Rolling up our sleeves: Can we fight climate crisis with fashion?

Illustration of people modeling clothes
Emily Bi/File

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In the past year, we have come face to face with harrowing realities. As a virulent pandemic ravaged the globe, the United States has dealt with racial unrest, an imperiled democratic system and some of the warmest weather in recorded history. During this time, a shared dedication to mitigating our world’s generational ills and inequities was born. As a new administration takes office, the expectation of citizens, government and businesses to identify and rectify destruction and injustice is renewed.

Yet, the fashion industry, among others, faces a worrying future as it struggles to catch up with a maturing nation. Fashion depends on its powers of seduction; it entices consumers to want, to need and to spend. The endless cycles of trends, promotions and merchandise turnover make sustainability a seemingly impossible consideration. If industry leaders are unwilling to prioritize sustainability, it is the responsibility of consumers to discover and support fashion’s eco-friendly faction.

New options beckon. In recent advertising, a small, resolute segment of the fashion industry attempts to take responsibility. In a full broadsheet advertisement in The New York Times, Allbirds, a company known for wool footwear, published a screenshot of an imaginary email addressed to many of fashion’s most popular brands, such as Adidas, Ralph Lauren and Zara. Referring to its pollution as “a dirty little secret,” Allbirds does what too many fashion companies have failed to do. The company begins with an admission of guilt and makes no attempt to conceal its contribution to the climate crisis.

In subsequent paragraphs, the New Zealand-American company announces the release of its Carbon Footprint and emissions calculations. Allbirds avers, “We know sharing proprietary information might not make the most business sense. But the global climate crisis is bigger than business.” The footwear company does not just attempt to make corporate responsibility trendy, it recognizes the irresponsibility of its industry counterparts and asks them to resist considerations of personal advantage. Before signing off, Allbirds encourages companies to use its calculation tool to help improve their own carbon footprint. Responses pending, for now.

Allbirds is not alone in its expressed commitment to sustainability. Although Industry of All Nations, a California-based apparel company, is perhaps best-known for its organic cotton T-shirts and undyed alpaca knitwear, it is much more than a fashion label. Industry of All Nations is a part of a burgeoning subset of companies who research, discover and develop new methods of producing clothing ethically and sustainably. Positioning its commitment to sustainability center stage, the company uses its website to tell the story of each garment. An Industry of All Nations’ tee is produced according to the standards upheld by a network of Indian cotton farmers, spinners, loomers and tailors whose techniques are rooted in community and ancestry.

During a time when consumers are increasingly free to navigate retail without humans, Industry of All Nations insists on humanizing every step of the shopping experience. The Abbot Kinney location is an ebullient space bathed in the Southern Californian sun where shoppers admire displays of raw pigments and read about the company’s story and objectives. Seeing the store in action, it is clear that the brand has solved the sustainability puzzle by offering an attractive shopping experience without surrendering to the temptations of global production chains. Armed with the right information, consumers can find similarly sustainable brands wherever their tastes take them.

Despite small companies’ efforts to reform the fashion industry, conglomerates dominate a market vitiated by profligacy. Common Objective, a business network dedicated to addressing fashion’s contribution to the climate crisis, reports that the average American consumer purchases one mid-priced item of clothing per week. Fast fashion’s vicious business model keeps consumers in their thrall. To keep up with the incessant cycling and recycling of trends, Zara restocks its 1,700 stores biweekly and manufactures nearly half a billion items annually. Faced with the allure of abundance and inexpensiveness, consumers must consider their culpability in the global climate crisis.

Recognizing our individual role can induce fatigue of the imagination. There is an immense distance between understanding the climate crisis and feeling it. In 2021, the ugly consequences of corporate and consumer irresponsibility are harder to perceive than overlapping political, social and public health emergencies.

To believe individual actions are essential to collective outcomes requires courage and commitment. But our actions do not need to be repressed by our conviction that they matter. A change of personal style or loyalty to a particular eco-friendly brand are not necessarily the right answers. Rather, finding the right answer requires a heightened awareness of the problem and a willingness to explore potential solutions. You may find that the answer already lies within your wardrobe. The most sustainable sweater is not necessarily the one that you buy from an emerging eco-friendly brand; it is the one you love that you wear over and over.

R.J. McIntyre is the editorial director of BARE Magazine.