Fashion can help tackle climate change – and these projects prove it

catalytic clothing

Over the past 15 years, I have been using the power of fashion to connect all of us to previously unimagined ways of solving societal and environmental challenges.  I have done this by deliberately colliding the knowledge of both fashion and science for purpose, rather than fantasy.

From my collaborative project Catalytic Clothing – which purifies the air around us as we walk, simply by delivering existing technology in a new way to the surface of our clothes through the normal laundry process, to addressing the crisis of our time – climate change, fashion can be used to transform lives.

At face value, it is a struggle to see how fashion has anything meaningful to contribute to this fight, given its inherently part of the problem. But it is precisely the scale of effect our industry has on the environment that makes it potentially one of the fastest ways to upscale and deliver essential changes.

This about this: the global fashion industry consumes nearly 1 billion kWh of electricity – or 130 million tonnes of coal – making the apparel industry a significant contributor to global greenhouse emissions*.

To put it in perspective, the climate impact of one cotton t-shirt is roughly equal to the carbon footprint of driving a car for 10 miles.  With demand expected to grow and production shift to less energy efficient regions, the impact of cotton could grow by more than 50%.  Rather than admit defeat we can actually see this as a huge opportunity to lead in the fight against climate change. Small changes will have a significant impact – an immediate and positive effect on our planet.

The fashion industry is perfectly placed to spread ideas and encourage action.  We have power as consumers, suppliers and designers to tap into fashion to innovate and influence culture.

We need to attack the status quo and interrogate the pervasive culture of fast, cheap fashion and think more deeply about how we clothe ourselves. We also need to ask the difficult questions about whether we really want fashion at all costs – compromising our environment, depleting our resources and abusing the rights and health and safety of the skilled workers who make our clothing.

My new project – Dress for Our Time – attempts to do just that and seeks to build conversation and out between those willing to ask questions, imagine and live solutions together. It isn’t a list of 10 things to save the planet, instead it asks we think differently – engage with the issues rather than turning away.

To kick off the campaign we launched a social media experiment with the hashtag #LookMumNoFuture – inspired by a young girl on a climate change march holding tightly to a banner with this stark warning.  We asked people to share a small piece of their past – an image of themselves as a child – which serves two purposes: it asks us to think about a time before we knew about climate change and what we should be doing now to safeguard our future for the next generation.

It also underlines the mantra that we are the first generation to know about climate change, but the last who can do anything about it.  Interestingly, we have found that it divides adult opinion – with some feeling the sentiment is too defeatist and too direct. But it seems right the cry of the young should be taken seriously.

Working with school children recently, we asked what climate change meant to them and a 12-year-old boy replied: “I already know that when I have a child, I will have to say once upon a time there was a place called Antarctica.”

Our children are worried about our future.

Our next challenge is to bring Dress For Our Time to life and we are currently in the process of developing a major piece of fashion meets science in the heart of London to coincide with the UN Climate Change Conference this December in Paris.

To follow our journey and to find out more please follow me on twitter, you can also show your support by sharing an image on Twitter or Instagram of yourself as a child with #LookMumNoFuture and #dress4ourtime.  You can also sign up to our newsletter where you will be the first to hear about the next stages of our campaign to unite the fashion industry in the fight against climate change.

*Source: An Introduction to the Economic, Environmental, and Social Impacts of the Global Textiles Industry by Randolph Kirchain and Elsa Olivetti Materials Systems Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Like what you just read? Follow Helen on Twitter @ProfHelenStorey.

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