With multiple devastating hurricanes making news in the last month, the threat of climate change — and the potential it has for wreaking havoc on human populations — feels more potent than ever. And while that should matter to anyone, it hits especially hard for conscientious fashion insiders who see the connection between the industry they love and the destruction of the planet.
"The apparel sector is one where there's a lot of uncertainty about what exactly the impacts are," said Nate Aden, senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, at a panel discussion on climate change Wednesday morning in NYC.
"The best number we have now is about five percent of [global] greenhouse gas emissions [come from] this sector. To give you some sense of perspective, that's about equivalent to the impact from the aviation sector, so all the planes flying in the world. Or in country terms, that's about equal to Russia. So it's pretty significant."
Whether they knew these figures ahead of time or not, it was a gut-level understanding of this reality that led a group of like-minded fashion professionals to gather Wednesday morning as part of a Climate Week event hosted by EcoSessions. There Aden, along with designer Mara Hoffman, Zady founder Maxine Bédat, H&M sustainable business controller Vanessa Rothschild and EcoSessions founder Kate Black, shared their insight on what impact the fashion industry is already having and what can be done to move things in a positive direction.
All of those involved in the conversation agreed that while there are numerous points of impact, the way raw materials are sourced is near the top of the list. For Hoffman, who started pivoting her now 17-year-old brand toward greater sustainability about two years ago, switching to recycled nylon in her swimwear was an obvious first step.
"When we saw success in that and realized that we could easily make that shift without losing the emotional response from our customer, it gave us the confidence to expand it into our ready-to-wear," she said. Rothschild added that H&M is committed to sourcing only sustainable or recycled materials in its clothing by 2030, and Bédat noted that Zady, as the youngest company of the three, has had the privilege of starting its supply chain with ethics baked in from the ground up.
Still, Aden cautioned that gauging the "most ethical" textiles can be hard, as it's difficult to weigh the negative impacts of something like synthetic textile production versus the massive amounts of water needed to farm cotton.
"MIT found that it was one direction, whereas the Higg Index of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition found that it was another, in terms of which is more impactful, cotton or synthetic fibers," he said. "But it's clear that leather and cotton in particular are very intensive. Leather is responsible for a lot of methane emissions, which is a strong climate forcer. It is more potent than carbon and has a more immediate short-term impact."
His point could be distressing to many conscious fashion brands, which often rely heavily on natural materials like cotton or leather to avoid the environmental problems associated with synthetics. But Bédat noted that greenhouse emissions, while significant, aren't the only consideration when it comes to the environment — there are also things like microfibers, or tiny strands of synthetic materials, that can leach into and pollute the ocean when synthetic clothing is washed.
It's a serious problem that the industry is looking for ways to address. Rothschild noted that H&M recently began using a fabric made of recycled ocean plastic, and Aden suggested that getting together with other stakeholders, like washing machine manufacturers, could lead to new solutions for keeping those fibers out of the water. And he also notes that both big business and individual consumer education is important. Something as simple as using cold water rather than hot in the washing machine has a sizable impact on the emissions involved in the lifespan of a garment, because the energy used to heat water is emissions-intensive. Thankfully, that's the kind of switch that's easy for most consumers to make once they learn the positive impact of doing so.
No matter what the long-term answers turn out to be on a micro and macro level, all the panelists agreed that staying focused on solutions matters. Audience member Lucy Shea, founder of sustainability consultancy Futerra, mentioned during the Q&A time that recent research commissioned by Futerra claimed that many people have given up hope that anything can even be done about climate change.
"We don't need to worry about climate denialists anymore; this is down to four percent of the population," she said. "But there's this new really worrying subset of climate fatalists... in the States it's up to 29 percent of young people."
So how, in the face of disheartening facts about how bad the fashion industry really can be, to keep those people encouraged enough that they'll be motivated to fight for much-needed — and very possible — change?
"I think it comes down to the emotion and feeling something. This next generation is turned on by change," said Hoffman. "It's about waking up that potential through our messaging and continuing to inspire hope, however corny it sounds. Hope exists and it will always exist until we go away."