Your bedroom closet is about to get a makeover, and it won’t be because you’ve knocked out walls or installed new shelving. And that coat closet in your hallway or vestibule where you store your bulkiest outerwear may soon need to be put to an alternative use. Climate change is now undoubtedly dramatically changing what you wear, whether you realize it or not.
Clothing manufacturers are already struggling to change over from producing heavily insulated, cold-weather gear and jackets to manufacturing more midweight outerwear that can be worn throughout multiple seasons. It’s even been reported that retailers such as Kohl’s and Target have begun working with climatologists and meteorologists to fine-tune their buying cycles to correspond with our warming world. For example, Target recently started selling swimwear year-round.
Not only are our clothes beginning to reflect our warmer temperatures, how they’re being produced and the fabrics they’re made of may become more and more important to each of us, personally, and to the world at large.
A lighter weight
Clothing made of heavy materials, such as polar fleece and bulky, synthetic fill, is becoming less popular.
Snowy weather is likely to become less common in the future, with any precipitation more likely to fall as rain rather than snow. According to NASA, 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001. And in recent years, there have been less extreme differentials between seasons. Spring is starting earlier by a week to 10 days, and fall is starting about a week later.
That means there won’t be a lot of truly seasonal clothes in many people’s wardrobes anymore. Clothing made of medium-weight fabrics is going to be far more commonplace than down and bulkier synthetic fill. Eddie Bauer and Mountain Hardwear are starting to produce more season-straddling clothing. According to Outside Magazine, two years ago, when heavily insulated jackets and pants dominated Mountain Hardwear’s fall line, the company earned 60 percent of its profits from winter outerwear. For the 2015-16 season, the number dwindled to roughly 25 percent. Meanwhile, sales of mid- and lightweight jackets have grown to account for approximately half of its revenue.
In the fashion industry, not having four distinct seasons bucks a tradition upon which the $3 trillion global apparel industry is founded. If our most extreme cold-weather gear is no longer needed, what will now define winter fashion and encourage consumers to hit the stores to splurge on a new wardrobe?
Interestingly, Japan recently adopted a “Cool Biz” fashion ethic to address the summer season. Initiated by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment in 2005 to reduce electrical consumption, Cool Biz encompasses a set of environmental guidelines and a dress code. In place of the once-mandatory neckties and suit coats for men, Cool Biz encourages the wearing of dark-colored slacks and a shirt, or what an American would consider to be “business casual.” Cool Biz used to run from June to September, but the season was revamped to stretch from May to October after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami took much of Japan’s nuclear power generation offline. Japanese men will no longer be spending as much money on business suits.
A lighter footprint
According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 2010 the global apparel industry produced more than 150 billion garments, enough to provide more than 20 new articles of clothing to every person on the planet. To make those clothes, we use massive amounts of water; for example, it can take more than 5,000 gallons to manufacture just a cotton T-shirt and a pair of jeans. In fact, cotton production is one of the most water-intensive crops, responsible for 2.6 percent of global water use. Moreover, it is dependent on high volumes of pesticides and fertilizers in order to increase output per acre. The record for polyester is no better; to make that fiber, nearly 70 million barrels of oil are used each year.
In the dyeing of those textiles, more than a half trillion gallons of freshwater are used each year. The untreated dye wastewater is often discharged into nearby rivers, where it reaches the sea, eventually spreading around the globe. China, home to 53 percent of the world’s total textiles, produces and then discharges about 40 percent of all dyeing chemicals worldwide, most of them untreated.
It seems that the clothes we wear are wearing the Earth down. There is some good news, though. Manufacturers, such as Patagonia, have started to offer items made of hemp. Compared to cotton, hemp requires about half the water and half the petroleum inputs. Hemp is a strong and reliable plant that grows very quickly. Not only that, it produces 200 to 250 percent more fiber in the same amount of land compared to cotton.
A donation or upcycle?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 15.13 million tons of textiles are trashed each year in the United States, of which only 15.2 percent (two million tons) are recovered for reuse or recycling. The average American throws away about 65 pounds of clothing every year. That has long-lasting effects on the environment: polyester can take up to 200 years to decompose.
You might assume that by donating your secondhand clothes to charities that at least those materials are being recycled or given to less fortunate people in your area. However, more than 70 percent of the clothes donated globally end up in Africa, where they create unemployment within the garment sector, negatively impact economic growth, and destroy the designs inspired by local cultures and traditions. Upcycling, where a garment is turned into something new, may be the better alternative.
On the upside, wearing cooler (in the weight sense) clothes can still be cool (in the fashion sense)—all while we’re taking steps to slow what will inevitably become our increasingly warmer world.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,