Celebrities want you to stop shopping? Easy for them to say.
“Award ceremonies are just the celebrity versions of the ‘Instagram effect,'” she said, referencing the role of social media in users’ purchasing habits.
Fonda and Phoenix’s small symbols of solidarity are meant to inspire the same activism in the fashion industry and everyday folks. But how far can one tux and a red coat go?
The fashion industry’s carbon footprint
Nearly every step in the supply chain of a garment contributes to the industry’s carbon output, said Tasha Lewis, an associate professor of fiber science and apparel design at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology.
The manufacturing phase relies on machine power. Finished garments are shipped by plane, train, boat and truck, all energy-intensive modes of transport.
See this tux? You’ll be seeing a lot more of it, if you keep up with award shows. Joaquin Phoenix plans to wear it to every ceremony he attends to cut back on textile waste. Credit: Handout/Getty Images/2020 NBCUniversal Media
Cutting back on clothes is a choice rather than a necessity now. But if cotton crops dry up or water depletes, it could become the only choice.
“Resource scarcity will definitely drive change in fashion,” Lewis said.
‘We haven’t always shopped this way’
While celebrities often return clothing they borrow from designers, people are stuck with clothing made to withstand only a few gentle washes.
“We haven’t always shopped this way,” Bédat said. “It’s become a trend to have a super low-quality clothing that we don’t really want to wear because we get rid of it so fast.”
But trendy clothes sold for cheap often end up being a false economy. When a low-quality product falls apart after a few years, consumers will end up buying more than they might’ve if they stuck to one higher-priced item, said Patsy Perry, senior lecturer in fashion marketing at the University of Manchester’s School of Materials.
“[Fashion] is so much of how we communicate our self-identity, our confidence,” she said. “But because the volume of production and the speed of disposal are increasing, we are seeing just how wasteful it is.”
Recycle, swap or slow down
Phoenix and Fonda alone probably can’t dent the global fashion industry’s carbon footprint. But their visibility can empower consumers to dig into their closets and find new inspiration in well-worn garments.
Lewis said they might relieve some pressure off consumers who follow their lead.
“It gives consumers validation,” she said. “They don’t have to go out and buy the latest style.”
Abstaining from buying new clothes may not be practical, James said, so consumers should be more mindful of what they’re buying and consider what they’ll wear, and, like Phoenix and Fonda, how many uses they’ll get out of it.
“Boycotting the fashion industry is not the answer,” she said. “What we need to do is slow our consumption down and make more informed and considered decisions.”
Both luxury and value brands are to blame for the high demand for products and the ensuing environmental impacts, but change could start at the top. High-end brands aren’t pressured to churn out products like fast-fashion houses are, so they could funnel some of their profits toward more responsible methods of production, James said.
Jane Fonda vowed the red coat she’s sported at all of her climate protest would be the last item of clothing she’d ever buy. She’s protested climate inaction in Washington since October. Credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
In the UK, organized clothing swaps have taken off as a way to keep up with trends and extend a garment’s lifespan. Strangers and friends gather and exchange clothes, often only for the price of admission.
Perhaps most important in chipping away at fashion’s carbon output, James said, is getting loud.
“We’re seeing pockets of activity popping up everywhere,” she said. “People are starting to make different choices, in clothing, in transport — small behavioral changes — all reflecting that momentum.”
The fashion industry may not upend its model after a protest or two. But companies are willing to listen, Bédat said. In many of her conversations with brands, she said most leaders are receptive to customers’ concerns about the impact of their clothing and they’re willing to change.
“This is what makes fashion a really great space,” she said. “This is highly addressable, not a sacrifice.”