This month as world leaders meet in Morocco to discuss implementation of the Paris climate agreement, which recently entered into force as most major economies began committing to some kind of carbon emissions reduction, there is little talk about one major contributor to climate change: fast fashion.
Fashion has been largely left out of the Paris climate talks. There’s lots of chatter about the more . . . fashionable low-hanging fruit: energy efficiency, conservationism, or the ramp up of renewables. But there’s little talk about textiles and what we’re wearing.
And in light of U.S. election results and the prospects of the next American president’s rejection of the Paris agreement, it is critical, now more than ever before, to focus on something nonfederal, like fashion. It might be one of the only climate fronts we can effectively tackle in a Trump administration.
Fashion is like food, another sector largely ignored in the Paris climate talks, in that we are resistant to changing such personal behavior. But we cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the second most polluting industry on the planet.
While there are myriad public and private organizations and agencies weighing in on renewables, conservation, energy efficiency, and more, there is no major organization that understands what is at stake with the apparel-climate connection. There’s no major player educating consumers before they buy clothes and subject themselves to the $500 billion spent on marketing these clothes.
Given the void here, it’s time to discuss exactly what is at stake. Today, more than 150 billion new articles of clothing are produced annually. People don’t keep their clothing anymore; it is no longer owned, it is just consumed. They wear and discard it quickly.
That’s fast fashion and it’s ruining our planet. Clothes have become like plastic bottles or plastic bags. We use them and throw them away. We produce a throwaway wardrobe for every man, woman, and child on the planet. Every single year.
What’s made this switch possible is the rising exploitation of people and planet (again, something Paris climate talks failed to fully address). Cheaper and cheaper labor made disposable, fast fashion feasible for Americans. But, as a result, we lost 800,000 apparel jobs in the U.S. just in the last few decades.
Those jobs went to countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam where labor standards are so low that while apparel is the largest employer of women globally, less than 2% of these women are actually receiving a living wage. Any fashionista who cares about gender equality, then—like Beyoncé, who got in trouble recently for exploiting women workers in South Asia for her fashion line—should be equally mindful of their gender footprint.
Clothing companies in the rich world, from the U.S. to the European Union, have conveniently outsourced the work (and the carbon footprint) to places with low labor standards and low environmental regulations and areas of the world using the cheapest, dirtiest form of power: coal. Spinning all the yarn for those 150 billion pieces requires enormous electricity use, and since they’re mostly made in developing countries where electricity is coal-based, the Paris-type carbon-counting fingers quickly point at poor countries’ footprints. But it is us, as consumers, who are consuming the clothes, and this is not getting factored into any Paris climate agreement.
That’s a problem, because the apparel industry is responsible for 10% of all carbon emissions globally. This has to change. Putting up solar panels on our homes does little good if we are filling the closets of those homes with fashions made from coal-based power.
Beyond our coal-rich clothing, our fashion choices are equally land- and-water-intensive, creating vast deserts in Asia, due to overgrazing for cashmere yarns (notice how cheap cashmere has become). The apparel industry, which emits thousands of untreated chemicals into water systems worldwide, is now helping to ensure that the majority of China’s water remains unfit for drinking or bathing because of industrial contamination. And that’s just the beginning.
We know how water-intensive a simple cotton T-shirt is—using thousands of gallons of precious potable water—yet have failed to lock in the kind "nationally determined contributions," which were common to the Paris climate talks, to cut back on one drop of it.
Oil is implicated here, too, especially after we switched to a clothes-consuming and discarding culture. We’ve now moved from natural fibers to predominantly synthetics (made from oil) and we’re shipping clothes farther and farther, adding millions of miles to the total fashion carbon footprint.
When we speak of gas-guzzling cars, we should also talk of gas-guzzling clothes, because that’s the level of fossil fuel use we’re talking about. Oil-based polyester clothing has now replaced cotton as the number one fiber in our clothing—another carbon cost not explicitly accounted for in the Paris process. Furthermore, when we wash those clothes, those plastic fibers are ending up in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. A standard synthetic fleece jacket, for example, releases 1.7 grams of microfibers, fibers that find themselves in fish stomachs everywhere.
All of this is adding up to an industry with massive impact, and because it’s entirely consumer driven, it’s an industry that we control. Since the Paris climate talks won’t adequately cover it, we need a sustained effort to bring these uncomfortable and unfashionable realities to the fore and provide the apparel industry with a path forward.
We have to put this in place now if we want to fix fashion in time, before we’ve wrecked the planet beyond repair. We need organizations not motivated by profit and legitimate third-parties who can verify a new fashion standard—as big in scale as those that have promoted renewables, energy efficiency, and conservation—to bring together the science, psychology, and movement-making on textiles. It’s past time for this.
Apparel’s impact is ever apparent to anyone laboring in the factories or cleaning up the filthy byproduct, yet somehow it remains on the back burner of global climate talks. It’s time for that to stop and time for organizations to step up. We need a full accounting of fashion’s footprint.
Maxine Bédat is the CEO and coounder of Zady.com. Michael Shank teaches sustainable development at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.