How The Climate Crisis Is Influencing What’s Available On The Shop Floor

By Dan Ahwa
What do you wear when Mother Nature is running a fever? Photo / Mara Sommer

If there’s anything this year’s floods and tornadoes have taught us, it’s that climate change is not going anywhere anytime soon. Around the world, we’re already seeing its impact through extreme cases of droughts, storms, and heat waves.

When it comes to the fashion industry’s well-documented impact on the planet,

The simplest answer is to stop making new clothes, of course. But it’s a naive way to look at things when so many designers have already taken progressive steps to reduce their carbon footprint and overhaul their supply chain so it meets tough industry regulations. For many, it’s their livelihood.

Behemoth chain stores need to work better, such as Shein and Zara — we all know that poorly made garments with a fast turnaround are not what the world needs right now if we’re going to reach those emission goals.

Ranking among the fuel industry, agriculture, technology, and construction, the fashion industry is estimated as being responsible for around 10 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, with 85 per cent of textiles ending up in a landfill.

And we’re reminded of this environmental impact this week as we mark 10 years since the tragic Rana Plaza collapse, instigating what has now become Fashion Revolution Week this week, a week that reminds us that our clothes should not come at the cost of people’s lives or our planet.

In an overmarketed industry, how are fashion designers cutting through the smoke and mirrors to deliver quality clothes that aren’t pillaging the world’s natural resources, while simultaneously adapting their designs to the real issue of our changing weather patterns?

According to NIWA, winter 2022 was the warmest and wettest winter on record in Aotearoa, with the nationwide average temperature recorded as 9.8C (1.4C above the 1981-2010 average from NIWA’s seven-station temperature series, which begins in 1909).

So, what do you wear when Mother Nature is running a fever?

It might be a short, tidy blazer in lieu of a seasonal heavy coat, or the reliance on polyester blend textiles that are more tactile and easier to clean. Tran-seasonal clothes seem to be a priority for many designers right now.

“The bulk of our collections now are trans-seasonal,” explains the designer duo Rachel Easting and Anjali Burnett from Pōneke-based label Twenty-seven Names. “When designing each range, we have a core collection — and then we add in coats and jackets as needed. We find the choices ourselves and our stockists make across the country vary a lot. Auckland, for instance, is just so much warmer throughout the winter, so our South Island stockists always order more coats than our Auckland ones. The fashion calendar has shifted and so the binary of the classic summer/winter is not something that feels relevant anymore — it’s more about having something that works for someone all throughout the year and is versatile in different weather and different aspects of their lives.”

Emily Miller-Sharma, the general manager of Ruby and Liam, agrees that weather patterns right now are shaping the offering from these two brands even more so than before.

“Without wanting to go climate-denial on it, there has always been a level of unpredictability in our weather,” explains Emily. “But the extremes and the unpredictability of the weather have become much greater. For example, most of us watched the entire summer season this year disappear right in front of our eyes. Because of our production timeframes, we are placing orders for our pieces months in advance. The best way I can explain how we design and buy for this unpredictability is that it’s a balancing act. We are extremely mindful of overproduction, as we know that this type of business model is what has contributed to climate change in the first place.”

Expect to see fewer runs of seasonal products too, says Emily. “It’s important that, for the most part, the pieces we have available can be worn year-round. Broadly, it just doesn’t make sense to me to be offering something that can’t make the transition to a different temperature through adding or removing layers, changing footwear, etc.

“However, there are obviously some pieces that have typically been specific to a time of year — think denim shorts versus denim jeans, or lightweight linen when it’s hot and summery, snuggly coats when it’s cold and wintery,” she continues. “For this product, we make sure that we are tight with the amount we are purchasing, and that they are neutral enough for us to be able to bring them back into store the next year if they don’t sell within the season we have delivered them into.”

It’s also much more expensive right now for designers to purchase fabrics, an area programme director for Mindful Fashion NZ, Jacinta Fitzgerald, says has plenty of potential if designers invest in materials that contribute to a circular economy.

“A key lever for fashion businesses to address climate change is by choosing materials that regenerate nature and sequester carbon through the way they’re produced. A second lever is reducing waste at all stages of a garment’s lifecycle,” she says. “We are seeing a big move to certified materials, which is a good place to start, and to brands connecting with farmers and growers at the beginning of their supply chain to really understand how their materials are grown. Local brands are diverting manufacturing textile waste from landfill by partnering with recycler Upparel, and standing behind their products by offering lifetime repair programmes, both great steps towards a circular fashion ecosystem in Aotearoa.”

“We predominantly make our ranges from dead-stock fabrics, and custom designs,” says Rachel. “We source our custom prints and woven fabrics from a French mill that uses sustainably sourced fibers, and manufacture with certified standards of care in regards to dye and water usage. We also focus on using high-quality, natural fabrics that last so they can be worn for a lifetime. We have always been made in New Zealand from the start, and it has become easier to source good quality natural fiber fabrics as the years have passed as the demand for them has increased so much.”

Wellington has always been known as our windiest city, and while fashion Rachel and Anjali haven’t veered too far from being inspired by the familiarity of their hometown’s unpredictable weather, servicing their other customers from the rest of the country experiencing four seasons in one day has had a hand in what is resonating with shoppers in their stores.

“Vests have been a great go-between for the change in weather,” says Anjali. “Warm, but not too warm. They are practical all year round. We always find our shorter coats and lighter jackets popular with our customers as they can be worn through winter, but also in those shoulder seasons.”

As consumers become increasingly more mindful of what they’re buying, eating and generally consuming, natural fabric garments continue to influence designers in how they are delivering more thoughtful clothes into the market. Combined with shapes and styles that transcend one particular season, let’s hope this more thoughtful approach gains momentum at all levels of the fashion industry.

Climate-friendly garments to wear now and forever

Like an elevated take on a classic chore jacket, we’re seeing many iterations lately of outerwear that’s not quite a coat, not quite a shirt (hello, shacket), and not quite a blazer. Toeing the line between casual and formal, hybrid jackets like this are a prime example of hybrid dressing for hybrid lives in a climate-crisis kinda world.

A simple black top that can easily segue between cool and warm climes, this long-sleeved spandex and nylon blend offers the type of versatility and longevity that is required from seasonless garments right now.

The type of dress that works well with a layering top, and easily transitions to the summer. A sleeveless mid-length dress is great for temperamental weather.

Not too heavy, not too light, a short blazer is likely to give you more wear than a heavy coat will right now. Invest in a smart option that easily layers with a multitude of tops.

Made from sustainable stretch denim woven from 97 per cent BCI sourced cotton with 3 per cent Lycra, trousers like this are easy to wear and clean for an all-day, reliable trouser option. The future of denim lies in smaller makers and denim made with a little more attention to how it’s crafted.

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