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How fashion can limit global warming to 1.5°C


It’s ‘climate crunch time’ and everything we care about (and rely on!) is now under threat. It’s time to go beyond the usual conversations around supply chain issues, textiles recycling, buying less and buying better – focusing instead on how fashion can halt its contribution to global warming, drastically and quickly.

On 10 February, alongside Suitcase Rummage, we co-hosted a panel called Disrupting fashion to save the world to take the sustainable fashion conversation to the next level. The event was part of Sustainable Living Festival – now in its 20th year – which is making it a mission to present the very best discoveries to restore a safe climate as fast as humanly possible.

We asked key players in Australian fashion and innovation how the industry can contribute to limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

Why 1.5°C?

The latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says we must keep global warming to 1.5°C (and not 2°C as per the 2016 Paris Agreement) to avoid extreme and irreversible effects like changed weather patterns and loss of biodiversity. Human activity is estimated to have caused approximately 1°C of global warming already, compared to pre-industrial levels. This number is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. That’s 11 years away! Rising sea levels, floods and droughts will bring things like food insecurity which will destabilise society and the economy as we know it – including how we live our daily life.

We can see that incremental improvements aren’t going to be fast enough to respond to the climate crisis.

As well as being a responsibility of the fashion industry to respond to climate change surely it’s an opportunity for new business models and even what the fashion industry loves: new stuff. In fact, it’s the only way the industry will stay competitive.

Considering fashion and newness are one and the same, we’d like to think we – as people loving fashion – can rise to the challenge of participating in new ways. The question is how? Actioning these five themes will see you well on your way to help limit global warming to 1.5°C.

Knowledge is power

Understanding the way clothing is made is integral to making choices that reduces the negative effects of fashion: extraction of raw materials, emissions, waste and pollution.  

Fabrications

Learning about the fabric our clothing consists of is a great starting point. The most sustainable options currently on the market are made from recycled materials and natural fibres. Remember there are pros and cons to each fibre type, which is one of the reasons ‘sustainable fashion’ is so complex.

  • Recycled fabrics are made from fabric waste and consumer waste, like recycled plastic bottles. Recycling itself is an energy intensive process but it’s generally better than extracting raw resources.
  • Econyl is a high quality recycled nylon made from plastic waste from oceans and landfills, reducing the need to extract oil while cleaning up waste. Econyl says their material reduced the global warming impact of nylon by up to 80% compared with the material made from oil. Meanwhile, Econyl’s parent company Aquafil is a major synthetics producer.  

Hemp is a high performing alternative to cotton

  • Hemp is a wonder fibre. It’s a fast-growing plant that requires very little water and no herbicides, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or GMO seeds. It produces more fibre per hectare and comes to harvest age more quickly than cotton. It also keeps it shape better and is more resilient. Unfortunately the association of hemp with cannabis (and probably a few too many brown sack dresses in the 70s!) has hampered the mainstream use of the fibre, though brands like Patagonia are helping turn hemp’s image around.
  • Wool, you know how we feel about that one. Wool is a natural fibre that is incredibly hard to replicate – it’s a renewable resource, odour and stain resistant, antibacterial, lightweight, breathable and insulating. It pays to look into the impact of industrial agriculture, though.
  • Organic cotton reduces pesticide use, improving the health of waterways and farmers, however it still uses a lot of water.
  • Cellulose-based materials like bamboo and Tencel are marketed as ‘green’ fibres because they’re derived from fast-growing grasses and sustainably managed beech, pine and eucalypt forests. Although they require intensive manufacturing processes (they can use a lot of chemicals to convert the cellulose to fibre), fabrics like Tencel are biodegradable and the brand is leading the way in terms of reducing manufacturing waste.
  • Polyester is a plastic-based fabric made of oil and it’s become popular because it’s so cheap to make. Polyester clothing takes a very long time to decompose and the mircofibres it sheds are contributing to turning our oceans into plastic soup. The production and end-of-life effects of polys are among the top reasons fashion is so heavily impactful on the environment. It’s one to avoid!
  • Mixed fibre fabrics like poly-cotton cannot be recycled because the different fibre components need different processes to be converted into new materials. The biggest users of mixed fibre fabrics are fast fashion brands. For this reason it’s worth being wary of the much-hyped recycling initiatives by fast fashion companies that cannot recycle the bulk of what they make themselves. 

Certifications

There are some certifications to look for that can help you decide what fabrications are better for the environment. Bluesign certified means clothing has undergone a rigorous set of criteria to ensure resource productivity, consumer safety, reduced water and air emissions and occupational health & safety.

GOTS certified is the leading textile processing standard for organic fibres, including ecological and social criteria and Oeko-Tex confirms safe levels of chemical use.

Information and access

There are also some information-rich guides out there to help inform you about how clothing is made, and this includes worker rights. Whether you want sit and read long-form articles or sign up to mailing lists and follow Insta feeds, educating yourself over time is what it takes for it to all sink in.

  • Good On You is a shopping app that rates brands on their ethical and sustainable practices. Love of our life Emma Watson just became a supporter!
  • Well Made Clothes let you shop by your values, whether that be handmade, local or vegan
  • Fashion Revolution’s transparency initiative asks fashion brands ‘who made my clothes’ to expose and pressure them to improve working conditions for garment workers
  • Baptist World Aid’s Ethical Fashion Guide is a directory of brands that treat their workers fairly

Referring to the literature before you shop will help you make better choices. As you go you may find you’ll build you own ethical framework as it becomes clear what you care most about.

Buy local

Manufacturing and buying locally is an important aspect of reducing the emissions that contribute to global warming.

Cities and local areas can become water efficient, go zero waste, and adopt renewable energy faster than nations, and we’re seeing examples of this in Australia and around the world. The state of Victoria, for instance, is aligning activities across business and government to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Nobody Denim is made in Melbourne

Sussing out Australian-made stuff is one way to reduce your footprint. Use Well Made Clothes ‘Local’ value or see Ethical Clothing Australia’s brand directory as a starting point to finding out who’s making in Australia.

Repair your stuff

Repair can be seen as a radical act, because it means we are less likely to fulfil our role as consumer in the economy.

Learning how to sew on a button or mend a hole means your clothes are less likely to hit the bin. For the many of us who have never learned, Youtube is awesome for fix-it skills. But if needle and thread just aren’t for you, find a local tailor who can do it for you. The cost of repair is a small price to pay compared to buying a whole new garment.

Patagonia mends its adventure gear for a reasonable cost

Another great option is to take your clothes back to the maker! Brands like Nudie, Patagonia and RM Williams all value longevity and offer repair services.

The best way to prepare for repair? Buy quality upfront, and look for style not trends when you shop.

Be an activist

Your purchasing choices influences what companies decide to do next. Similarly, using your voice as a citizen sends a message to governments to change their policies.

The UK government is currently investigating the sustainability of the fashion industry by pulling head honchos into parliament and interrogating their business models. The government can tax behaviours that aren’t sustainable, and incentivise behaviours that are, which heavily influences business practices.

To engage your own government, get in touch with your local politicians. Leave a voicemail with your local member (search Who is my local member), ask to have your concern recorded (“I’m concerned about climate change and want to know what action your taking to reduce global warming”) or even request to meet face to face. Remember this is your right as a citizen and your member is representing you.

Communication is queen  

Help normalise the climate conversation by talking about it!

Adopting everyday actions (like committing to a plant based diet, switching to green energy like Powershop, reusing, repairing and recycling your stuff) is about changing habits. Lead by example to show how easy it is and what can be gained (cost savings, improving your health, actually doing something about the biggest problem facing our planet).

Share the solutions with your friends and family and talk about the cool stuff going on rather than the story of doom and gloom.

Also, as sustainability garners momentum, be wary of ‘greenwashing’. Big companies in particular have budgets for sustainability initiatives but have inherently unsustainable business models. In saying that, they’re invested in the future of the fashion industry and have the resources to invest in technological advances. Just another consideration to add to the mix.

The complexities of the fashion industry can be baffling even to industry professionals and the solutions to its gnarly problems aren’t perfect. But the work is happening on every scale. And you can help by sending a powerful message to governments and brands that the fashion industry needs to respond to climate change now.

Meet the experts

These are the clever folks on the panel who helped us explore how fashion can help reduce global warming to 1.5°C.

Courtney Sanders co-founded Well Made Clothes – a marketplace which provides information and the ability to shop clothes in line with your ethical values. Courtney was recently named as one of Harper’s Bazaar Australia’s 2018 Women of the Year.

Jessica Wheelock of Oxfam is a campaigner, communicator and community organiser with a passion for human rights issues. She is currently working on the What She Makes campaign, demanding that big clothing brands pay the women garment makers a living wage.

Ross Harding is founder of Finding Infinity. Acknowledging the barriers to transform cities to become self-sufficient is as much about people as it is about technology and finance, Ross focuses on accelerating the transition to renewables using his creativity and engineering expertise.

Annette Young is on Sustainability Victoria’s social change and engagement team and has been working in communications and marketing in sustainability and fashion for 15 years. Last year she wrote a thesis at RMIT on the future of sustainable fashion and has her own ethical and sustainable fashion label.