeed very present in the UK. Branches like Shelter, Salvation Army, or British Cross will take donors clothing and sort them out to sell them in store. This is tricky, because charity shops are fed with the clothing that comes from what we buy in mainstream stores. And they can sell only a minimal amount of what they are given, because of the condition they are donated in.

It comes down to one possibility, consuming less, as difficult as it can be. It can be by buying an article in a charity shop only if we also get rid of one article in our wardrobe, keeping this idea of a circular economy. On the other hand, buying from sustainable brands is possible, if we buy one sustainable item instead of ten from a fast fashion shop. This is close to the minimalist lifestyle that many millennials are slowly adopting. They think about the purpose of their purchases in term of the shelf life of the product, instead of buying clothes as disposable items.

Looking at numbers, statistics and reports gives an overview of the problem, and what is often concluded is that this situation cannot continue. There has to be a part played by both sides. It is not easy to cut back on our consumption, because this gives us joy and pleasure. But this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible or that not going to the mall more often could be boring. It’s important to understand our involvement as consumers in the cycle of production of the clothing industry. There is a way to act and call out brands. For example, the Organisation Fashion Revolution, a conglomerate of consumers, retailers, writers, was created five years ago, in order to empower citizens to take action for the cause. As well as questioning labour policies, they question the implication of brands in climate change. They offer resources to students, brands and every year they hold a sensibilisation week called “Who made my clothes”. This is an example of what consumers can do, along with consuming less and supporting sustainable brands when they can.

There is a long way to go in understanding the way consumers affect the policies of industries toward climate change. Nonetheless, the first step is to question our impact, to be able to counteract it. For now, there is no perfect solution, but it seems that the more people are involved in the process, the more progress will be made.