Climate change represents a major threat to sustainable development globally. As a large contributor to climate change the fashion industry needs to embrace systemic, comprehensive action to reverse the negative impacts of climate change.
Wolfgang Blau is Global Chief Operating Officer and President, International at Condé Nast. He writes about fashion’s role when it comes to climate change.
Expectations were high in December 2019 that COP 25, the annual UN Climate Change Conference, taking place in Madrid would address passionate calls for action from the scientific community and millions of young people around the world. Participating governments and industry, however, missed yet another opportunity to act decisively.
COP 25 was also the first time that the fashion industry came under intense scrutiny and was held accountable during the global conference. The overall perception of fashion is changing rapidly. The textile industry – and especially fashion as its most visible representative – are now regarded as major contributors to the climate crisis. To avoid the same loss in public trust and respect as the oil and automotive industries, the fashion industry must act quickly.
Humans will always need and possess clothing, the way we dress also an important medium of expression in terms of our individuality and the celebration of cultures. Fashion evokes imagination, aspirations, dreams and pleasure. The world is now looking to the fashion industry to harness its power of imagination and creativity to find new ways to produce and consume fashion.
Our current overproduction and quick disposal of fashion and textiles have alarming impacts on ecosystems and communities worldwide. Fashion production generates 10% of global CO2 emissions and puts extreme demands on our water reserves. The chemicals needed for turning raw materials into textiles require high energy use, while the production of synthetic materials such as polyester results in especially high levels of carbon emissions.
Global Fashion Agenda estimates that in 2015 alone the global textiles and clothing industry was responsible for the consumption of 79 billion cubic metres of water, 1,715 million tonnes of CO2 emissions and 92 million tonnes of waste. By 2030 and at current growth rates, these numbers could jump by at least 50%.
A short twenty years ago most fashion companies only produced two collections a year. A decade later that number had increased to five, and today some brands offer 24 or more a year. Clothes, rather than being cherished objects full of creativity and craftsmanship, are now often regarded as throwaway products with ever shorter life cycles.
The UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, which Condé Nast joined as its first media company, confirms that current operations cannot deliver the reductions we desperately need by 2030.
A large part of the industry now asserts that it is ready to step up to the climate challenge. If you listened only to the statements of fashion executives at major industry conferences, you would think that the problem was almost solved. But are companies and consumers truly ready to challenge and rethink the way we produce and consume fashion?
Even in the unlikely scenario that all textile producers would suddenly use sustainably sourced and biodegradable materials, the industry’s total consumption of biomass and energy would still be unsustainable. Any savings achieved in terms of biomass, water usage and carbon emissions, however, are inevitably lost due to the rapidly increasing volume of sales and textile consumption per person.
The Ellen McArthur Foundation estimates that simply using each item of clothing twice as long could cut the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions by half – an extraordinary fact. A key step in making fashion sustainable is to abandon the current throwaway culture, not an insurmountable task considering that the phenomenon is only a couple of decades old.
The fashion industry, governments and non-governmental organisations need to work together as partners to promote sustainable materials, while pragmatically and decisively incentivising ways to increase the longevity of clothing and re-use of textiles, such as circular take-back programmes, shared ownership and rental fashion – ultimately leading to disincentivising throwaway fashion.
For this to happen and for the sake of humanity and our planet, both industry and consumers must embrace the idea that with fashion, less is more. Selling and consuming fewer clothes does not necessarily mean lower profits or being less fashionable. If fashion is always about what’s next, then sustainability must be the next big thing – that is if the industry is to have a future.