Study Hall Climate Positivity Summit: “Climate Change Is A Social Justice Issue”

The Study Hall Climate Positivity summit brought together voices from the worlds of sustainability and fashion to focus on the importance of climate literacy. Brooke Roberts-Islam shares the key takeaways from the event, which shone a light on sustainability’s wider social context. 

In a month of summits dedicated to debating sustainability and climate change reversal, the Study Hall Climate Positivity At Scale conference presented an entirely more cultural and holistic view of fashion’s relationship to climate change. 

Founded by Celine Semaan and the team at Slow Factory, the summit is dedicated to ‘sustainable literacy’ and ensuring that the climate conversation, and in particular fashion’s impact within it, presents the voices of all individuals. The event goes beyond the publicly-known stakeholders and gives space to the personal, political and cultural mechanisms that drive the industry, from land ownership to gender politics, agricultural methods and slave labour. But don’t assume that the conference focuses on just the problems. Its raison d’etre beyond literacy is to explore fundamental barriers to achieving sustainability to propose appropriate solutions, and readers may be surprised to hear what they are.

Image: Céline Semaan opens the conference

The Study Hall Climate Positivity summit was a timely reminder that sustainability is not about focusing simply on recycled materials, or consuming less and wearing clothes for longer, it is about the cultural, social and environmental dynamics that drive the industry at large, and addressing the triggers for change. The conference opened with a reference to Project Drawdown, the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. Celine cited the list of the 100 most pivotal actions that will reduce carbon emissions and, true to the event’s focus on learning, at number six on this list was the education of women and girls. Why? Because education “is one of the most powerful levers available for avoiding emissions by curbing population growth. Women with more years of education have fewer and healthier children, and actively manage their reproductive health.” 

This formed the backbone of the ‘A Message From The Earth” panel talk, which explored power of education, community and culture when solving issues around sustainability at scale. Project Drawdown’s research explains that educated girls command higher wages and achieve greater upward mobility, contributing to economic growth. “Crucially, they are less likely to marry as children or against their will and have a lower incidence of HIV/AIDS and malaria,” their research states. “In terms of their livelihoods, their agricultural plots are more productive and their families are better nourished.”

Image: Yara Shahidi speaks on the ‘A Message From The Earth’ panel

The report shows that universal education in low and lower middle income countries could reduce emissions by 51.48 gigatons by 2050, proving that compressive schooling systems an invaluable investment. With the gender barrier to education in the developing world and the subsequent limitations this puts on reducing planetary impact, it is no wonder that during the panel, Advocate and actor Yara Shahidi, declared climate change a “social justice issue.” 

Representing the brand Noah Clothing, co-founder Brandon Babenzien joined the discussion by saying that they are “not a sustainable brand”. Spoken as an honest assessment of the difficulty of achieving sustainability rather than an assertion of indifference, the founders explained the paradox between selling stuff and trying to save the planet. They advocate for quality over quantity and look to suppliers to take the lead on sustainability.

Given that most workers in the fashion industry are female, and most fashion is manufactured in developing nations, there is a strong link between the exploitation of the fashion industry and gender. There is also a strong link with environmental impacts caused by consumers in the west being most strongly felt in developing nations. Lilian Liu, Sustainability Strategist at Futerra opened the “Transforming The Global Garment Workforce: Improving Lives With Better Work” panel by sharing these statistics: the fashion industry is comprised of “60 million machinists who sew clothes and only 2% of those earn a living wage. 3 in 4 of these are women.” Tara Rangarajan of the Better Work initiative at the International Labour Organization followed by urging brands and designers to “work directly with the countries manufacturing your clothes” to ensure transparency, fair work, and visibility of the supply chain. 

Image: Lillian Liu opens the ‘Transforming The Global Garment Workforce: Improving Lives With Better Work’ panel

Another issue spoken about in depth at the one-day conference was regenerative agriculture, a theme recently addressed in Rebecca Burgess’ book Fibershed and at the Future Fabrics Expo 2020. Agricultural methods rarely feature in the discourse around sustainability in fashion, but they lie at its very heart. Why? Because healthy (ie. not over cultivated) soil can hold three times the amount of carbon as our atmosphere, providing an enormous natural antidote to our fossil-fuel burning industry. 

The founder of US startup Hudson Carbon Matthew Sheffer, explained at the conference how they are making regenerative farming economically viable by quantifying how much carbon can be captured in the farm’s healthy soil and setting up a marketplace to purchase those carbon offsets. What this means for the fashion industry is that a t-shirt cultivated from a farm using regenerative methods provides purchasers the opportunity to buy carbon offsetting as part of that purchase. This is a tech business model linked directly to a farm in upstate New York, bringing agriculture into the fashion picture in a tangible, direct and quantifiable way. 

Image: Domenique Drakeford speaks on the ‘Incentivizing Good Behavior: How Sustainable Fashion Can Grow At Scale’ panel

Yet one of the main recurring themes at the event was acknowledging that indigenous cultures have been practicing circularity for centuries, an issue addressed by the co-founder of Sustainable Brooklyn Whitney McGuire and others. Whitney held up a mirror to the fashion industry, reminding the audience that the American fashion industry was built on the economics of the slave trade. “The Fashion supply chain funnels more money to modern slave trade than any industry, apart from technology,” she said.

The economic model for ‘affordable’ fashion demands the lowest manufacturing unit price for mass-produced garments for brands to maximise their margin at retail and grow profits. This is problematic for the global fashion industry as it results in slave labour in all regions–the US, UK, Bangladesh, Myanmar. It is a global consequence of the business model, and not a labour issue related to isolated countries, but part of a flawed system.

Image: Korina Emmerich

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the summit came when designer Korina Emmerich described the need to dismantle systems of oppression brought about by colonialism and pointed to the violence towards colonial settlers. She called for all those wanting to take action on climate change to “show up on the front lines and connect with indigenous people.” Regarding white bias, she shared her anger at “the imagery of a young white woman sailing to our land to tell us about something we have been screaming about from the top of our lungs” for years, having fallen on deaf ears when spoken by the indigenous, long-term custodians of the land, now known as urban New York.

Study Hall informed, or reminded, the audience in the auditorium and on the live stream that tackling climate change and transforming fashion to sustainable systems is an issue of race, gender, politics, and culture. It’s far more complex than the more visible issue of material recycling and reducing waste. The full summit report will be released in the coming weeks. Keep an eye on the Study Hall website for updates.

Discover the new materical innovations on show at the Future Fabrics Expo 2020.

What does agriculture have to do with clothes? Read our interview with ‘Fibreshed’ author Rebecca Burgess

See how Brexit could affect the British fashion industry.