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Climate Week Versus Fashion Week

September 13th marked the beginning of “Mercedes Benz Week” in New York; September 20th marks the end of Fashion Week and the start of New York...

Tamara Giltsoff
Tamara Giltsoff on September 22, 2009.

September 13th marked the beginning of “Mercedes Benz Week” in New York; September 20th marks the end of Fashion Week and the start of New York Climate Week – “Climate Week NYC” – an event organized by a partnership that includes The Climate Group, the UN, the UN Foundation, the City of New York, the Government of Denmark, Tck Tck Tck Campaign, and The Carbon Disclosure Project. As part of the week, world leaders will gather today in the largest-ever gathering of heads of State and government on climate change.

“No issue better demonstrates the need for global solidarity,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon emphasized. “No challenge so powerfully compels us to widen our horizons.”

These are momentous times in the city; also such strikingly contradictory times. These two events make for beautifully rich illustrations of the complexities and challenges of global climate negotiations and the task ahead to redefine economies in (what we now are beginning to except is) a finite world. They also make for an illustration of life’s polarity: half escaping ourselves in creative expression, consumption and performance, and half living the hard environmental, social and political realities of globalization.

‘Fashion’ is at the heart of our consumer-driven and status obsessed society; it’s also a symbol of the externalization of the true costs of consumption. “I Shop Therefore I Am’, said Barbra Kruger, but so overwhelmed by the status and meaning of consumption we’ve become it’s now clear we lost our connection to the planetary resources and human capital required to make all the stuff we want. It’s hard to rewind on this.

‘Climate’, on the other hand, is at the heart of a longer term look at the planet and economic system and how and if it will be at all possible to carry on with the rate of fashion cycles and material consumption as we know it, into this century. The climate debate puts a value on carbon and natural resource use, and impact on society and economy, and asks us to rethink industries with this value in mind. Paul Dickenson, the CEO of the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) , at their launch event this Monday morning told his audience of Fortune 500 companies who disclosed their carbon that there is one word for the opportunity for growth opportunity in carbon economy: “dematerialisation” – creating value through non-material services that reduce resource use.

The fashion industry and climate change (or ‘environment’) are inextricably linked, but also wholly at odds with each other; they are such a symbol of the human challenges ahead in this transition. Fashion is the fuel that feeds consumerism; consumerism, in its current guise, is the fuel that feeds climate change. It’s incredible to think of these two global events in New York in September literally happening back to back.

The fashion industry, and prevailing ‘consumer spend’, is often used as a measure of the sort activity that defines whether or not our economy is flourishing. Fashion is global, uber glamorous, highly creative and drives wealth – both in the necessity it creates to earn more and more to be able to buy more and more each season, and in driving sales of all sorts of goods (ie, not just clothes). Fashion is the genius at engaging stakeholders (or followers) and getting people to wear all sorts of extraordinary things at a cost to them. Fashion makes a good buck and like many industries it uses a healthy chunk of planetary resources and human capital to keep the spending wheel moving.

The ‘climate industry’ poses a vast geopolitical challenge; for some it is a major threat to the free market and ruling corporations because it presents a ‘limit to growth’, and for others it is a (creative) human challenge, the innovation opportunity of the 21st century and potential for new forms of wealth creation and real prosperity. It is not that glamorous (yet) though it is becoming popularized (see Hugh Jackman participate in the opening ceremony of Climate Week ). Compared to fashion industry it is disastrous at creating following, meaning and a vision for people to follow. It is (obviously) global but still largely the domain of the ‘climating classes’ – senior business leaders, policy makers, NGOs, some investors, and grass-roots entrepreneurs. Hence the girls who Top Shop or cover major fashion pages in Conde Nast publications that have mass followings I’m guessing probably won’t stick around for Climate Week. The ‘climate industry’ is growing in importance, meaning and advocacy, but does not have the power and influence on people that fashion does to create movements, community, creativity and ingenuity. Richard Edelman, CEO Edelman, at the very same event as Paul Dickenson describe the ‘lack of face’ or global symbol for climate change and “losing the communication battle” around global negotiations. Why is a look at these two ‘industries’ and their respective ‘New York Week’s’ in anyway meaningful? I think because the two are inextricably linked, the two are somewhat dependent on each other and both can also learn from each other:

Climate Week Versus Fashion Week-2

(click to enlarge)

As Fashion Week transitions to Climate Week in New York this week I will echo the sentiment of James Cameron rounding up the CDP launch event and start of Climate Week this Monday, suggesting that markets (business) and policy makers need to go boldly and confidently forward with global discussions and agreements (COP15), whilst accepting the seriousness of the science and knowing that these negotiations are also inadequate. What he’s suggesting is a level of collaboration and innovation from industries that gets us to these agreements and then beyond the inadequate targets, into wholly new markets. This may require the sort of movement building and market influence that industries like fashion are so good at; and it will require the industries themselves to reinvent.

More on Climate Week as the week progresses…

[image by The Factionist - ethical apparel]

Thinking...