What was fashion doing at the UN climate talks in Poland last week? Why, nothing much at all. Maybe it was a distraction from one of the big themes of the event: COP24 co-chair Sam Louw’s announcement that the UK would abandon its emissions targets and promote renewables. This might have stemmed the flow of cool clothing and accessories that we’ve come to be inured to since the recent party climate report, but if the deal on the table is rejected in a few weeks’ time, the current cupboard won’t be quite as full. Last week, the Indian textile minister, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, told the Guardian that he doesn’t want the clothing industry to feel “left out” when China leaves the Paris agreement. The US, on the other hand, is loathe to weaken its climate commitments. The world’s biggest CO2 emitter, it sees fashion as an “excuse” for being open to further, heretofore questionable, fossil fuel usage.
This weekend marks the annual Fashion for Sustainable Development (F4SD) conference in Hong Kong, which this year has a particular emphasis on action against climate change, and encouraging more young fashion designers into the sustainable economy. It follows a discussion by the World Bank’s president, Jim Yong Kim, last year which argues the fashion industry needs to scale up its efforts to decarbonise and increase the number of women designers. From my perspective, the two are intrinsically linked. As men have dominated fashion for much of its history, the notion of a day when women could write what they want to wear for them only has so far taken hold.
‘The symbolism of 20 metres of catwalk models channelling the CO2 emissions that are emitted by 1,000 individuals could be perceived as either exciting or problematic.’ Photograph: www.voltage.eu
One of the problems with fashion as a generally larger-than-life sector is that it’s hard to take seriously the environmental and social implications of its production. It’s one thing to take public transport and burn fewer larders of beer. It’s another to engage with how the materials are made, or the backwash of toxic chemicals in your “made in the UK” jeans. It’s that aforementioned gap between what the industry says it’s doing and how it’s actually doing. The fact that it’s not. In the eyes of activist Cameron Groom, director of People Tree (“the world’s only carbon-neutral fashion label”), what we want from fashion is transparency. “As I walk by the clothes store, I put them down on the scale and wonder which one I might be walking into.” He suggests that fashion’s biggest challenge is to de-emphasise the question of personal style in favour of sustainability. As an example, he tells me how he holds up a T-shirt in front of a mirror and chooses between its low-impact cotton and its eco-friendly construction material.
This is where this week’s F4SD conference comes in. Though the line-up includes vintage clothing fans Ganni, Opening Ceremony and Stutterheim as well as fashion correspondents such as Angela Ahrendts of Burberry and Dan Sileo of GQ, its priority is energy efficiency. Has fashion, culturally, always been ahead of the curve? Perhaps not.
Groom has a point: given our celebrity-obsessed and consumerist culture, it’s perhaps worth remembering that at one point, fashion was just a pretty craft that happened to be expressive. Or maybe it’s worth considering where it will be in 10 years’ time. “The poster child for sustainable fashion,” Groom tells me, “is Acne. They are a PR phenomenon right now, but this is actually a sustainable brand. If one successful sustainable brand emerges out of this shitstorm, then maybe it’s worth fighting over.”
Last week, I wondered why some fashion brands are seen as sexy but others as tacky and off-putting. While on my way to my other Guardian gig, I bumped into “the trend expert” Louise Redknapp on the tube. She told me about four firms she considers paragons of sustainability, and has always loved Topshop and River Island, but particularly Stella McCartney. Her three-piece outfits from McCartney’s black-tie collection were, however, out of fashion this spring. While at the festival, she was also impressed by Crocs, who