Pauline Op de Beeck, art.1 "From anxious to conscious"
I am probably not the only person whose connection with climate change was sparked by a screening of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Say what you want about the documentary, but in 2006, as an impressionable 13-year-old, this transformed my life. I could not understand how the world could be equipped with this knowledge and continue its business as usual. To me it just seemed unfathomable that we could watch images of places in the world that had already been transformed by human activity and not change anything. And this is in fact what continued to happen for almost another decade until the 2015 Paris Agreement.
While I chose to study environmental sciences at school and have a degree in international relations, I did not fundamentally alter my day-to-day after this documentary. Yes, I decided I wanted to dedicate my life, studies and profession to climate change, but I cannot remember any dramatic changes I made to my behaviour. I continued to eat as I did, use all my pocket money to buy cheap clothes that I wore less than a handful of times and continued on my usual way. Was it a lack of information, the fact that I was only 13 and had little agency or that at this time I felt it wasn’t up to me? I had a sense that this was a problem for adults, for businesses, for governments but not for me, not yet. Greta Thunberg has shown that this is not the case today.
Either way, it was not until my final years of studying international relations that I realised I absolutely could not rely on governments and international agreements – this was pre-Paris of course. I wanted to understand why this was, so I started a master’s degree in environmental policy and regulation. It was in these years that I did start making changes to my life, becoming a vegetarian and becoming conscious of how my purchasing decisions impacted the environment.
I attended a London Fashion Week side-event on sustainability in 2015 and was told by a sustainability consultant there not to waste my master’s and my dissertation on this sector. She said that fashion is not willing to change, and to put my energies into something that is.
When I started my role as client manager at the Carbon Trust (a non-profit with a stated mission to accelerate the move to a sustainable, low carbon economy), I had to pick a sector to focus my business development on, and at this point in 2018 it seemed like the right time to focus on fashion. There had been documentaries focusing on fast-fashion like The True Cost, these issues were beginning to be picked up by mainstream media and, crucially, some businesses were taking the lead and others beginning to follow. This was the perfect time for our business to focus on helping this sector to decarbonise, and for me to align my interest in fashion with my passion for the environment.
This role allowed me to become fully educated in the complex value chain of the fashion industry and how this sector impacts climate change. With this knowledge I have been able to target clients, some who were ready to take on the challenge and innovate their businesses, and others who were very much at the beginning of their journey. With this expertise, I have now spoken at many corporate conferences and panels to educate on the impact the fashion sector is having on climate change and how we can turn this around.
Fashion is something we all engage with. Whether we follow trends or just clothe ourselves to be warm and comfortable, at some point in our lives, and to varying degrees of frequency, we have bought clothes. How it got here, where it was made and what it was made from is not information available to us at the point of purchase, and rarely something that brands celebrate. As such, the average consumer is unaware of their clothes’ hidden environmental cost. We all know that fossil fuels are bad and can engage with this clearly, but understanding the climate change impact of fashion is more complex to understand, and equally difficult to change, as a consumer.
For this reason, I find my career absolutely fascinating. It has been exhilarating to see the media pick up this topic and for consumers to connect with the issue of climate change and how it relates to something that touches and protects their person every day. In this series I want to break down the current sustainability issues of the sector, what a sustainable apparel economy looks like and how you can help.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own as an individual.