Every day we learn more about the devastating impact climate change is having on our planet. While a lot of what needs to be done requires large-scale international government action, there are steps we can all take right now. And for that, look no further than your own closet.
I care deeply about fashion. I’ve built a decades-long career based on my passion for original design and the people who create it. I also care deeply about the environment. As a surfer, and as someone concerned about the welfare of our oceans, earth and future generations, it’s not something that’s abstract or unconnected to daily life for me. What with the increasing global population, unfortunately, fashion and the planet seem to be more on a collision course.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is a U.K.-based charity aiming to define a framework for the circular economy, total greenhouse gas emissions from textile production is at 1.2 billion tons annually. This is more than from all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
It’s not just how our clothes are made that’s problematic, it’s also what we as customers do with that dress when we’re over it. The data show it’s most likely thrown away. And this amounts to the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles being land-filled or burned every second. But it doesn’t need to be this way. Greenpeace has reported that as much as 95 percent of discarded clothing could be re-worn, reused or recycled.
So as consumers, what can we do? Do we need to give up our passion for fashion? Pack away the deep and meaningful opportunities for self-expression that it offers? Shut down or stifle the global companies that provide economic value and many millions of jobs? Not necessarily.
One answer is to embrace the “circular economy,” a philosophy championed by world-record sailor Dame Ellen MacArthur. In 2005, she achieved the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe. While alone at sea, she needed to replenish her own supplies in order to survive. This prompted her to realize the degree to which all of our resources are finite. She subsequently founded the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is working tirelessly to promote an economy that is “restorative and regenerative by design.” The foundation is working with fashion brands, large and small, to rethink the entire production chain. And, in doing so, is taking on the daunting task of revamping the fundamental way the fashion industry operates.
Sustainability in fashion is not entirely new. In 2007, when I was senior vice president, fashion director at Barneys New York, I asked designers to create a sustainable capsule collection. It was a radical idea at the time, and Stella McCartney was the only one who said “yes.” As a pioneer and fearless risk-taker for sustainable fashion, Stella continues to spearhead innovative sustainable solutions. She pushes the envelope with initiatives like clean, vegan-friendly silk. This month, she helped launch the United Nations fashion industry charter for climate action, which will further spur industry-wide solutions and begin to move the fashion industry toward more sustainable practices.
New circular business models are emerging — like rental and resale — that offer consumer- and environmentally friendly ways for each of us to participate in a circular economy. Buy well-made things you love, and when you’re done, consign it — there is someone else who will treasure it just as much. If you rent or borrow instead of buy, you get the thrill of wearing something new without the guilt of buying something you may quickly discard.
The RealReal, a leading luxury reseller, has gone a step further. The have developed a sustainability calculator that quantifies the positive impact of consignment on the planet. To date, the company has created a savings of more than 65 million driving miles’ worth of greenhouse gases.
It’s the sustainably minded Millennials and Gen Z customers who are leading adoption of these circular business models and changing old behaviors. The bonus is that most of them are smart for the wallet as well as being beneficial to the planet.
If you’re not already participating in the circular economy and doing your part to make fashion more sustainable, try it. Buy quality, mindfully produced items that are designed to last and recirculate them when you’re ready to move on.
As we start the new year, make a promise to yourself and the planet — become an active participant in the circular economy in every way you can.
Julie Gilhart is a fashion industry veteran and founder of Julie Gilhart Consulting Inc., advising on the circular economy.