As the COP26 United Nations climate change conference prepares to meet in Glasgow in November, there is an urgency to build on the aims of the 2015 Paris agreement to limit global warming.
The fashion sector alone accounted for the release of 654 kilograms of CO2 per person in the EU in 2017, according to a European Parliament report published last year. Globally, the industry is responsible for 10% of overall greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than the accumulative effect of international air travel and shipping combined.
Despite these worrying facts, awareness of the problem that the fashion and textile industries pose have been little understood by the overall European population, and there is even less understanding of how to solve this issue.
But slowly the focus is shifting in fashion’s direction, driven not least by an interview the young climate campaigner, Greta Thunberg, gave to Vogue Scandinavia, which went viral and gave the topic much-needed exposure.
Growing grass-root movements, such as Fridays for Future, are increasingly putting the spotlight on younger people as advocates for future sustainability.
The global Youth4climate initiative too is one such example of how young people are pushing for change. The group will hold a pre-COP26 UN summit meeting at the end of this month in Milan, Italy, which will prepare an agenda of priorities and requests to be passed to world leaders attending the COP26 events.
One of the four subjects that the meeting will focus on is the role played by non-governmental actors in the fight against climate change in sectors that impact the daily lives of young people, such as fashion.
Italian national, Daniele Guadagnolo, is one of the 400 young delegates chosen from the 197 member countries of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Guadagnolo strongly believes that young people can make a difference and that their ability to access more information faster via social media and their overall sensitivity to such issues means they will be an obvious catalyst for change: “They [young people] will be able to create new trends and sustainable ways of living that will change the way we see the world,” he says.
But, despite a groundswell of intent towards a more sustainable future, there are many initial problems to overcome in instigating change, not least the cost of making sustainable choices, which is a major factor, particularly for younger people.
"We are in the era of consumerism, where buying new garments is actually cheaper that repairing or recycling them. This is a very bad habit, and we have to do something about it,” Guadagnolo says.
There are abundant environmental issues to overcome too: the industry pollutes due to the dyes used in the colouring of garments, and the microplastics released during their production, which infiltrate our oceans and waterways and enter our food chain. Current production methods are also unsustainable for their depletion of petrochemicals used in some clothing and textile fabrics. And, while some fibres can be recycled and some are biodegradable, the majority still end up in landfill sites.
“Recycling technologies are still in their infancy and many focus on polyester or cotton and their blends. Much work is needed to be able to recycle other alternatives that currently exist in the market, says Dr Chetna Prajapati, a lecturer in textiles at Loughborough University in the UK.
Alongside the scientific hurdles of moving towards more sustainable clothing and textile industries, is the problem of how to reach consumers generally and raise awareness of the issue; a factor that will be crucial to making lasting change.
Global and European transition to a more sustainable industry will likely only come when consumers are informed enough to alter their shopping habits and put the necessary pressure on businesses and governments to act for change.
Allthings.bioPRO is one such project that is helping to raise awareness of just this issue. The European Union backed initiative seeks to engage consumers through the development of a serious game, a phone app and a communication campaign that includes consumer focus groups. And, while these co-creation workshops involve consumers aged between 15 and 70 years of age, younger people have a central role in their development.
The online game will offer participants the chance to learn about the bioeconomy and ways to achieve sustainable behaviour in the clothing and textile industries, while the app and focus groups will allow their voices to be heard and channelled to regional policy makers.
“Most of the participants have a general idea about it [sustainability in the textile and fashion industry], as the topic is gaining attention, but find it difficult to know what to do about it themselves,” admits Rosanne van Miltenburg from the Dutch organization Fashion for Good, who is one of the project’s workshop facilitators.
But van Miltenburg remains optimistic, despite worries about the cost and lack of new sustainable alternatives. Her participants seem prepared to embrace the idea of moving to buy more second-hand clothes or repairing existing ones.
This is a sentiment shared by Prajapati, who says that there is no one “silver bullet” for moving quickly to more sustainable fashion and textiles industries, but rather a set of steps.
“Circular, closed-loop regenerative systems are the way forward. Textiles need to be designed to offer either reuse or repair,” Prajapati believes. Alternatively, she says, at the end of a product’s life span, recycling and reuse should be possible, with the option of composting garments that have no further use.
Despite the absence of a single answer to the overall problem of sustainability in the industry, it’s now clear that the topic is getting the necessary attention it deserves and moves are afoot to effect change on a national and international level, with much of this impetus being driven by the younger generation.
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