‘How COVID-19 might accelerate a global fashion revolution’

‘How COVID-19 might accelerate a global fashion revolution’

This is Fashion Revolution Week. It is a global campaign calling on the fashion industry to conserve and restore the environment, and to value people over growth and profit. It coincides with today’s 50th anniversary Earth Day celebration, another global initiative seeking transformative change for people and the planet. And here we are, globally united, but under very different circumstances.

I was reflecting on this time last year when I organised a showcase initiative with my retail degree students to help raise awareness for Fashion Revolution Week on our university campus. We took it for granted being together under the one roof, at liberty just to chat and joke with fellow students and visitors with ease. This was the world as we knew it, before social distancing and the fear of an ‘invisible killer’ lurking among us. What a difference a year makes.

retail degree students at TU Dublin

Yet we can still be activists, if only from the safety of our homes. Last year during our campaign, we wondered what would become of our planet if we were to continue to consume its natural resources at a ferocious rate. But it still felt like we were talking about an unimaginable reality to drastically change lifestyles and government policies.

For example, could we really cut air travel and reduce carbon emissions at the rate needed to save our planet? How could we? Our economy would surely crumble. And economic prosperity was ultimately, the bottom-line. Until it wasn’t. The fragility of life was exposed late last year when the silent yet deadly killer infected thousands of people in Wuhan, China before rapidly expanding its reach globally, and without discrimination.

In only a few short weeks our human needs shifted from self-actualising, self-aspirational goals to a more base and primal need for survival. And many of us now realise what really matters is the health and safety of our loved ones, our neighbours, our communities. Celebrities, brand names, influencers, prestige luxury items – all now seem frivolous and superfluous. Give me fresh air, freedom, and a hug from a close friend any day these days.

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Suddenly, the undoable, the inconceivable, is now possible. Airports have shut down. Non-essential air travel has come to a halt. It is estimated airline’s carbon emissions could drop by over one third this year. Our behaviours have shifted. But let’s not make it a temporary shift. Yes, we would like many elements of our former lives back. But could we hold on to the realisation that some needs are more important than others? And if that starts with the seemingly innocuous clothes on our back, can we start there?

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The fashion system is a major contributor to global carbon emissions, pollution, water contamination and mass extinction on our planet. Every one of us consumes clothes. Yet do we appreciate the human cost behind each garment we buy?

For instance, did you know 77% of UK retailers believe it likely that modern slavery is happening in their supply chain? Did you know we buy 60% more clothing than we did just 15 years ago, yet only keep the item half as long before they inevitably end up in a landfill? Or were you conscious that 60% of our global fibre production is now made from polyester, a plastic fibre that sheds thousands of microfibres into our oceans every time we wash them? (Take a look at the Fashion Revolution website for a wealth of information on these issues and more).

Every day our fashion choices are impacting our people and our planet. I think COVID-19 has made us realise how our own behaviours and choices most definitely impact our communities, locally and globally. We have the power to make better choices. We just need to better inform ourselves. One question we can ask ourselves is, who made my clothes?

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A starting point could be to check out the Fashion Transparency Index 2020 released just this week. You can explore statistics on your favourite brand’s commitment to transparency in their supply chains. Another interesting initiative is Patagonia Action Works. The longstanding sustainable clothing brand has created a global network for budding environmental activists to get in contact with local movements in their vicinity. Take a look and see what’s happening in your local community.

“Don’t it always seem to go,

That you don’t know what you’ve got

‘Till its gone”

Coinciding with the world’s first celebration of Earth Day back in 1970, Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell wrote these lyrics, fearing for the future of our environment. I think COVID-19 has given us a wake-up call in 2020. We cannot sleepwalk through life assuming capitalist governments are making the best decisions for our health and wellbeing, least of all for this planet. We need to ask more questions. This week, keep it simple, start small, ask Who made my clothes?’

by Dr. Dee Duffy