Environmental concerns, textiles and fast fashion

12 12 2012

I went to the stores this week, looking for presents (as it’s the season), and was bombarded with slogan after slogan of companies trying to make their product stand out from the crowd.   It made me think  about  the journey I’ve personally taken since founding O Ecotextiles – going from somebody who was totally clueless, to having an exquisitely sensitive slant to environmental concerns regarding textiles.  And now I talk every day to people who I realize are at the place I was seven years ago.  Bridging the gap between what Steven Bland says are those who are climbing the mountain, and those who haven’t even heard of the mountain is maybe the hardest part. As he says, “the reality is that the core messages and realities of sustainable development are often lost in a sea of ‘greenwash’ and climate-change frenzy”.  “We have a fully GOTS certified fabric for upholstery” I say, excitedly.  The response?  Blank faces (or silence over the phone), or “what’s GOTS?”  Explaining the concept behind GOTS (including my belief that the chemicals in the fabrics are subtly altering us), while staying positive, has been difficult.

So in this optimistic season, it’s important to remember to remain positive as we climb.  Here are some important concepts to remember as we go forward:

  1. Remember the importance of optimism. The catastrophic and  negative portrayals of the environmental movement have desensitized people to many environmental issues. The number of people who deny that human  activity causes climate change is growing, not diminishing. How do we  create a positive vision of the future, whilst convincing people of the  scale and urgency of the problem at hand?
  2.  Adopt systems  thinking.  Steven Bland, writing in Forum for the Future puts it this way:  “Are Christmas trees sustainable, I ask myself, as I wrap them in  plastic netting which I fear could end up in the stomach of some  unfortunate seabird.”   Truly  understanding the sustainability of the humble Christmas tree has less to  do with netting and more about the systems with which the tree interacted  and was a part. What effect did growing have on local ecological systems?  Were the people who trimmed them into shape paid a living wage? And how did this impact local societies?  The importance of systems thinking involves  seeing the forest, in spite of the trees. Creating a more just and  prosperous future will require us to change the way we think fundamentally.”[1]
  3. Remember to push on with those things that make business  sense in finding some responses to climate change:  responding to this constraint can drive  game-changing innovation.  Learn to win with sustainability.  As Zac Goldsmith says,  “We have to rewrite  the rules so that the market, which for so long has been an engine of  unsustainable, colossal destruction, becomes a force for good. The market  is the most powerful force for change, other than nature itself. And there  are so many signs that it can be transformed, so many examples: if you make  waste a liability, waste is minimized; if you put a value on something,  it’s valued. It’s really very simple: we free the market to do what it’s  best at, but change the parameters in which it operates…you simply need to take the best of today and turn  it into the norm of tomorrow. If you did that in every sector, we would be  there. Yes the problem is formidable, it’s huge, it’s off the scale. But  it’s not so big that we can’t deal with it.”[2]   A market-based, fee-and-dividend program for carbon emissions, for      example,  could have an impact by  charging polluters for emitting carbon into the atmosphere, yet it seems  unlikely that such measures will have the regulatory teeth they need. The  rapidly spreading method of fossil fuel extraction known as fracking, for  instance, is already exempt from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory.

What are you wearing right now? No peeking at the label  –  do you know what it’s made of, who manufactured it and where? And how do you think your answers might be different in 15 years’ time?

Clothing is ripe for some futures thinking. There are thorny issues like water and pesticide use in cotton fields;  residual chemicals in the fabrics we live with and the water used to produce them; massive challenges over worker conditions (the recent fire in a Bangladesh factory made news in the West this time, unlike many others which didn’t) and wages in production; and lengthy supply chains that criss-cross the world and navigate tit-for-tat protectionism. And there’s the small matter of consumer power: a cool trillion dollars worldwide is spent on clothes by consumers, whose demands change faster than the models’ outfits on a catwalk.

Society’s fascination with ‘fast fashion’ is emerging as a hot topic. Critics argue that this high-turnover industry is fundamentally unsustainable: cheap and cheerful goods are worn one day and thrown away the next.  Fashion Futures is aiming to discover how behavioral changes or new technologies can create a different future.  Supported by Levi Strauss & Co, they’re exploring various possible worlds for the global apparel industry in 2025.  Here’s a YouTube video about Fashion Futures:

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