The production of one T-shirt is roughly equivalent to the carbon footprint of driving a car for ten miles. The head of London College of Fashion, Frances Corner, calls for the fashion industry to rise up and take responsibility for the planet.
In a world with rapidly depleting resources and increasing insecurity both politically and environmentally, what role, if any, can the fashion industry play in changing our course?
As Head of London College of Fashion, UAL I am often struck by how quickly people dismiss fashion and underestimate its importance to the global economy.
However, the fashion industry is worth a staggering £26 billion to the UK economy (Oxford Economics 2014) and globally it has revenues of over $3 billion (2011) which continue to rise.
This growth has been facilitated by a business model that focuses on producing an ever-increasing amount of product for an ever decreasing margin, but how long can the fashion industry sustain this sort of model in the face of global climate change?
I know from working with leading fashion brands at London College of Fashion that there is an increasing awareness of ‘our’ part in the problem and what steps need to be taken to ensure the future of our industry, and those millions of people whose livelihoods rely upon it.
The global apparel industry is a significant contributor to greenhouse emissions. The impact of the production of just one T-Shirt is roughly equal to the carbon footprint of driving a car for ten miles.
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To put this in context, in 2010, the global apparel industry produced more than 150 billion garments, enough to provide more than 20 new articles of clothing to every person on the planet – when dealing with this volume of production it quickly becomes clear how enormous the consequences of our consumption of fashion is for our planet.
And it’s not just high emissions which the fashion industry has to tackle, for me one of the most important aspects of climate change is water scarcity.
Fashion is a super-consumer of water at almost every stage of its highly complex supply chain, from growing the raw materials, to the dyeing of fabrics, from manufacturing the garments, to transporting them to market. If you consider it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce one cotton t-shirt from ‘crop to shop’ imagine how many swimming pools of water it took to manufacture the contents of your wardrobe – and how many more swimming pools will go into extending its lifespan through regular washes at home.
If you combine fashion’s water usage with rising water scarcity and the increasing number of droughts worldwide, access to clean water is only going to become more challenging.
In 2007, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region as the world’s first climate change conflict. The assumption was that water scarcity from changed rainfall patterns resulting from climate change contributed to this conflict.
Whether it’s severe flooding in southern England or droughts in Central Africa – water will rapidly become a much fought over commodity that we cannot afford to waste. By 2030 demand for water is estimated to exceed supply by 40 per cent fashion will have no choice but to change.
In the face of such challenges it can be difficult to feel positive about the future of our industry – but I believe we are in a unique position to lead the fight against climate change.
Investing in our future
I can think of few other industries as creative, innovative and agile as fashion. At LCF I have heavily invested in making sure sustainability is seen less as an adjunct and more an integral part of the process of business and design.
We need our graduates to be aware of how influential designers can be in working out ‘cradle to cradle’ solutions before the garment leaves the design board.
It is also important that as one of the world’s leading fashion educators, we work with the industry to ensure we are producing graduates who understand the complexity of the challenges we face – which is why in 2014 we teamed up with global luxury conglomerate Kering, who own some of fashion’s most recognisable brands, such as McQueen and McCartney.
We are currently working together on sustainability projects to try and effect real change, rather than working solely on theoretical concepts.
In order for us to flourish I envision that we will need to develop more working partnerships of this kind and embrace collaboration on a much bigger scale – something that perhaps as a notoriously secretive industry we haven’t always been very keen to pursue, but as work by one of our leading researchers Professor Helen Storey has repeatedly demonstrated – we can only achieve great things when we collaborate with those we might never normally come into contact with.
Fashion for change
Fashion has enormous power to motivate and communicate some complex messages, and historically has produced designers with the ability to shock and draw attention to some of society’s most controversial topics – you just need to look at the work of Katherine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood to see how galvanising fashion can be in achieving transformation.
For all those people who dismiss fashion as fluff and catwalks, don’t be surprised if the fashion industry rises up and leads the business world in the fight against climate change.
Over the next few months London College of Fashion will be presenting a number of initiatives that link fashion, business and the future of our planet. We look forward to hearing your views about the issues raised.
Professor Frances Corner OBE is Head of London College of Fashion and Pro Vice-Chancellor of University of the Arts London. She has over 20 years’ experience within the higher education sector at a national and international level.
Named a London Leader for Sustainability in 2009, Frances champions the use of fashion as an agent for innovation and change, particularly in the areas of sustainability, health and wellbeing.
Find Frances on Twitter @fcorner
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