The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, otherwise known as COP27, just wrapped on 20 November with setting more sustainable goals for the fashion industry as one of the conference’s biggest priorities. But setting such lofty goals often means big fashion brands over-promise and fail to deliver. Instead, many do something known as ‘greenwashing,’ which is nothing new, according to prominent climate activist Saad Amer. From consulting the United Nations to co-founding Plus1Vote, an organisation mobilising voter turnout in the United States, Amer has worked nonstop over the years to advocate for a healthier society and a cleaner planet.
There is good news, however, as Amer says no matter what big companies may end up doing to harm the planet, everyone can start small and do their own part in helping to reduce the dangerous effects of climate change. We recently caught up with Amer to get a better understanding of how he got involved in the climate justice space, his analysis of what went down at COP27, and what all of us can do to truly live up to the words ‘sustainable fashion.’
Tell us more about how you got involved with environmental activism, and your personal connection to sustainable fashion.
I started my environmental activism my first year in high school, where we helped to establish a 100-acre land preserve in New York. I created a local organisation around the preserve and brought thousands of students out to learn about climate change and conservation while making films about the importance of the environment. I studied Environmental Science and Public Policy at Harvard. When I was a student, I toured factories in Pakistan and understood how harsh working conditions are, and how people in the West create global supply chains that extract profit from these communities and leave them with pollution, waste and the consequences of climate change. The climate injustice of the situation was tangible, and I knew things had to change.
I had no background in fashion, but I decided to create a one-off sustainable fashion line for a project in 2015. I wanted to prove that more sustainable materials could be utilised to make high-end looks. I used organic and unconventional materials. The show sold out three times over. Fashion is visual and it is powerful. The trends designers set can shift culture and change the way we think of our systems and consume. That project years ago really contributed to my perspective on my sustainability work with the United Nations, businesses and nonprofits.
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COP27 just wrapped. Tell us more about the goals the UN Fashion Charter set for themselves this year. Have all the fashion brands who’ve signed on fulfilled their promises?
The UN Fashion Charter aims for the textile, clothing and fashion industry to reduce emissions to net-zero by 2050 in line with global commitments to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. The charter also sets working groups on major industry sectors like manufacturing and energy, raw materials, retail and more. For the most part, brands have failed to meet their commitments, and the same is true for governments that have made commitments to reduce their emissions. It is disappointing, and sadly unsurprising. Companies have so many resources at their disposal and change is absolutely possible. If you’re a fashion company, hit me up.
All signatories of the Fashion Charter have to report their annual greenhouse gas emissions, but initial analysis suggested many brands have fallen short of their goals. Why do you think this is the case and how can we better hold fashion brands accountable?
We are in the era of greenwashing. Public pressure to be better to the environment is growing, but many brands are responding by creating the appearance of caring without doing any actual work. It is easy to say something is part of a “green” or “conscious” campaign, but those campaigns are often rooted in marketing and not in science. There is little accountability for putting on a fake eco-performance, and many brands have recently come under fire for doing exactly that.
This is a disservice to customers and an attack on our planet. Consumers are becoming more aware as we continue to see global supply chains struggle and witness the devastating consequences of the unfolding climate crisis. It’s becoming impossible to hide inauthenticity. We need binding global targets and for businesses to serve as leaders in innovation to fundamentally improve the world we are living in.
Big fast fashion brands like SHEIN have become all the rage for their cheap prices and quick delivery times, so it seems like people still easily overlook their shady business practices and negative environmental impact, as reported by dozens of other outlets. It’s a lofty question, but how do you think we can encourage people to cut back on fast fashion?
If fashion is about expression, what does it say about us when we adorn ourselves with clothing that is destroying forests, polluting rivers, ruining the atmosphere and made by sweatshop labor? We need a fundamental shift in culture. We have gotten to a place where consumers treat clothing as if it were as disposable as tissue paper. Clothing is not meant to be worn once. We need to learn to appreciate each garment we have and to consume less.
We need brands to take ownership not just over their emissions, but also their supply chains, resource utilisation and labor practices. Every material, from the metal in zippers, to artificial polyester, to the soil used in cotton fields needs to be taken into account. While the fashion industry has created this system, it also has the ability to shift it forward and solidify sustainability as the standard. Fashion is cool, and we need sustainability to be cool, too.
For average buyers who aren’t plugged in to the world of sustainable fashion, how do you propose they get started with more sustainable practices?
So much merchandise is made, brought to a store, unsold, and thrown in the trash. Many products are designed to be worn a few times and then discarded. Fast fashion, fast furniture, fast food are all making our planet decline even faster. There is a lot we can do as individual consumers and as citizens to fight for change. Normally, people say to shop sustainably, but my first tip is to buy less. Most of the time we don’t need what we’re buying. If you do need to purchase something, shop more sustainably. I personally shop second-hand a lot. I’m at the UN right now, and wearing a vintage Moschino suit and Hermès tie. It’s important to buy fewer things, care about the pieces you own and wear them often. It is also important to donate old clothing and repair items. I often end up borrowing looks from friends, too. It’s also important to put pressure on brands and push government officials to implement fashion policy that is better for our planet and for our health. One non-profit I recommend working with is Remake, which does powerful work in sustainable fashion and human rights.
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Tell us more about the work you’ve done in the sustainability realm.
I work as a consultant to the United Nations and am the Founder of Justice Environment, a social impact consultancy that helps businesses, nonprofits and governments navigate action on climate change and sustainability. Global apparel consumption is predicted to increase by 63% by 2030, from 62 million to over 100 million tons. Globally we need to halve our emissions during that same time frame. Right now, our climate goals and production goals are inconsistent and we need to fundamentally change our systems to maintain a habitable planet. The conversation around sustainable fashion is one about our economy, public policy, human rights, climate justice and so much more. We have our work cut out for us, but together, we can make a difference.