Will climate change affect fashion?

A reader writes in with an unusual question: is there any connection between oil prices and the fashion industry?

Previous energy efficiency drives clearly show a link between energy and fashion, at least from political leaders. Take two classic images: President Jimmy Carter donning a cardigan during his national address on energy policy, and more recently Japanese prime minister Koizumi’s Cool Biz campaign, which encouraged beating the heat with informal shirts in formal Japan (no jacket or tie, gasp!).

Although inspirational in message, neither of these leaders transformed the runways. But fashion does have an important environmental role to play, particularly in the choice of fabrics used for our clothes. A focus on how we make our clothes is much more important than exactly how they look.

Take for example, Patagonia’s stylish hemp denim pants that I recently picked up. Compared to cotton, hemp requires about half the petroleum inputs (remember that farming even organic cotton requires the use of heavy machinery). The pants are a very subtle but effective way to fight climate change, super comfy and stylish enough that I wore them to a board meeting last week. No one noticed the pants, which is exactly what you want to happen at a board meeting.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Patagonia uses TerraPass to balance out the emissions of their sales force. Cool pants become even cooler when you know the company making them is dedicated to fighting climate change.

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  1. Calvin Jones - October 6, 2006

    On Nov 4th There is and international day of action on climate change.
    Events kick of 12pm outside the US embassy in grosvenor square.
    For a timetable of the day visit the campaign against climate change website.
    For a list of the countries involved so far visit the global climate campaign.

  2. Bruce - October 6, 2006

    Say, what is the catalogue number of the denim-hemp pants you purchased? Thanks!

  3. Tom - October 9, 2006

    Actually, shortly after I wrote this, I noticed they are no longer in the patagonia catalog.

    I picked mine up at the store in Santa Cruz, CA. Try your local outfitter.

  4. Steve D. Parker UK - October 11, 2006

    Climate change may not affect fashion directly, unless its towards an increased popularity of boats! But it is essential that fashion affects climate change. Since modern society values the ability to over consume fossil fuels -as a sign of status. this ‘trend’must be reversed to make it fashionable to be seen to be consuming less.

  5. CD4 - October 11, 2006

    Don’t ladies’ hemlines rise and fall with the stock market? (see “hemline theory,” http://www.bloomberg.com/invest/glossary/bfglosh.htm)
    Maybe they also will rise with energy prices. Bye-bye miniskirts.

  6. pradwastes - October 12, 2006

    Law inforcement has long been opposing the use of industrial hemp. During WWII almost all of the military uniforms were made of hemp fiber. In those places where it was planted 65 years ago there is some growing wild. The probem is it is the same color as Canabis Sativa that is a class 1 narcotic and can be hidden among the hemp plants you cannot get high on. Hemp uses very little water and grows 10 to 15 feet tall every season. It can save a lot of trees for making paper and the fiber is very good for replacing a lot of synthetic fibers made from petrolium products.

  7. The Conversationalist - October 24, 2006

    Great article. Thought you’d be interested in these additional thoughts on fashion and environmentalism, from the always-provocative Umair Haque at Bubblegeneration (07/02/06):

    A Simple Economics of (the Lack of) Fashion

    One of the problems with the States is a deep lack of style. The States is (to put it bluntly) the most unstylish place in the world.

    Now, this is important. Because style (fashion) is a creative industry. And creative industries are going to be the growth industries of the very near future.

    Why is the States so unstylish?

    Certainly, one driver of a lack of demand for style is cultural. Above all, the States is a nation built on the ideal of productivity. The (myopically) productive is prized above all else.

    Fashion, of course is the opposite of productive, in the myopic sense. That it helps us sustain and nurture social and cultural capital doesn’t count in the States, because these forms of capital aren’t factored into the dominant logic of the economy.

    Rather, being stylish signals that you don’t believe in this ethic of productivity – that you’re willing to be frivolous enough to invest in things that aren’t productive. And that’s deeply out of sync with the essence of being American – though there flashes of fashion brilliance in the 30s, 50s, and 70s. Being stylish isn’t in demand because it signals anti-productivity, if you like.

    But there’s another driver of lack of demand for style as well. I bring all this up because there’s a heatwave in London at the moment. Now, air conditioning in London (in fact, most of the rest of the world) is about as plentiful as style in the States – there’s not much of it around (and even what there is sucks).

    That means that what you wear counts. In the States, we can get away with wearing the same old industrial era mass-produced “apparel” because the climate we face rarely changes. We move from air conditioned car to train to home to office to bar to club – etc.

    But in London, for example, wearing a winter shirt on a day like today would be a very, very painful experience. Because you go from non-air conditioned home to tube to (weakly air conditioned) office to pub to club.

    Style isn’t just social and cultural – it’s deeply functional. All of which, I think, bears deep thinking about by innnovators across industries – there are powerful lessons about why creativity is exploding in this parable of fashion as form and fashion as function.

  8. Olga Moore - March 17, 2007

    It’s so boring to look at fashion under the economic and political perspective… Come on! It’s beauty, it’s art for God’s sake!