Alarmingly, it appears that many people have given up hope that anything can be done about climate change. "We don't need to worry about climate denialists anymore; this is down to four per cent of the [US] population,” said Lucy Shea, founder of sustainability consultancy Futerra during EcoSessions’ Fashion x Climate event in New York last week, “But there's this new really worrying subset of climate fatalists... in the States it's up to 29 per cent of young people."
This statistic is one of an increasing number of foreboding facts and figures surrounding the issue of climate change. And so while attendees at the Climate Week event shared their insights on what impact fashion is having on the environment, there was equal focus on what can be done to move the industry in a more positive direction.
Climate Week was launched by The Climate Group back in 2009. The organization works internationally with leading businesses, states and regions with the aim of delivering a world of net zero greenhouse gas emissions, and Climate Week NYC, a collaborative space for climate-related events in support of the implementation of the Paris Agreement and the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, is now one of the key summits on the international calendar.
This year’s event, launched at an official opening ceremony on September 18 at The Morgan Library in New York City, took place alongside the UN General Assembly, and brought together international leaders from business, government and civil society. And as part of the week’s agenda, global events series EcoSessions hosted a panel discussion to debate how the fashion industry is addressing climate change.
Connecting designers, industry and citizens to build community and affect change, EcoSessions brought together designer Mara Hoffman, co-founder and CEO of Zady, Maxine Bédat, and H&M’s Sustainability Business Controller Vanessa Rothschild in front of an audience of like-minded professionals to discuss what the fashion industry is doing to mitigate climate damage.
While there is still a great deal of uncertainty as to what extent fashion is fuelling climate change, it is widely acknowledged that there is a connection between the industry and destruction of the planet. Speaking at the event last Wednesday, Nate Aden, senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, explained that, "The best number we have now is about five per cent of [global] greenhouse gas emissions [come from] this sector”. This is equivalent to the impact from the aviation sector, or in country terms, equal to Russia.
The panel agreed that among all the points of impact, the way raw materials are sourced is paramount, and each member explained how recycled materials and sustainable practices are becoming an increasingly important part of their businesses. There was also a debate surrounding synthetic versus natural fibres in terms of their impact on the environment, weighing the negative impacts of synthetic textile production against the colossal amounts of water needed to farm cotton. However, as Bédat noted, greenhouse emissions are only part of the problem when working with synthetics. Tiny strands of synthetic material, or microfibers, can leach into and pollute oceans every time synthetic clothing is washed.
The importance of education was also acknowledged, both in terms of corporate business and individual consumers, with simple changes such as using cold water rather than hot in washing machines having a sizeable impact on the emissions involved in the lifespan of a garment.
Despite the ongoing nature of the debate concerning the extent of the fashion industry’s impact on the environment and the effectiveness of potential solutions, all the panelists agreed that staying focused on the solutions is what matters. "It's about waking up that potential through our messaging and continuing to inspire hope, “ said Mara Hoffman when asked how to ensure continued engagement in the issue. “Hope exists and it will always exist until we go away."