San Francisco, United States: Fashion can be fun — who doesn’t love discovering a new ethical brand or coming across a great find at your favorite secondhand store? But since I recently learned about the fashion industry’s dirty climate secret, my shopping bags have stayed home.
The fashion industry has a major impact on our environment. Cotton is so thirsty that it takes as much water to produce one shirt as a human drinks in two-and-a-half years. Each year, fabric dying alone uses as much water as two million Olympic-sized swimming pools. And your favorite pair of jeans? Manufacturing a single pair Levi’s 501s is the equivalent of burning 21 pounds (9.3 kgs) of coal.
There’s enough data out there to make anyone’s head spin, and sifting through it isn’t easy. So what can you do about the fashion industry’s climate impacts? The key to securing real industry change lies in the triple threat of brand fever, purchasing power, and speaking out.
Brand identity is the holy grail of the fashion industry. Who wants their brand tied to images of coal-burning power plants in China? Rivers in India turned red from factory runoff? Children with masks over their faces, sick from breathing polluted air?
It is no surprise, then, that the fashion industry’s major brands have been extremely successful at shifting our focus away from the pollution impacts in their supply chains.
These brands know images of dirty factories and polluted rivers are bad for their public image — but also that the people and places impacted by factory pollution are far enough away it’s easy to turn a blind eye. And many of us probably feel like we don’t have the right tools in our toolbox to take on an entire industry’s messy climate pollution legacy.
As consumers, we have an opportunity to turn around the fashion industry’s climate pollution impacts.
Consider this: When the full supply chain is considered, the apparel industry is responsible for up to 6.7 percent of climate emissions globally. That means if the apparel industry were a nation, it would be the fourth largest climate polluter on the planet — right behind the European Union. That’s no small impact, and fast fashion is only making it worse by pushing consumers into thinking they should buy, buy, buy.
What can we, as consumers, do?
- Before making purchases, do the research. Find out whether a brand shares information on the water usage at its factories, its dying and finishing processes, how its factories are powered (coal, natural gas, or renewables?), and how its products are transported.
- Look for companies that are transparent about their entire supply chain — companies that have made legitimate commitments to tackle their pollution impacts, beyond superficial pledges that only reference upgrades at headquarters or stores.
- Lastly, live the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra. Consider whether you truly need something before you buy it. Shop secondhand. And never send clothing to the landfill — always look for creative ways to recycle.
Learning how your favorite brands manufacture their products and adjusting your purchasing habits accordingly are great first steps to walk the line on ethical fashion. But there’s no denying that brands care what their audience thinks of them. In today’s increasingly digital world, consumers can, and should, take a line from the activist playbook and start speaking publicly, and directly, to the brands we want to change. Because they’re listening.
So what does that mean for a company like Levi Strauss & Co., for example? The iconic company trail blazed a new industry when it invented blue jeans more than 160 years ago. Since then, Levi’s has been known for its quality clothing and has taken some important steps towards sustainability like its groundbreaking “Water‹Less™” jeans collection.
But when it comes to our climate, Levi’s remains a major polluter. Levi’s clothing is made at hundreds of factories around the globe, many that run largely on coal and other fossil fuels. In addition to accelerating climate change, these factories contribute significantly to air pollution that threatens the health of local communities. The fashion industry’s climate pollution is as much an environmental disaster as it is a social justice issue.
Levi’s can take the courageous step to become a climate leader and drive the apparel industry towards sustainability. Companies like Apple have already shown what it takes to make groundbreaking climate commitments and transition their supply chains away from fossil fuels and into renewable energy. Levi’s can and should be next.
We know massive brands like Levi’s don’t change overnight. But they do change.
Over the past several months, my organization, Stand.earth, has come together at Levi’s headquarters in San Francisco, hosting a flash mob dance party with the message that Levi’s jeans are too dirty to wear. We delivered valentines to Levi’s executives, telling them how much we love their brand, but also how badly we need them to do better.
Somebody needs to set the standard for what a true fashion and climate leader looks like by pledging to transition its entire supply chain to renewable energy — and what’s better than a beloved brand like Levi’s?
Imagine a future where children around the world can breathe clean air, where rivers don’t turn red from dye runoff, where companies don’t have to use dirty coal plants to keep their factories going. I know that future is possible, and we have the opportunity to make it happen.