naomi klein on fashion vs climate change

For Fashion Revolution day we meet Naomi Klein, the award-winning Canadian author, journalist and social activist, to find out how the fashion industry, too, can help promote change for a better world.

by Sarah Hay
24 April 2015, 1:00pm

"It's an information war," trailblazing writer Naomi Klein told journalists at a recent oil pipeline protest in her native Canada. "There's no doubt that it's an information war and we're up against the richest industry in history." Indeed. It's blindingly clear that Klein's new, illuminating book, the deeply researched yet accessible This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, neatly fills a massive information gap. It reveals the gulf between what's generally known about the environmental movement and man-made climate change, and the updated reality in which it's now a civil rights, anti-war, anti-austerity, fuel poverty and inter-generational justice movement. Klein illuminates the difference between the mainstream mindset on how to solve climate change — electric cars, eco lightbulbs and recycling — and the evolving views of top-level economists, scientists and super sharp thinkers who are on the serious road to solutions. 

"We have reached what some activists have started calling 'Decade Zero' of the climate crisis," writes Klein in the opening pages of her book, where she refers to the window of time — that closes in 2017 — that we have to keep global warming under 2°C. As the title of Klein's book states, this really is going to change everything. Capitalism really is now at war with our planet and reading this book is a sure-fire way to get bang up to date on the biggest opportunity for evolution our species has ever had. 

Speaking to i-D from her home in Toronto, Klein is preparing to embark on the second leg of an international book tour for the paperback edition. The book has already birthed a website, featuring regular articles by different contributors; there is a forthcoming documentary, directed by Klein's husband, filmmaker Avi Lewis, which features interviews with many of the inspiring characters from the front lines of the climate fight, all introduced in the book; and This Changes Everything UK is launching with a day of lively seminars in east London on March 28, 2015. Klein is also on the board of directors at, which kick-started the global divestment movement in which students urge institutions and cities to pull multi-million endowment funds from fossil fuel investments. 

"When I was at the launch a few years ago in Boston, it felt like a dam breaking," says Klein, describing the kinetic atmosphere at the inaugural event in 2012. "There were two thousand people on their feet before we'd said a word, that's how much desire there is for this tactic where we're actually saying, 'You have a business model that's at war with life on earth, and we don't want to negotiate with it, we want out.' It was a real eye-opener for me to be in those rooms. It made me wonder why we had waited so long to actually admit that this is about power, that this is about money."

Though Klein doesn't discuss the fashion industry in this book (she shoots higher than that, and besides, she tackled brands and marketing in her first groundbreaking tome, No Logo, released in 1999), the rabid capitalism she pinpoints as driving global warming is the exact same insatiable taskmaster that has both forced post-human targets on the fashion industry and repeatedly held it back from embracing the true sustainability that many have been working to achieve since 1988. "I think it's important to talk about the economic system in which fashion exists, as opposed to this being a task for individual companies or even individual industries, and this is why I spend a fair bit of time in the book discussing how well-meaning attempts to reconcile the growth imperative with a genuine desire to prevent catastrophic climate change tend not to work." The days of just "greening" the fashion industry are over, we have a bigger opportunity at hand.

Historically, "what's next" is central to fashion, pioneering creativity and always existing at the peak of social change. Fashion has used its power to communicate awareness of fringe movements, such as gender equality, gay rights, AIDS, rainforests, water and health issues, to the masses, while many members of the fashion community, such as Amber Valetta, Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood, are very vocal about climate change and sustainability in interviews, advertising and, of course, on the runway. Yet since 1988, when scientists first started raising the alarm about carbon emissions, we haven't been able to own our role in pollution, fair trade or global warming. 

The good news is that it hasn't been entirely our fault, as the industry has been banging its head against an iron dome, which Klein now clearly identifies in her book: out of control free-market economics. In the 80s, the fashion industry began willingly entering into agreements with profit systems and the stock markets, which have since turned into a devil's pact that demands more collections, faster fashion, and ever cheaper production chains. Fashion editorials have become blatant advertorials dictated by marketing departments rather than dynamic styling. Fashion has been kidnapped by stockbrokers and it's time to set the hostage free.

Klein's elegantly written thesis explains a complete re-evaluation of the way we see the world. During our Skype interview I suggest, jokingly, that the quickest way to get this complex message across might be to distribute copies of her book at runway shows. "Well, even doing that would have an environmental impact — it's made from dead trees," she replies. "There's even this idea that it's an intellectual issue but it's not, it's not about the head of a company 'getting it'," she says on the role of fashion CEOs in implementing sustainable measures. "A lot of heads of companies get it and then forget it because they hit up against the pressures of the economic system in which they do business, which is a system that requires constant growth. They're accountable; many of them are publicly traded to shareholders who want ever greater returns year after year. There are things that the industry can do better, but what my book is about is what we need to do as an economy: lower our emissions, in line with science. I think for a long time we've been satisfied with fairly symbolic changes. In Amsterdam I was asked: aren't some of the things that businesses are doing a step in the right direction? My answer was yes, but we need to leap!"

All the points that have been recently raised by a minority of rebel voices in fashion are actually in step with the new climate movement. Suzy Menkes rightly pointed out in her 2013 article, Sign Of The Times / The New Speed of Fashion, that the punishing schedule imposed by ravenous profit systems on designers, where anything between four and eight collections a year have to be produced, has claimed the health and sanity of precious creative talent. Olivier Theyskens recently said at Seoul Design Week that "fashion is saturated". And leading trend forecaster Li Edelkoort, has just released Anti_Fashion: A Manifesto For The Next Decade, in which she claims that we're at the end of an era."The fashion world is still working in a 20th-century mode, celebrating the individual, elevating the it-people," Edelkoort writes, correctly stating that fashion is out of touch with "a society hungry for consensus and altruism". She goes on to say: "now that several garments are offered cheaper than a sandwich we all know and feel that something is profoundly and devastatingly wrong."

In off-the-record conversations with different top fashion critics on the impact of the garment industry on the planet's health, one ventured to suggest that this isn't a concern for luxury brands but is the fault of fast-fashion companies. Klein responds to this stunning passing-of-the-buck without missing a beat: "Well, first of all, those lines have been blurring for a long time. Luxury brands have their high street sub-brands, but also so much of their income comes from cosmetics and perfumes and selling desire around their brands. And certainly with their role in markets like China and India, and the emergence of this global class of brand-crazed shoppers, I think the luxury brands are at the vanguard of this. And if we think about a key part of this growth machine being the constant creation of the desire for the new, then the luxury brands most certainly can't excuse themselves from it, and that's setting aside [the fact] that they're producing in China too."

In the past five years many thousands of people have marched to protest mind-boggling pollution in China, the factory of the world. The government is responding by drawing up much needed laws and serious investment in renewable energy. All of this will change the clothing industry, arguably in a good way, but Klein counters, "How will it change? Will companies leave China for Bangladesh, as a lot of brands did when the same thing happened around labor conditions? Wages have gone up in China and the response from a lot of big brands has been to reduce production there and move to places that are less regulated and cheaper, like Bangladesh, and we've seen the impact of that."

New winds of social change are blowing with Syriza in Greece and the Podemos party in Spain, both of which are aligned with green policies that Klein supports. In September 2014, the biggest climate march the world has ever seen took place simultaneously in 162 countries, and in February 2015 students from Nepal to Harvard rallied for Global Divestment Day. However, many young British designers feel that they can't engage in the new environmental movement on any level when they're working in an industry that's co-creating climate change, or driving cars that use petrol, for fear of blame and shame cat-calls of hypocrisy. 

"That's one of the great successes of capitalism — we think of ourselves as consumers, as individuals as opposed to being part of structures and communities that can work together," says Klein. "I think it's really interesting that people think they can't be part of a conversation because they drive. That to me is the success of this calling-out culture that is so ugly, frankly. It's really just about making people stay home and shut up and not dare to dream of anything better than what we have now. If this movement doesn't have room for people who have not figured out how to completely extract themselves from this economy that dominates all of our lives, then it's going to be a very, very small movement. So I think we do need examples of people who are figuring it out, but my thesis is that it's not going to happen unless we have systemic change, unless we have change at a policy level, so all of this stuff that focuses on our individual behavior is largely a distraction."

In addition to joining climate marches or simply allowing current systems to fall, what can the fashion industry do? "[Using] the same skills that convince us that everything we currently have is out of fashion and that happiness lies just around the corner with all these new things that we're about to see," says Klein. "The same skill sets that are so good at creating those desires are capable of creating other desires. It's not a different skill-set, it's a different mind-set." 

As the world's experts and think tanks are figuring out how zero carbon societies will function — where consumption of all manner of frivolous goods will drop, while permaculture, local food chains, larger public transport systems and ways of weaning ourselves off wasteful plastic products will be incorporated into life in 2020 — it's an opportunity (that architecture has already embraced) for designers to get ahead of the game and imagine how a zero carbon lifestyle will look and function. Not since the 60s, when designers like Pierre Cardin were envisaging futuristic life, has fashion had such as opportunity. And, if there's one thing that fashion is built around, it's a unique capability to tell new creative stories.

Whether it's students rallying at universities or lawyers like Polly Higgins advocating ecocide laws or leading marches against oil and gas pipelines across Canada and America, Klein's book shows that it's women who are at the forefront of the movement. "You have been negotiating all my life," said 21-year-old student activist Anjali Appadurai, when she addressed gridlocked negotiators at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban in 2011; it is Klein's favourite quote in her book. Here's where Karl Lagerfeld's spring/summer 15 runway show, where models enacted a protest march on a Parisian street, is perfectly in step with the incoming zeitgeist. A fresh generation of women are marching for revolution and they want to wear clothes that tell a new story. Let's give it to them.



Text Sarah Hay
Photography Ben Reierson

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