why aren't fashion journalists doing more to address the industry's role in climate change?

The fashion industry must rethink its business models to ensure humans and the planet survive.

by Sarah Hay
02 June 2015, 12:47am

We've entered the age of bottom-lines; and the bottom line for corporate fashion brands is that their business model is now incompatible with our survival on planet earth.

The last walking expeditions to the North Pole are being made as the ice has become too thin to traverse, and our energy consumption has led to new, extreme forms of fossil fuel extraction in the Canadian tar sands and Arctic. The fashion industry has had 20 years to self-regulate but now, the door to keeping the planet within the +2 degree temperature rise, a figure universally accepted to be safe for human life, begins closing in 2017 and the textile and garments industry is responsible for at least 10% of those carbon emissions.

So, what's happening? In 2015, instead of using the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh as a wake-up call, brands are moving factories to Ethiopia where there are no laws on minimum wage and few on emissions. From here on in the fashion industry can no longer claim innocence and these migrating factories show we've become governed by rabid profit systems that are dangerously out of control. Fashion has been occupied.

"If scientists are even half right," said Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of The Guardian newspaper, about the climate recently, "this is the biggest story of our lifetime." Yet the fashion media rarely addresses this, actually for very human reasons. We're fashion journalists not economists, so few have been able to recognise the changes happening across the industry over the past ten years.

Fashion editors don't ordinarily mix with climate scientists. And even if we did, with the expansion of fashion weeks, the quadrupling of collections and the brutal battleground that was the transition from print to digital, the core fashion media was so overwhelmed with survival that nobody had time to self-educate about climate change. The neo-liberal economic zombie began chomping on our lives, and we were too rushed to do anything but go along with it.

Of course, advertising revenue is the biggest reason fashion media hasn't spoken truth to power, which is understandable; nobody's going to bite the only hand that still feeds them. Also, all the big brands keep assuring everybody that they're greening their businesses, and few feel qualified or prompted to disagree, so now we're in a very interesting position.

In 2015 the new climate movement is growing in momentum, be it cheers breaking out amongst the tens of thousands of students across the globe as their universities divest from fossil fuels, to the passion and conviction expressed by indigenous Alaskans as they delivered inspirational speeches in canoes that led the Paddle In Seattle protest two weekend's ago.

The annual shareholders meetings of companies such as BP, Rio Tinto and Shell are now populated with lines of young financial managers who oversee multi-billion portfolio's followed by NGOs, indigenous tribes and citizens all challenging their arrogance on climate reality and galling human rights abuses. The old cliché of activists being just shouty hippies hollering outside the system evolved a long time ago to include young professionals wearing suits on the inside of the system who are potent financial activists in support of renewable energy, and backed by institutions of faith.

Musicians like Grimes regularly tweet about the environment, Jamie XX just released a video featuring one leading character - earth - and many Hollywood stars spoke about climate on the red carpet in Cannes. How could they not, they live in California which is experiencing both a 5-year-long drought and a toxic nine-mile oil spill.

Separate issues are beginning to link up under the climate umbrella. As the global south and people of colour realise that they're being hit first by climate change caused by unregulated monetary systems, this is turning into a civil rights issue. Be it by American prison-for-profit penitentiary systems, communities falling sick from decades of living amongst oil and fracking wells, or people aghast that BP is draining oil for free in Iraq. Climate disruption is fuelling extremism both in the halls of Western parliaments and on the ground in the Middle East and Africa as farmers lose livelihoods to desertification. As the dots begin to join all over the world, the climate movement is lighting up but how can the fashion media add its voice to the youth quake?

Another key factor holding fashion media's back from addressing climate change are the catcalls of hypocrisy that rain down on our heads if we dare stick our heads above the parapet. How dare we engage with an issue when the industry we publicise not only contributes to our own destruction but, more importantly, the raison d'être of all fashion media has been, thus far, to create illusory desires for aspirational lifestyles that are now, frankly, killing us. That's a lot of hypocrisy to own but here's how.

Today, how many things will you touch and use that are made from oil? Answer, it's in everything. If hecklers are going to continuously claim that only those living zero carbon lifestyles have a right to ask for a better future then the climate movement will consist of a grand total of nobody, and we truly have entered the last 100 years of human existence. Hecklers generally have no clue that research and development on renewable technologies is strongly blocked by lobby groups financed by fossil fuel companies who have deep pockets. Hecklers have no idea that the luxury leather market has exhausted natural supplies of animals so have invested in their own herds. Hecklers have no handle on the truth that in 2015 the old sins of colonialism are being repeated by the fashion industry upon the global south, on our watch.

On hypocrisy, Pharrell Williams received criticism on social media for speaking about the environment then tweeting a photo of himself sitting alone in a private jet, which was interesting because it showed the huge gap of information between what scientists are saying and what's reaching the general public. In May 2015 the global average of man-made carbon emissions in our atmosphere reached 400 parts per million for the first time, which means that the issue is so far advanced on industrial levels (350ppm is the scientifically accepted safe figure) that it's time for government-scale intervention.

It's also unknown but the majority of billionaires and trillionaire companies invested in fossil fuels is such that we need as many people from the 1% to wake up and use their voices, exactly as Pharrell has done. Oil companies like Koch Industries are ready to spend figures like $800 million on influencing elections, senators and members of parliament. All of the fossil fuel companies need hecklers and critics to silence voices like Pharrell, Darryl Hannah, Leo DiCaprio or each and anyone amongst us who's put two-and-two together on climate reality. The fossil fuel machine needs us to turn our noses up at electric cars, they need the fashion industry to choose vanity and greed over innovation and ingenuity. They need all of us to feel so dwarfed by our hypocrisy that we forfeit our rights to ask for a better way of life. But we don't have to acquiesce.

As we enter an age of expansion where the fashion industry must rethink its business models to ensure humans survive past 2100, first we must deal with the bottom line - all we have to do is sit back and do nothing then allow our governments to also ignore the problem and we're heading for a +4 degree future which will render most of the global south to hot to inhabit, or a +6 degree future which is the apocalypse.

Conversely, an entire planet is about to evolve from dead fossil fuel energy to renewable energy that's alive and nourishing. This is the biggest revolution since history began and we can all be a part of that, in fact indigenous peoples from Alaska to Australia are inviting all of us to join their party. It's exciting. Yet with 100 years left to go it's 2015 and we still don't have one single pair of widely available sneakers that are biocompatible with which to join climate marches, everything still sits in landfills. Who's going to dress the evolution? I'd buy those sneakers right now. 


Text Sarah Hay
Photography Gary Knight

climate change