As Australia’s fires blaze on and form into "megafires" with no predictable end in sight, the world is stepping up to lend a hand. Yet while many are donating hundreds of thousands towards the crisis, some fashion brands are launching new fundraising collections.
With last year being the hottest year on record in Australia, there is no question about the direct link between climate change and the current fires. Years of rising temperatures have contributed to drying out Australia’s vegetation, transforming its bush into millions of hectares of tinder.
The world has been experiencing climate-related disasters for some time now — from exacerbated heatwaves to freak hurricanes and floods. But the scale of destruction and powerlessness with which this wealthy, privileged country is now entirely gripped, announces a new chapter in how we perceive climate change. To wit: it seems that pictures of charred koalas and people losing their homes or wearing face-masks in this predominantly white, English-speaking nation was Mother Nature’s coup de grâce, imploring us to finally realize that global warming is not just a removed, third-world problem, and its apocalyptic effects are not mere speculation. They are real, and they have already started.
But as a wave of attention and awareness towards the fires in Australia sweeps the globe, so do a number of fashion fundraising campaigns.
Within weeks of the bush fires taking their disastrous shape, fashion empires from around the world — such as Kering (owner of Gucci, Balenciaga, and Yves Saint Laurent, among others) or PHV (Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger) — have pledged donations in the hundreds of thousands. Meanwhile, luxury giant Balenciaga has also launched a whole new capsule of "super cute" koala-themed hoodies and T-shirts. Further down the fashion chain, several street-focused brands have even gone so far as to create a special line of clothing for the event: Rowing Blazers have committed to donating all of the proceeds of their newly-launched "Australian Benefit" collections to WIRES, Australia’s largest wildlife relief and rescue organization.
“The fashion industry is problematic in myriad ways, and one of those ways is its profound impact on the environment,'' says Rowing Blazers founder Jack Carlson. “Overproduction is a scourge on our planet, and it’s related to a plethora of other problematic aspects of the industry, including fast fashion.” Carlson goes on to explain, however, that Rowing Blazers did not in fact produce a new collection when deciding to contribute to Australia’s relief efforts: “We took a few of our existing styles — namely four Australia-inspired rugby shirts — and decided to donate 100 percent of the proceeds from those shirts to WIRES.”
Carlson's words feel poignant. Charity collections, although welcome, merely plaster over the root issue. What we need to do is rethink our fashion purchasing habits entirely.
The science behind it is clear: To produce fewer greenhouse emissions, we need to significantly lower consumer demand for all goods, and particularly those produced on an industrial scale. With the dizzying turnaround of fast fashion and our insatiable appetite for new Instagram fits, we’re a far cry away from such a utopia. “That New York Times article, 'What Do Gen Z Shoppers Want? A Cute, Cheap Outfit That Looks Great on Instagram' made me really sad," says Carlson. "It’s basically about kids who think they need to wear something different every day, and as a result, they buy clothes online that are made of plastic and made by slaves. One other aspect of all this that I don’t think is being talked about enough is the use of dead animals in clothing.”
While Carlson’s words ring somber, they are in fact accurate and by no means an inventive use of words. Much of the outsourced labor used to produce the bulk of the modern world’s "cute outfits" includes forced labor, debt bondage, and human trafficking, while the productions of meats (particularly red) and leathers are a huge contributor to greenhouse emissions.
“We [Rowing Blazers] are by no means perfect, but the premise is that you should be able to buy less but buy better. That you can have things that you can pass on to your kids one day,” adds Carlson. By a count of hands, how many of us buy high-quality garments today in the hopes of passing them on to our (perhaps future) children? If the horizon isn’t peppered with hands throwing the peace sign right about now, it’s because — according to recent statistics — consumers discard clothing after a hair-raising average of seven to eight wears. These numbers coupled with the point that Carlson raises should make us take a long, hard look at ourselves as consumers.
But not all statistics are as ominous as the above. Over one-third of consumers have already switched from their preferred brand to another because it credibly stands for positive environmental practices. And as Instagram-crazed as Gen Z might be, their age group scores highest in terms of willingness to pay more for products that harm the environment less: a total of 30 percent (compared to, say, 17 percent of Gen X born, 1965-1981).
Notwithstanding the knowledge that is necessary to cultivate better consumption habits, with fashion and cosmetics empires being at the very roots of climate change, one must still ask oneself if certain types of "awareness-raising" initiatives aren’t a touch auto-ironic. Or if empires such as Kering, PHV, or Kylie Cosmetics donating millions of dollars to relief efforts are also particularly "aware" in greenwashing their habitually harmful production practices. Could it just be ignorance?
“Greenwashing is too kind an expression to characterize what these brands are doing,'' says Dio Kurazawa of The Bear Scouts. The Bear Scouts helps brands develop strategies for responsible production, from fabric sourcing to design and development practices. “Many brands sign on to climate-friendly initiatives but actually never meet the necessary requirements to be considered ecologically responsible. Brands like Noah and Rowing Blazers have a relatively good track record in sustainability. But Balenciaga, for instance, does not have a green footprint. Nor does Kylie Cosmetics. For a lot of these brands, ‘climate-awareness’ campaigns are an easy PR event. They illuminate the brand to those who don’t yet know it. But by saying that they support the environment, a lot of the consumers are being told a lie. This is not greenwashing. It is ‘responsible fashion’ fraud.”
We may no longer afford to be reparative rather than preventative. Many brands beckon us to cast a lenient eye on their product, based on its seemingly benevolent purpose. But if behind it all lurks raging malpractice in terms of stupendous, factored-in textile waste (73 percent of the world’s clothing eventually ends up in landfills) and cheap production standards, some of these "awareness-raising" campaigns do indeed seem ill-articulated if not downright deceptive.
And while donating proceeds from essentially unsustainable merchandise seems more generous or honorable than launching new capsules and not contributing to relief efforts, it may also be drowning out the hard-hitting lesson of this latest rude awakening: Money will not bring back the lives lost, or half-a-billion wildlife decimated in this partially man-made catastrophe.
“The planet is in this mess because capitalism tells us that buying stuff is the solution to everything,” says sustainability expert Alec Leach of Future Dust. “We cannot buy our way out of the climate emergency.” Indeed, if there’s anything Mother Nature has proven to us in these last few weeks, it is that once she gets furious, she can no longer be bought. Irreversible damage has been done and will continue to be inflicted if we continue to treat the symptoms instead of the illness.
Assuming we have truly started to understand this, let us entertain a less fatalistic scenario. Perhaps this latest cataclysm will finally shock us all out of our environmental complacency. What is it then, that we can change or do to align our habits with the wellbeing of our planet? Which are the brands that we should continue buying from, if we must?
“There are enough resources out there to know which brands are sustainable or not,'' says Kurazawa. “We need more apps that can scan clothing items and give us an environmental rating. That’s one way of controlling who you buy from.” Amid a growing range of tools on offer, Good On You and Buycott are examples of apps that can scan items for their rating on ethical and environmental practices, helping consumers make better choices.
“Don’t wash your clothes so often, don’t machine-dry them to avoid premature wear and tear," Kurazawa continues. "Think about how much people are getting paid to make your clothes. As for brands, they need to tap into their textile archives and up-cycle. They shouldn’t create virgin product that causes the problem in the first place. Stop slashing prices. And if they want to contribute other than making financial contributions, they could simply donate existing clothes to those currently in need in Australia. And start fixing the underlying issue.”
“If we are to have a chance at dealing with it,'' confirms Leach, “then we need to get used to buying less stuff, making it last longer, and ensure that anything we don't want is either donated to someone who needs it, or is properly recycled. Fashion brands can help by using their platform to encourage consumers to care for their garments, offering repair services, and take back unwanted or worn-out pieces for recycling, as Patagonia does with its Worn Wear program."
The fashion industry needs to start genuinely healing its systems rather than putting band-aids over oozing sores. And we, as consumers, need to heal as well. We need to hold ourselves accountable for our choices. We need to learn to need less. We need to find some identity-building currencies other than a forever morphing feed of Instagram looks. Helping the environment should be way cooler. And we need to realize that beyond reining in the fashion industry’s insolence, beyond even planet earth’s survival, this is ultimately about the survival of living, breathing beings. After all, the extinction of the human race could very well be just a hop, skip, and a jump away from that of "super-cute" koalas.
Highsnobiety has reached out to Kering for comment.