Rich fashionistas costing the earth

The urgency of tackling climate change, and the dwindling timeframe in which humanity has to make meaningful progress, means that a refit won’t cut it – fashion needs systemic and structural change.

Self-destruction

Buying second-hand clothes, repairing and maintaining long-loved garments, as well as washing clothes at a lower temperature, can all help cut carbon, but in rich countries there must be absolute reductions in the amount of new garments bought each year. 

For the richest consumers in countries like the UK, USA, and Japan, this means only buying an average of five new garments a year.

To put that into perspective, a dedicated fan of a football club like Manchester City could use up their quota simply by emulating their team.

Big clubs change their kit every year and earn money by encouraging fans to buy the kit. Manchester City’s men’s range includes their home and away strips, a ‘third’ kit, goalkeepers kit and e-sports kit. And that says nothing of the World Cup, sponsored big fossil fuel polluters Qatar Energy and Qatar Airways.

One big step forward will be to stop promoting our own self-destruction with adverts that sell polluting, over-consuming lifestyles.

Guilt-free

Fashion is something that now looks like it needs to be added to the list of products, alongside other high-carbon items such as red meat, that should not be advertised.

Doing things that make behaviour change easier, like removing the pressure to consume from advertising, are key.

As Dilys Williams, Professor of Fashion Design for Sustainability, at the London College of Fashion, says, there are real limitations to the, “techno-centric approaches to sustainability being taken within an exploitative system.”

Fashion therefore needs to be put in the same category as the fossil fuel companies themselves, as car makers and as airlines. Consumers of such products, the Badvertising campaign shows, need no encouragement. 

Now should be the age of the ‘sufficiency wardrobe’. The concept of rethinking consumption like this will be alien to many in the age of fast fashion, e-commerce, and guilt-free returns.

Garments

But absolute reductions are now a necessity, due to the sheer scale of the global fashion industry, its cyclical short-termism, and growing demand for specific fibres and textiles.

Despite the best intentions of some consumers in wealthier nations, shockingly around 30 per cent of used clothes exported overseas via various re-use and charity schemes end up being directly incinerated or landfilled at the destination.

Globally, less than one per cent of used clothing gets recycled into new garments, despite the flurry of promises from fashion houses. In comparison, about half of paper gets recycled. 

Sky-rocketing demand for synthetic fibres is also causing fashion’s standing in sustainability to come apart at the seams.

Polyester, a plastic that is created from oil and gas, is the most commonplace fibre in world fashion and is used in over half of all the garments produced. Demand for polyester is driving emissions and plastic pollution ever-higher.

Unfair

There is also evidence that fashion’s insatiable demand for polyester is causing some of the biggest brands on earth, from Nike to ASOS, to rely on Russian oil exports, despite Russia’s exploitation of its energy supplies for political leverage, the ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the countless related human rights atrocities. 

Fashion is not only guilty of driving climate change and adding to already endemic plastic pollution, but its supply chain has also been directly linked with several forms of illegal or unethical practices.

System and behaviour change, especially by wealthy consumers with bulging wardrobes, need to come together so that people dress themselves within planetary and climate boundaries.

It’s time for the world of fashion to resize. The fashion consumption of the wealthiest, within the richest nations, needs to be called out for what it is: unfit, unfair, and deeply unfashionable.  

These Authors

Lewis Akenji managing director of the Hot of Cool Institute. Andrew Simms is co-director of the New Weather Institute, coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance and an author. M: @andrewsimms; T: @AndrewSimms_uk.

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