Fashion matters. As we approach a series of crunch talks for the planet on environmental issues pertaining to climate change, beginning with UN talks in New York, I want to say this loud and proud.
Could I even go as far as saying that we could solve climate change if we all dressed in a sustainable manner? Well, let's take a closer look...
The path to a more just and ecologically sound existence for us all is notoriously rocky, but each industry must play its part in cleaning up and bringing substantive change. For some reason the fashion industry is often ignored, or cast aside as if it was an irrelevance.
Whatever the reason, I never bought it. A few years ago we set up environmental brand consultancy, Eco-Age and worked to take the environmental and ethical sting out of life in a logical and innovative way. The key to mainstreaming green thinking and behaviours is to make them realistic opportunities. As we approach a series of crunch talks on environmental issues pertaining to climate change, beginning with the UN talks in New York this week, we need to bear this in mind.
Fashion was always on our agenda, not because we're rabid fashionistas, but because we could see the immense opportunity to help the world's great design visionaries to match their aesthetics with their ethics. And so we began the Green Carpet Challenge (GCC). This is all about putting sustainable style center stage. At London Fashion Week on Sunday, Sept. 14, we launched our latest GCC collection with Stella McCartney. This is the fifth time we have awarded a brand our GCC brandmark. Previously we worked deep in the supply chain, with the Rainforest Alliance and the National Wildlife Federation, to certify the world's first zero-deforestation handbag collection with Gucci. In this partnership we acknowledged that the leather industry was one of the biggest drivers of Amazonian deforestation and developed a product line to help push 'clean' leather into the market.
Why do I feel so strongly that fashion is a pivotal industry to get right? Firstly because it is a full spectrum industry. It extends from the farmers that grow cotton to the women beading in ateliers, it encompasses millions of people from agriculture to the creative marketing and selling. It is also dependent on the animal kingdom and some of the most fragile ecosystems on earth. Therefore fashion touches on every great environmental theme: climate change, declining available resources, lost wilderness, flooding, through to the flipside of flooding - drought. And of course, all of these are interconnected.
But while human kind continues to treat fashion as a frivolous side line, it pollutes and squanders with impunity. In pursuit of selling fast and furiously, it can transgress ecological boundaries and leave social justice in tatters.
At the same time what an opportunity to make this industry a sustainable trailblazer! Every single day we all perform two simple actions: we eat and we get dressed. (Admittedly, we have sometimes sought to make these two simple actions as fraught with difficulty as possible). But in essence, two simple, universal actions.
However there's a huge discrepancy between the amount of time and effort we have spent analysing the impact of the contemporary food change. Granted there is still work to do, but from the impact of livestock to international reports on food waste we have begun to map the impact of the way we produce and consumer food on planetary health. By contrast, there are few such reports on the fashion industry. This is crazy because with the exception of the mining sectors, it's hard to think of an industry -- at least one that we all connect with every day -- which has quite such a dramatic ecological and social footprint.
Today, approximately 80 billion garments are produced new every year. Imagine all the resources that this requires. To make our clothes we need water (between 11,000 and 20,000 litres of water are needed to produce enough textile for one pair of jeans). From oil for synthetic fibres, to energy for textile production and dye for colour -- we are dependent on multifarious resources at a time when these resources are being degraded at unprecedented speed.
Fast fashion has been a huge part of this, as we all became voracious consumers caught up in an unsustainable churn of clothes, micro trends and disposability. This industry has created a "factory of consumers" whereas it is the offer to drive/create demand. We buy in a rush and discard as quickly. But where all these clothes go? As consumers, we seem to worship at the altar of "wear-it-today, chuck-it-tomorrow" fast fashion mentality. But short-term thinking inevitably has a later cost...
And let's not forget that underneath that all we have an army of millions of humans, tilling the soil, picking the cotton, processing it - ginning, weaving, dyeing; working looms, sewing embellishments and sequins and buttons and working sewing machines in huge factories. As Lucy Siegle, British journalist and author of my bible on ethical fashion To Die For: is fashion wearing out the world? (Harper Collins 2011) puts it 'brands, retailers and consumers have all become fantastically adept at divorcing fashion from the very fact that it is been made by an army of living, breathing, human beings with resources which are depleting the environment'.
But the number of challenges should also illustrate the scale of the opportunity. I believe we're on the threshold of a new fashion industry where ethics and glamour co-exist, where new fibres and technology minimise impact, where fashion brands begin to acknowledge their debt to the natural world and invest in sustaining it for their future and our future. What an opportunity this is! It will give us the golden chance to become active citizens through our wardrobes.
So we go back to my initial "provoking" question: could we solve climate change if we all were to buy carefully and get more 'fashion mileage' out of each piece? If we bought with heart and commitment, and wear with heart and commitment too? If we fell in love not just with a fleeting trend, but with the stories of the clothes that we own. To love them more and for longer? For anybody that cares about fashion and the planet, who thinks the two can co-exist, it's time to have these conversations, be courageous the fling open the doors of the global closet!
This post is part of a month-long series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with a variety of events being held in September recognizing the threats posed by climate change. Those events include the UN's Climate Summit 2014 (to be held Sept. 23, 2014, at UN headquarters in New York) and Climate Week NYC (Sept. 22-28, 2014, throughout New York City). To see all the posts in the series, read here.