Photo by Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images.

How climate positivity could revolutionize the fashion industry

The new term, proposed by the Slow Factory Foundation, encourages scalable solutions rather than empty promises of 'sustainability'.

by Laura Pitcher
04 March 2020, 9:18pm

Photo by Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images.

There’s no doubt that fashion is having a major sustainability moment. In Lyst's Year in Fashion report last year, the global fashion search platform reported that searches that include sustainability-related keywords have increased 75% year on year. There’s even a study that found that over a third of people "actively switch from their preferred brand to another" because of environmental and social values. Yet this new-found love affair is yet to show impactful results in the industry overall. We’re consuming and discarding more outfits than ever before, and the fashion industry’s projected growth predicts that it could be responsible for a quarter of the earth’s climate budget by 2050.

For this reason, social and environmental justice non-profit Slow Factory Foundation are proposing a new term to replace sustainability: “climate positivity”. It was defined by Fast Company as "an activity that goes beyond achieving net zero carbon emissions to actually create an environmental benefit by removing additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere". Slow Factory Foundation describe it on their Instagram as “going back to our roots of living in harmony with nature“.

Céline Semaan, executive director of Slow Factory Foundation, believes the new term and thought-process is “next and necessary” to addressing fashion’s environmental footprint. She hopes to inspire solutions that go beyond the vagueness of sustainable fashion, instead offering scalable solutions. “The way it is right now, sustainable fashion is becoming a buzzword but it doesn’t mean anything,” Semaan tells i-D. “Brands are claiming sustainability left and right. And unfortunately, it's getting trapped at the surface in the marketing department, it's not trickling down deep, deeper into the roots of the problem.”

Last month, 400 people gathered at The Times Center, New York, for the fifth edition of Slow Factory Foundation Study Hall Summit, with climate positivity as the theme and center of the discussions. One of the panelists who deals with creating scalable solutions through science was Dr. Theanne Schiros, Assistant Professor at FIT. Dr. Schiros is the scientific advisor to Algiknit, a biomaterials company integrating science and design into textile production, and her students at FIT are working on an algae-based yarn like fibre that can be knitted into apparel.

“To think about climate positivity at scale, we need to think about the end and the beginning,” she explains. “We need to use rapidly replenishing materials that are not just biodegradable but compostable. The systems need to include women and communities marginalized by history.” To Dr. Schiros and Slow Factory Foundation, addressing the social justice issues that are intertwined with fashion’s environmental issues is key to achieving climate positivity.

Dr. Schiros thinks that sustainable fashion promises from large-scale brands aren’t currently cutting it. “What do you mean by sustainable? If someone asks how your marriage is, if you say ‘sustainable’ they’re going to reply ‘I’m sorry’,” she says. “What are we sustaining? Are we just surviving? With all the tools of science and all the data we have, we know what to do. Now that’s climate positivity.” Her particular interest is in adapting nature’s genius, such as microbes, for human design, all inspired by indigenous knowledge.

She’s not alone in thinking that science already has the answers to some of the biggest problems we’re facing in regards to the climate and ecological crisis. Marine biologist Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is passionate about the ocean’s potential for carbon sequestration (the long-term capturing of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) and energy creation (such as offshore wind farms). “I think we often think about the ocean as getting pummelled by the impact of climate change and don’t think about how it can be an important part of our solutions,” she says. For Dr. Johnson, this includes the fact that coastal ecosystems can absorb five times more carbon than a rainforest on land and the ways in which farming the ocean regeneratively (with seaweed, oysters, mussels and clams) actually improves the health of the ocean.

“To me climate positivity means understanding that we already have the solutions that we need. We know how to electrify transportation, we know how to decarbonize electricity, we know how to farm regeneratively and plant trees and restore ecosystems,” she says. “We have over 100 major climate solutions, to me the positivity piece is just let’s go do it.” At Study Hall, Dr. Johnson advised attendees to be “professional troublemakers within our given industries”, encouraging people to use their strengths and fields in the fight for climate justice, rather than all striving to be front-facing activists.

Marco Tedesco, a research professor at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University is a professional troublemaker in the plastics space. Reminding Study Hall attendees that microplastics have already been found in the arctic, he believes climate positivity must address fashion’s plastic issue as synthetic textiles drive the oil industry. “We must find a more sustainable way from a Co2 point of view to produce what we need to produce,” he says “It will have to come from renewable sources, alternative energies, and more effort put into carbon sequestration.”

Céline Semaan hopes the term “climate positivity” will continue to evolve as the proposed scientific and cultural solutions do. In fact, she still thinks of the term as being in its discovery phase. Yet, the solution-focus is central to it being different to the current attempts at “sustainability”. “Now, if a brand is going to do any type of impact, they're only going to target one aspect of it. Either they're going to be starting to use organic cotton or some kind of new materials, but they're not going to be addressing human rights or labor rights at the same time,” she says. “We have to look at it from a global perspective and a holistic way because the climate crisis is not just going to be solved from one angle only.”

Semaan discusses how some brands are currently afraid of the word sustainability and associating themselves with “greenwashing” (conveying a false impression of environmentalism). Instead, she’s encouraging them to prove their efforts through data, as another key difference between climate positivity and sustainability is for the impact to be clearly measured and scalable.

Considering that we have less than 11 years to prevent irreversible damage from climate change, it’s clear there’s a call for a shift from unmeasurable sustainability announcements to bolder and more holistic changes within the industry. This shift, and general feeling of helplessness and climate anxiety, also calls for a new term for people to get behind and believe in. With Slow Factory’s emphasis on social justice issues and call for science-focused and solutions-focus design, there’s no reason why this wouldn’t be “climate positivity”. So if you’re on the lookout for brands or people that are actually taking action for the positive improvement of our planet, ask how they’re working to be climate positive. If they don’t know what that means, put it as Semaan does: something that is actually good for the planet, rather than just “less bad”.

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