Climate protests drew millions around the world in September. Many of the Democratic presidential candidates have rolled out ambitious plans to cut carbon while making the economy greener. There’s a sense of momentum to solve our planetary crisis. And yet a leading cause of climate change remains persistently overlooked or trivialized: clothing.
The clothing and footwear industry is responsible for 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, nearly the same as the entire European Union, according to a study by the environmental services group Quantis. Without abrupt intervention, the industry’s impact on the climate is on track to increase by almost half by 2030.
But clothing does not appear to be mentioned in the Democratic candidates’ climate plans, nor in the Green New Deal proposed by House Democrats. And while it’s coming up more in coverage about low-emissions lifestyle changes, it’s still viewed as a problem mostly for fashionistas.
Indeed, caring about clothes is often considered frivolous, at odds with concern about the fate of the planet. The actor and environmentalist Woody Harrelson expressed this view when he hosted “Saturday Night Live” the week after the recent climate marches in New York. “I was always anti-fashion,” he said, “because it always seemed to me there were more important things to care about” — like melting ice caps, the Amazon burning, and the pollution of our water, air and food. Many people fail to see how the $2.5 trillion apparel industry is connected to our environment, which means we persistently pay no attention to how it might help us solve our climate crisis.
Clothes are easy to ignore because they are made far away and have throughout history been made by enslaved, unpaid and low-paid laborers, often by women. But clothing affects every other environmental problem we care about. Let’s say you wear a cotton T-shirt — it required thousands of gallons of water to make. If that T-shirt is viscose rayon, it may well have come from a tree felled in the Amazon (viscose rayon is made from plants). And if it’s polyester, acrylic or nylon, you’re wearing plastic. When those plastic clothes get washed, they junk up our oceans with microplastic pollution.
Fortunately, some clothing companies are waking up to the climate crisis. A growing number of brands are bowing to grass-roots pressure and consumer surveys that show that sustainability and ethics are top concerns for young shoppers. In August, at the Group of 7 summit, 32 clothing brands got together to set “science-based targets” for emission reductions. Since then, two dozen more brands have signed this so-called Fashion Pact. Kering, the luxury conglomerate that owns Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga, has set a goal for all of its brands to go carbon-neutral.
But fashion can’t go green on its own. It won’t even make a dent in the problem without international cooperation and mainstream attention. Two new reports, one by Stand.earth and the other by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, show that most brands aren’t measuring their emissions, much less cutting them. That’s because a vast majority of the greenhouse gas emissions the clothing industry churns out happens in the supply chain — in factories and farms that brands don’t own, and that are spread out and far away.
The clothing industry, like most industries, is also stubbornly reliant on fossil fuels. They’re used to fire up boilers in textile mills, to make the pesticides dumped onto cotton fields and to produce the gobs of chemicals that dye and finish fabrics. Fossil fuels are also the feedstock of synthetic fibers, which now make up the bulk of what we wear. Getting clothing off oil will not be easy.
Consumers have an important part to play in making fashion sustainable. We can work to extend the life of all clothes by switching more of our purchases to secondhand and online resale, renting for special occasions, and repairing clothes instead of throwing them away. We can choose remanufactured and upcycled apparel like those on offer from Eileen Fisher and Converse.
We can turn our washing machines down to cold and consider air drying more of our laundry. We should also support companies that are making genuine efforts to curb their carbon footprint and to source more sustainable materials (the Good on You app and Stand.earth’s rankings are places to find them).
We also need activists, journalists, scientists, investors and academics who focus on sustainability to include clothing in their work. We need technological innovation and investment in new fibers and manufacturing processes, deeper research and more cutting-edge ideas.
And we need government action and innovative policy that accounts for the global impact of the stuff we buy. Other countries have already made progress: France has passed a bill banning the destruction of unsold clothing and requiring large companies to ensure environmental and human rights in their supply chains. And the British Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee has spent the last two years looking into how to make the fashion industry more sustainable.
We need a champion of the fashion movement in Washington: Perhaps Nancy Pelosi, whose six-year-old Max Mara coat went viral last year, is our movement’s leader in waiting. But it could also be a Republican, a number of whom are talking about climate action and who should see the potential in green manufacturing. We need major fashion hubs like New York and Los Angeles and former manufacturing giants in the South and Midwest to join this cause, too.
But first we need all people who care about climate change to understand that they’re part of the problem and the solution, just by wearing clothes.