On 31 October, 2011, far away on the other side of the world, in a small village outside Lucknow, the capital city of the most populous Indian province of Uttar Pradesh, a baby girl named Nargis was born. Nargis was deemed the symbolic seven billionth person in the world. She was chosen arbitrarily by Plan India, the child rights NGO, to emphasize the dense population growth in a province that also, due to a high number of girls missing after birth, has an extremely skewed gender ratio.
The world hit a major population benchmark in 1974 with four billion, twice the figure reached in 1927. The next billion took only 13 years, and then 12, and now 12 again to the current population. This exponential growth has the ability to expose the potential hazards of overpopulation: the number of people within certain geographic areas has exceeded the capacity of the environment to provide sustenance.
“As Water Levels Drop, Texas Drought Reveals Secrets of the Deep” read a front-page headline on the November 29th edition of The New York Times. A prolonged drought had devastated farming crops in the entire state. The dry conditions fueled some nasty wildfires in Bastrop County near Austin around Labor Day weekend that burned some 500 homes. On the bright side, as the Times article pointed out, receding water from lakes across the state revealed some interesting artifacts. The tombstone of an infant who died in 1882 revealed itself in Lake Buchanan; a cryogenic tank, missing from the Columbia space shuttle disaster of 2003, was found in Lake Nacogdoches in East Texas; and even a Chevrolet Monte Carlo from 1999 surfaced from beneath a small lake at a cattle ranch in Martin’s Mill just outside of Dallas. Concurrent to the Texan wildfires, New York City faced a mandatory evacuation of the Zone A waterfront areas in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Irene, forcing an extremely rare 24-hour closure of the MTA subway and bus system.
The 2010 Russian heatwave killed over 15,000, including 7,000 in Moscow, as fires and drought destroyed homes and agricultural production respectively. Thick smoke closed air travel, causing a 1% retreat in GDP. In late March of 2010, giant dust storms in Eastern China could be seen from space. This threatened the fragile global food supply; should the drought undermine China’s grain production, prices would thus rise worldwide.
Regardless of one’s political persuasions, it is beyond the shadow of a doubt that our production methods and resource consumption have put undue stress on our fragile environment. Even the Earth’s built-in coping mechanisms, natural forests that consume carbon emissions (natural or man-made), are feeling the crunch of deforestation. Call it “climate change” or “global warming” or deny human impact on the environment: it is a fact that weather-related natural disasters—severe droughts, floods, and wildfires—have been occurring everywhere in the world with increased frequency.
The 1973 Arab oil embargo raised national debate about developing technologies across all industries to optimize the use of limited resources. Moreover, Los Angeles became the birthplace of smog, a mixture of nitrogen oxides from burnt fossil fuels and sunlight, forming dark ozone layers permanently above the city’s vast open spaces. The reality of limited resources and quickly growing clean-air issues begat the green movement and plans to introduce renewable sources of energy. There was resistance from the auto industry. “I don’t think the country can afford this much clean air,” former-Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca testified to Congress. But car companies ended up benefiting from the standards they precipitously fought against: the three-way catalytic converter which arrived in 1975, for instance, reduced cars’ pollutant-emissions without the predicted harmful economic impact.
Today, constant innovations in technology and manufacturing have allowed for a greater reach in the renewable energy industry. According to the weekly magazine Der Spiegel, Germany derives nearly 21% of its power from renewable sources such as solar (solar panels are even installed along the country’s famous autobahns), hydro, and wind, up 15 percentage points from 2000. Like Germany, Denmark committed itself to renewable energy, and instituted it as official governmental policy following the oil embargo. They developed wind turbine technology, affording the country self-reliance and a net export of energy. Since 2006, the small Danish island of Samsø has been completely powered by wind, solar, and biofuels.
In 2006, the United Arabs Emirates began the construction of Masdar City, a planned development with the goal of zero emission. In lieu of cars, inhabitants were to get around with a light rail public transportation system and small driverless taxis either on tracks or on magnetic discs placed on the small roads. (The transpo plan has since been abandoned, but the concept remains attractive.)
With the images of the earthquake-induced accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March 2011 still fresh in our minds, debates have begun anew on the usage of nuclear and fossil fuels. New York State has halted fracking, a method of hydraulically removing natural gas, from the Marcellus Shale in Upstate New York, near to New York City’s drinking water sources. The Keystone XL pipeline, which will carry oil from the tar sands fields of Western Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, has been temporarily postponed to 2013 until further studies are performed. With ever increasing demands on energy production, the Chinese recently mastered the construction of an extremely hot steam coal power plant, essentially turning coal into a gas prior to burning, thus limiting the emission rate and increasing the electric output per unit of coal burnt.
Toyota introduced the hybrid gas-electric Prius in 2000, and sales now exceed 400,000 units per year. Ever since, car companies have aimed to bring hybrid, plug-in hybrids, and electric cars to a market now more tuned to zero or near-zero emissions. The new U.S. regulations mandate 54.5 MPG by 2025. Yet HEV and PHEV electric and gas-electric cars, like the Chevy Volt (introduced in 2010), have yet to gain traction due to costs and lack of infrastructure such as plug-in stations.
As a base for high-tech industries, Portland, Oregon has become the hub for electric cars. Arcimoto’s Pulse LT benefits from consumer-friendly charging stations within the city and along the highway from Portland to Eugene. Dubbed the “greenest city in the U.S.,” Portland remains the center for testing new electric vehicles.
Saving energy and emitting less carbon—whether in the form of LED light bulbs, electric cars, steam power plants, or solar panels—are a major concern in manufacturing industries. Fashion is a major manufacturing industry. While fashion isn’t regarded as a high polluter like the auto industry, the manufacturing of clothes—from creating fabrics to transportation to dyes—leaves behind a serious carbon footprint in an industry prone to waste (note the outrageous amount of resources devoted to fashion show extravaganzas).
Fashion is a complicated web of designers, textile makers, factories, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers. How have fashion designers and the industry responded to the environmental crisis? Well, the response has been as expected as any in the industry: make green the trendiest of trends for a transient moment and hype it to the max. Is green here to stay or is it merely the new black to be displaced next season by excess?
Green in fashion is at a fork in the road. On one side, energy is being focused on making sure manufacturers use sustainable materials. On the other side is the notion that quality and durability—a garment that lasts 30 years—are more sustainable than disposable fast fashion. Ideally, consuming less reduces pollution, but if a pair of boots is absolutely necessary, real leather boots will outlast man-made materials. Sustainability in fashion is a delicate balancing act of utilizing the least-polluting resources on the widest scale.
Loomstate, founded in 2004 by Rogan Gregory and Scott Mackinlay Hahn, makes its casual clothes with 100% certified organic cotton grown in Peru, India, Africa, Turkey, and the U.S. Ascribing the “Gold Standard” to the manufacturing process means controlling each stage of a garment’s construction from cut to laundry to shipping to enforcing a factory’s fair labor and waste disposal procedures. Loomstate’s alpaca sweaters, made from undyed yarns of wool shorn from sheep native to Peru, help support local farmers. Similarly, Prada’s “Made In…” initiative served the same purpose of highlighting the origin of production and the specificity of materials and production skills from different parts of the world.
Are there any fabrics that are truly green and sustainable? Probably not, but there are fabrics made with a lesser carbon footprint during its life cycle. Cotton requires a tremendous amount of water—as much as rice—as well as chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Organically grown cotton, the couture of cotton, is a slow handiwork growing process, making it very expensive, and it can only be produced in limited quantities. Approximately less than 1% of cotton grown worldwide is organic, making its impact on the organic movement negligible.
Fur is organic and biodegradable. By demonizing the use of fur, PETA has inadvertently become a promoter of the highly-pollutant synthetic materials used in faux fur, a material eventually destined for landfills. Why has an organization devoted to ethical treatments of animals never launched a campaign to stop hunting? Doesn’t PETA know that faux furs contain plastics by-products derived from petroleum? Rather than staging skirmishes against designers, PETA should deploy their message towards the correct use of fur, or at least better fur alternatives.
Consuming less by way of purchasing quality, long-lasting products is a legitimate manner of slowing the carbon footprint of fashion. Like organic cotton, quality products are more expensive. The fact remains, fine grade leather shoes last longer than a pair made from of man-made materials. Can you guess the amount of sneakers that go to the landfill per year? It’s millions. A natural silk dress, a shearling coat, or a cashmere sweater have longer lives. But how can less consumption feed the business of fashion with its multiple layers of interconnected businesses from local producers to retailers?
Finding the appropriate manner to reuse materials at the end of fashion products’ utilitarian life, by recycling rather than disposing, limits fashion’s pollution footprint. To this end, Patagonia pioneered a process of closed-loop recycling whereby many of its synthetic fabrics made with polypropylene can be re-used to make the same jacket new again. Similarly the Timberland boots company developed the Earthkeepers program where new boots are made from the materials of boots customers can drop off at local stores. The 2012 Ford Focus Electric Vehicle features cloth seat fabrics made from 100% recycled Repreve branded materials containing plastic and fiber waste. Each car sold will save the equivalent of 22 16-ounce plastic bottles from the local landfills. The Repreve fabrics are also used in various items from The North Face, Patagonia, and Haggar Clothing. However, the recycle programs, like the hybrid and electric car endeavors, are currently too minuscule to affect fashion production and consumption on a wider scale, but they may change how consumers think about how they consume. At best, green eco-fashion remains a small niche market. On the mass level, any attempt at “greening” is deceptive and often fictitious. It’s often only the tag, which cynically reads “100% Organic” on the “green collection” T-shirt, that is truly sustainable.
In the end, the impact of green is to promote production and consumption patterns with the least harm to the environment. Near-zero is nearly impossible, but there are steps being made in the right direction. There is another analogy with the auto industry: instead of spending more on high-efficiency models, why not increase the mileage of the vast quantities of cars already in existence? In other words, green fashion would be best served not by making eco-fashion fashionable, but by imposing transparent manufacturing standards on the biggest producers. This means watching how the biggest denim companies make and wash their jeans. What kind of detergent is being used? Is it biodegradable soaps?
But the sustainability game has taken a back seat in fashion lately. Many moons ago (about four or five years—a lifetime in the fashion world), eco-fashion was cause célèbre for everyone from designers to retailers to magazines. They all pitched in to raise awareness of more conscious modes of consumption. In 2007, Barneys developed an all-organic collection of casual clothes. The store’s “Have a Green Holiday” campaign featured a combination of retail initiatives: for instance, the proceeds of certain merchandise would fund an initiative to plant trees along the city’s streets. In 2010, Christie’s inaugurated “Green Auction: A Bid to Save the Earth” on Earth Day, raising money for environmental NGOs like Oceana and the Natural Resources Defense Fund. Major green events have since faded from the fashion party circuit.
Seven billion people require clothes, clothes that can be made under more stringent standards. There is no Portland, no hub that is the capital to sustainable fashion activities. Bits and pieces—here and there—but lacking a central nervous system. What fashion needs is a centralized group, a watchdog, a governing body, a global emissions initiative. We need the equivalent of the catalytic converter, or else fashion will fall back into its old unsustainable practices, and yet again be a part of the problem, not the solution.