With the release of the latest climate change report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), panic has spread across the globe. Not that we were looking for further proof that human actions are destroying the planet, but if we were, we'd have to look no further. The writing is on the wall: human activity has overheated the planet, and no part of Earth is safe.
With the planet's temperature having risen by 1.1C since pre-industrial times, scientists are chillingly realistic about the future: “If we do not halt our emissions soon, our future climate could well become some kind of hell on Earth,” said Professor Tim Palmer at the University of Oxford to the Guardian. The hell he is foreseeing involves weather extremes, flooding in some parts of the globe and drought in others, inevitable sea level rises, and melting glaciers. This doomsday scenario is, largely, inevitable, and some parts of it are irreversible for centuries – but we can still offset the worst effects of it if we act immediately.
By Sascha Camilli: writer, speaker, activist and vegan fashion expert.
The Earth is now warmer than it's been since before the last Ice Age (125,000 years ago). In 2015, most countries in the world signed up to the Paris climate agreement, aiming to keep the rise in global temperatures below 2C, with additional efforts to reach below 1.5C. But the authors of the IPCC report believe we will reach 1.5C by 2040 in any scenario – and if emissions aren't cut massively now, this will happen even sooner.
These horrifying prospects are enough to inspire a sense of doom – but there is something that we as individuals and consumers can do. “This report tells us that if we don’t make a radical shift in the way we live and produce, we will see temperatures rise beyond 1.5 degrees, and we will see catastrophic environmental impacts,” says Emma Håkansson, founder and director of Collective Fashion Justice, an organisation that works to address the structural injustices in the fashion industry.
How is fashion connected to the IPCC report?
“For the fashion industry, it is clear that first, we need to slow down – as with the rest of the world’s industries,” says Håkansson. “Fewer garments, shoes and accessories, made to last far longer than a single season. It’s also clear that we need an economy no longer dependant on fossil fuels, and for the fashion industry this means turning our backs on the 330 million or so barrels of oil used to produce a years worth of polyester, nylon, and other synthetics. These things are clear, and fortunately the sustainable fashion movement has been advocating for these changes for some time.”
Indeed, slowing down the pace at which fashion is produced will go a long way towards mitigating the most alarming effects of what the report predicts. From addressing emissions in the supply chain to considering products' lifespans, the industry has some serious work to do. But, as Håkansson notes, there are some aspects of fashion that the industry is overlooking: “There’s something else the IPCC report makes very clear though, that all too often the fashion industry – even the parts often considered ahead of the sustainability curve – have overlooked. Methane emissions are greatly responsible for many symptoms of the climate crisis we’re seeing already – ravaging wildfires and floods for example – and that we will continue to see, likely worsening. When we talk about methane, we cannot avoid the discussion of animal-derived materials.”
How do animal materials contribute to global warming?
The discussion around methane has been amplified with the release of the report – but for some reason it has failed to include fashion. Taking meat off the menu is (with good reason) still a main topic of the climate-change conversation, but what about taking leather and other animal-derived materials off the runways? Håkansson believes this should be a priority. “Leather, wool and cashmere all come from ruminant animals who produce large amounts of methane through a process called enteric fermentation, which is essentially passing gas and burping. These materials are so much more harmful to the climate than any others, even synthetics. A synthetic leather pair of boots for example, contributes over 56kg less carbon equivalent emissions (this includes methane) than a pair made of cow skin.
While this is alarming, solutions are already here, and continue to develop. Not only are we seeing excellent alternatives to leather, wool, other animal-derived materials and synthetics, we know that a transition away from animal agriculture and the rewilding of so much land associated with it, could help us draw in and securely store enormous amounts of carbon, helping to reverse part of the climate crisis.”
This is a factor that we, as fashion consumers, should not be ignoring. Our appetite for animal flesh and skin has helped bring the climate crisis to the tipping point we are currently at – but, as the report puts forward, not all is lost. We've left it very late, but it's not too late yet. Here are some things you can do if your climate anxiety is getting the best of you.
What you can do to address the climate crisis
Choose plant-based meals. It's imperative that a large part of the world implements this change quickly, in order to offset the worst effects of climate change. A study from Oxford University has established that going vegan has a bigger impact on an individual's ecological footprint than driving electric cars or giving up flying. The study concluded that going vegan was the single biggest step we could take for the planet.
Refrain from buying animal-derived clothing. This goes hand in hand with the previous point – if we are to lower methane emissions, we have to be mindful of leather and wool as well as meat. If you're shopping for new clothes, leave animal skins on the shelf.
Realise that change is political. “But I am not a political person.” Well, if we are serious about halting the climate crisis, we must realise that change happens foremost at a political level. Vote with the environment in mind. Contact your elected officials to hold them responsible and call for immediate action on climate change.
Get active. Join a local group that campaigns for change. Take part in protests or spread the word online. Every bit helps, and everyone can do something.
Resources and groups to support:
For environmental action and information: Greenpeace
For total ethics in the fashion industry: Collective Fashion Justice
For animal rights: PETA
For support in going vegan: Veganuary
For government action on climate change: Extinction Rebellion
For grassroots environmental campaigning: Friends of the Earth
By Sascha Camilli
Sascha Camilli is a vegan fashion writer, speaker and activist. Her book Vegan Style is out now on Murdoch Books. For more about Sascha, you can read our interview with her. You can also follow her on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Cover image by Taiyo
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