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Can the Fashion Industry Work Toward 'Climate Positivity'?

Indigenous populations, landfills, information sharing and fashion that's about more than profit were all part of the conversation at the latest Study Hall conference in New York City.
Céline Semaan, Mari Copeny, Yara Shahidi, Tina Knowles and Jasmine Solano at Study Hall's latest conference.

Céline Semaan, Mari Copeny, Yara Shahidi, Tina Knowles and Jasmine Solano at Study Hall's latest conference.

What if the goal of fashion wasn't to make endless money? 

Some brand founders are taking the question seriously. As far as Sebastien Kopp, co-founder of cult-favorite sneaker company Veja, is concerned, capping wages is a worthwhile move for business leaders. Meanwhile, Noah co-founder Brendon Babenzien thinks that running a responsible company is actually easier if you're willing to run a smaller operation — even though that might mean forgoing the inflated profits that can come with scaling up.

"If you're greedy, it's hard," Babenzien said at Friday's Study Hall Climate Positivity Conference, held at The Times Center in New York City. 

It was an approach disputed by some other experts present, like Timberland Creative Director Christopher Raeburn. But it still provided food for thought in an industry where one of Net-a-Porter's bestselling coat costs more than $3,600 but only 2% of garment-industry workers make a living wage, according to International Labour Office Communications Head Tara Rangarajan.

This conversation was just one of many taking place in the "school" that was Study Hall's latest conference. Slow Factory, Columbia University's Earth Institute and the UN's Office for Partnerships served as principals; Céline Semaan and Jasmine Solano functioned as deans; and figures like actress Yara Shahidi and marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson stood in for teachers. 

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Though the event covered everything from indigenous land rights to sustainable fashion, the topic du jour was "climate positivity," which is defined by Fast Company as "an activity that goes beyond achieving net zero carbon emissions to actually create an environmental benefit by removing additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere." 

But the conference also played on the term's double meaning, with a goal of figuring out how to shift the doom and gloom of the current global climate change conversation to one of hope and action. Organizer Semaan encouraged the audience to become "professional troublemakers," playing on Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis's idea of "good trouble," which urges disruption for the sake of positive change.

Valued at $2.5 trillion in 2017 by McKinsey, the global apparel market has the opportunity to lead the world into a more sustainable future. By scaling positive solutions, the fashion industry has the power to inspire other industries to do the same. And though solutions are available, fashion executives, designers, journalists, students and consumers must understand that they can only be achieved by way of an inclusive attitude that reaches outside the industry to understand how clothing plays a part in so many facets of commerce — and our lives.

While the full program is now available to watch on Study Hall's website as part of its initiative to make information available to all, we've pinpointed some of the most crucial takeaways in case you don't have five hours to spare. Read on for the highlights.

We need to shift from appropriation to acknowledgement and implementation of indigenous-led sustainable practices.

Almost 700 people collectively shed tears when model and activist Haatepah spoke about how indigenous people like himself are reclaiming their identity. 

"Indigenous people have always understood the equilibrium of working with the land versus against it," he said. "I feel now our people are starting to reclaim and understand where they come from," he added as he began to cry. 

The room's eruption of applause showed just how emotional and all-encompassing climate change and its effects are — spanning race, environment, continent, gender and time.

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"Next to nature's 3.8 billion years of R&D, the best blueprints we have are indigenous knowledge," affirmed FIT Assistant Professor of Science and Sustainability Theanne Schiros in talking about a proper response to environmental degradation.

She showed the audience an indigenous technique for tanning leather and reminded listeners that these communities did the work centuries ago to pioneer more earth-friendly ways of operating. Now, she said, it's time for non-indigenous people to seek them out and celebrate their knowledge by not only partnering and collaborating with them, but by also ensuring they have seats at the table. 

Operating this way stands in stark contrast to the exploitative, appropriative attitude the fashion industry has so often had toward indigenous people in the past, and would uplift activists like Haatepah, designers like Bethany Yellowtail and others who represent a vast and beautiful array of the world's indigenous communities. With their help, the industry can hopefully learn to be as sustainable as their people have always been.

We need to buy less.

The fashion industry runs on newness, and social media has made discovering your next purchase easier than ever — not to mention only a few taps away from arriving at your doorstep. The staggering amount of consumption that the industry has normalized continues to contribute directly to the demise of our planet. 

"I got tired of working and creating for people's wants and I wanted to re-shift and think about humanity's needs," House of Waris creator Waris Ahluwalia explained about his shift from jewelry designer to wellness brand founder. Though the teas he sells now still have to be purchased to enjoyed, his life and career-shifting energy is similar to that of people who go months without buying any new clothes — it's born from a desire to break the cycle of capitalism that equates constant consumption with happiness.

The lesson for others? Purchase less stuff. Start tomorrow by cancelling that shopping trip you have planned this weekend or by using your office's water machine instead of picking up that new bottle. Every step counts, and if we all practice it, the results could be tremendous.

Waste deserves more positive attention.

One of the day's coolest visuals explored "Landfills as Museums," a Slow Factory-organized initiative to bring design students to landfills to help shape how they see waste. The video shown at Study Hall documented the pilot program Fashionista covered in November, showing how proper management systems can turn waste into a resource and not just leave it sitting as a heaping pile of trash with no future. 

While designers like Raeburn and Bethany Williams are already championing fashion made from cast-off materials, it's time other brands got more thoroughly on board. Semaan described this game-changing work as "diving deep into what circularity means from an end-of-life perspective" — and it's clear that if companies truly want to describe themselves as circular, they've got to start incorporating waste into the design process.

We should consider the life cycle of everything we make and buy.

When educator Laurel Zaima claimed that we ingest an average of five grams of plastic (the size and thickness of a credit card) each week, you could've heard a pin drop in the room. This is because microplastics are everywhere and each time new plastic is created and discarded, she noted, it adds to the problem. 

In 1907, the first synthetic plastic derived from fossil fuels was created by Leo Baekeland, though naturally-derived polymers like cellulose have existed in nature since long before that. But when you consider that it takes upwards of 450 years for plastics to decompose, that means all of the synthetic plastics ever created still exist on Earth. Luckily, there are plenty of alternatives available: Rayons and silks can start to degrade in mere weeks, while fabrics like Tencel are already halfway through the breakdown process in just a little over three months' time.

"Life cycle assessment forces transparency," Schiros said, referring to the analysis technique brands can use to quantify the environmental impact of a given product at every stage of its existence.

That means that knowing what your products are made of and where they are made is absolutely crucial going forward. Based on that knowledge, brands can develop recycling programs, encourage consumers to mend and rewear and feed into the secondhand market to prolong the life of a product as long as possible.

Brands need to share information and technology to innovate.

G-Star Raw Sustainability Director Sofie Schop detailed how the brand is working on innovative techniques within its supply chain — involving a level of support for manufacturers and factories that did not exist even 15 years ago. She also noted the importance of sharing with her peers to ensure everyone accelerates the efficacy of sustainable business practices together. 

Meanwhile, as part of the One x One Incubator, Swarovski, Slow Factory and the UN Office for Partnerships are supporting three pairs of designers and scientists in implementing positive change. These kinds of partnerships not only give participating designers like Phillip Lim and Mara Hoffman a new lane for creativity, but they also ensure that the design processes they're developing have a positive impact on the planet's health. An attitude that emphasizes collaboration is only going to become more crucial for an industry looking to create real solutions to the most pressing climate problems facing us today.

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