The fight to save the climate has never been hotter and slogan tees brandishing environmental messages in support of climate action are all the rage. In the lead up to the Global Climate Strike on September 20, a number of environmental and political organisations have released their own pro-climate swag. All power to them for recognising the fundraising opportunity. People want to wear their values loud and proud.
But I’m feeling conflicted.
In a recent email from the Australian Greens aka ‘”The Greens”, the political organisation announced that they were selling t-shirts that will “…send Scott Morrison a message he can’t ignore: we’re in a climate emergency and we demand action!” My curiosity quickly turned to disappointment when I discovered that there was no information in the product descriptions, or anywhere else on the website, about how the tees were made.
I have since contacted The Greens to find out more and am awaiting a response but to be honest, regardless of what they say I’m a bit crushed. This is an organisation that promotes human rights and strong climate policies. They should be shouting about ethical and sustainable production values from the rooftops. Yet, other than the pro-environmental messages splashed across the front, there is nothing to suggest that these t-shirts are different from those available at any high street fast fashion brand.
The climate is in crisis and I believe the clothing we wear should send a message to the world about the change we want to see. But if it hasn’t been made in a way that respects the environment or the people who grow the cotton, dye the fabric and sew it together, then the sentiment seems a little empty.
Extinction Rebellion (XR) has an entirely different attitude towards slogan tees. The decentralised non-violent climate activist group is encouraging people to boycott fashion for a whole year. You will never see XR flogging slogan t-shirts promoting the cause because, “Not only does XR not support or endorse corporations, it reminds them the Extinction Symbol may never be used for commercial purposes, including fundraising.” Instead the organisation requests that its members spray or sew its symbol on clothing they already own or buy second hand. In a chapter entitled Arts Factory, from the Extinction Rebellion Handbook, Miles Glyn and Clare Farrell state, “We’re making new things from old. We don’t need new; we already have everything we need.”
Again, I’m left feeling conflicted.
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We face an existential threat if we do not change course by 2020 yet meaningful action has not yet begun. We need culture to lead the way. Fashion is one of the most polluting industries and one of the most influential. Fashion should be a cultural signifier of our times, and yet it still adheres to an archaic system of seasonal fashion and relentless newness at a time of emergency. On the 26th of July, we sent a letter to the British Fashion Council. “In recognition of the existential threat that faces us, we ask the British Fashion Council to be the leaders the world needs now and to cancel London Fashion Week. We ask that instead the industry convene a People’s Assembly of industry professionals and designers as a platform to declare a Climate and Ecological Emergency, to face the truth and to take action following in the footsteps of The Tate and Culture Declares.” The BFC agree “We are facing a climate change emergency and all need to act” but we don’t see emergency action. We will not stand by while the natural world is being taken from beneath our feet. We will send a clear sign to the fashion industry that business as usual is leading us to extinction. Please go to @extinctionrebellion Facebook and search for “London Fashion Week : Rest in Peace” in the events for details of actions planned. #lfw #lfwrip #extinctionrebellion #boycottfashion #xr52
Buying nothing new on the surface is not a bad idea. Roughly 500,000 tonnes of clothing and textiles go to landfill annually in Australia alone. We are consuming fashion at an alarming rate and we could certainly afford to slow down. I am also conscious however, that for a long time, we have benefited from a system that is built on the sweat and tears of cheap and easily exploited offshore labour. The decision to buy nothing new in isolation is one steeped in privilege. It disregards the garment workers and offers no alternative for the millions of people reliant on fashion supply chains for their survival. If the world were to suddenly stop consuming fashion and the factories all shut down, what would happen to the garment workers?
My approach to the slogan tee is different to that of both The Greens and XR. In the wake of the School Climate Strike in November 2018, I started HUMIFORM to amplify and strengthen the voices of young people. Each slogan tee is created by a young person and reflects social and environmental issues that matter to them. $1 from every sale goes towards a cause that the designer is passionate about.
We haven’t forgotten about the garment workers and our tees are manufactured by Dorsu, a social enterprise that provides fair and safe economic opportunities to Cambodians. Dorsu sources remnant material leftover from the local garment manufacturing industry, choosing to repurpose what is already in existence rather than using up resources to create something new.
You won’t get your HUMIFORM t-shirt in time for the upcoming September climate strike because we take pre-orders and only make what is ordered. This means it can take up to two months to have one of our tees in your hot little hands. If you are not committed to wearing it 30 times or more we request that you don’t order a t-shirt in the first place. We also do our very best to make sure our products never end up in landfill, offering to take back unwanted tees when they are worn out or no longer useful.
Finally, we attempt to connect people to the story behind the t-shirts. As former Vogue India editor-at-large Bandana Tewari puts it, “We need to give clothes… the narrative that makes us want to keep them longer.” We want people to value our unique slogan tees and proudly wear them for years to come.
We aren’t perfect and I don’t share all of this information about HUMIFORM to blow my own trumpet, merely to point out that we are doing everything within our power to operate in a connected, transparent and meaningful way. It’s not easy.
And yet, after all of this, I am still conflicted.
Given the sheer volume of fashion waste, does the world really need another slogan tee? If I truly value a sustainable and ethical future, should my business even exist?
These are the questions that keep me up at night but I’ve come to the conclusion that fashion has power and that there is tremendous value in the slogan tee. It can act in a similar vein to art, sharing a message of hope, shifting the narrative and advocating for change. It can be a tool for educating the next generation, empowering them to be active citizens rather than passive consumers. The slogan tee can provide economic opportunities to people in countries where fair and safe work is not readily available. There is so much potential for impact in the clothes we choose to wear. Let’s look beyond the slogan and make sure that the story behind our t-shirt matches the kind of world we want to live in.
If you want to support an organisation that has definitely not forgotten about the garment workers, please sign Oxfam Australia’s What She Makes pledge and donate to their campaign.
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Feature image via Oxfam.