Connections on climate, circularity, plastics and biodiversity

Jasmin Malik Chua is a long-time fashion and sustainability reporter; we first crossed paths when she was writing for the now-defunct Ecouterre. She asked me for some predictions on sustainability for 2019 for Sourcing Journal; the article is now out, and it’s great for having voices from very different parts of the fashion system. Thank you, Jasmin! As always happens, space is a constraint so I’m once again posting my entire response here:
Following the reports that came out in the second half of 2018, from IPCC and the US National Climate Assessment, rapid action on climate change is the dominant issue for 2019. It is inseparable from issues of economics, circularity, plastics and biodiversity loss. A true circular economy, like planet Earth, is a steady-state economy, based on regenerative rather than extractive activity. The longer we continue with our addiction to endless economic growth, the worse the problems with climate change, with plastics, and with biodiversity loss will get. Yet this is ignored in almost all of the discourse about circularity: circularity is lumped in the old discourse of growth. This reduces it to mere recycling within old economic thinking. It is high time we pay attention to the works of economists like Herman Daly and Kate Raworth and sustainability scholars like Kate Fletcher, who question the growth logic, in Daly’s case for more than three decades. Prosperity without growth requires us to create pathways for just transitions, and transition design, as articulated by Terry Irwin, Cameron Tonkinwise, and others, provides a critical toolkit in this respect. Transition to regenerative agriculture is gaining traction; regenerative is aligned with circular, steady-state thinking. We live on a steady-state planet, and we must bring our economic thinking and activity to alignment with our baseline condition. 2018 showed us, via stories of unsold inventory at H&M and Burberry, that we already have more fashion than we know what to do with. We must ask: what do just transitions in the global fashion and textile system look like, as we transition to a smaller fashion and textile economy? Who needs the most support in that transition, and how do we support them?
This means bringing an end, within the framework of just transitions, to the fossil fuel industry as quickly as possible. The fossil fuels that still remain in the ground, must remain in the ground. Single-use plastics are a pipeline for fossil fuels, and we need to close that pipeline. Incinerators, under the guise of ‘waste to energy’, are another pipeline for fossil fuels, in part via single-use plastics, and we need to close that pipeline as well. Compostable, plant-based plastics will be necessary to replace some single-use plastics, but we absolutely must address the pervasiveness of single-use plastics and the associated wasteful lifestyles. While realistically petroleum-based polyester will be with us for some time to come, for fashion and textiles we need to develop recyclable and biodegradable, plant-based plastic fibers to replace it. This work is urgently needed, and these fibers need the same performance capabilities as petroleum-based polyester.
Finally, we need to be honest about the cost of what we call ‘development’, and the permanent losses associated with those costs. While fashion and textiles may not be directly responsible for most of the losses of the sixth extinction, our lifestyles and extractive ways of existing are. Fashion and textiles can be part of the solution in slowing these losses. Regenerative agriculture not only has the capacity to sequester carbon; it can also foster higher levels of biodiversity. Fashion designers like Anne Fontaine demonstrate how a cause like reforestation can be part of a brand’s core activity when the leader makes it so. We need a profound transformation in our relationship with what we call ‘nature’, in seeing ourselves as a part of it rather than above it, and in recognizing that other species have value whether they are useful to us or not.

2 responses to Connections on climate, circularity, plastics and biodiversity

  1. Donnalee says:

    This is an excellent article and makes so much sense–it astounds me that people don’t understand the subjects invovled. There are these delusions that pervade people’s thinking about ‘getting’ and very little support in the big picture for ‘sustaining’. I’m glad some are at least starting to take it seriously, and I hope the best for all–thanks for posting this.


    Until people stop talking about it and stop making needless clothes that end up on bonfires or in landfill its all just a lot of hot air.

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