The Fashion Industry is Suffocating our Planet

The UK has the highest consumption of clothing in Europe. On average, a piece of clothing is worn only a handful of times before it is thrown away, and online shopping is continuing to grow. The fashion industry has become a major contributor to pollution and the overuse of land and water.

‘Fast fashion’ refers to items of clothing produced rapidly and cheaply in factories by retailers desperate to be the first to produce the latest trends. We, as consumers of the fashion industry, are buying and discarding our clothes far too quickly, resulting in approximately 235 million items of clothing being put in landfills every year.

Fast fashion is suffocating the earth.

To hear the opinion of someone in the fashion industry, I interviewed Imogen Evans from Edinburgh, who recently showcased her own designs at New York Fashion Week. When I asked Imogen about her thoughts on fast fashion, she told me: “We live in an instant world where everyone wants things as soon as we see them… People are seeing fashion week pieces and then purchasing them online at Pretty Little Thing for £5 the next day.”

Fashion items have become so cheap that they are only used once, even just to take a picture to upload to Instagram. Online retailer Pretty Little Thing stocks hundreds of items under £5, made possible by using cheap blends of materials. It’s encouraging people to carelessly buy a clothing item and then throw it away almost instantly.

Plastics such as polyester and nylon, which are found in cheaply made clothes and take up to 200 years to break down, are going straight into landfills.

This is polluting the earth and affecting wildlife. Landfill sites are taking over natural habitats and plastics are being eaten by unsuspecting animals. The fashion industry is guilty of contributing to air and water pollution in a major way. This, in turn, is contributing to climate change.

The fashion industry is currently creating more pollution than all of the aeroplanes in the world.

We should be extremely worried. According to scientists, we have 12 years to stop climate change. Fighting fast fashion is one major way to do so.

Several British Influencers, such as GraceFitUk and Zanna Van Dijk are now using their social media platforms to encourage people to shop in charity and vintage shops. Their influence will hopefully slow down the rate at which clothes are being bought.

Another example of an influential person using social media to change people’s views on fast fashion is Alice Wilby. Wilby is a Sustainable Fashion Expert for the BBC, as well as the founder of Future Frock – an online editorial platform focused on sustainable fashion. Through her Twitter profile, which is almost entirely dedicated to sustainability, Wilby explains how we can reuse, repair and recycle clothing.

There are several innovative plans being created to help reduce the impact of disposable fashion.

American Eagle has launched a new clothing rental scheme. For $49.95 a month, customers can rent items for a certain amount of time before returning them to be reused by someone else. The aim is to reduce fast fashion while still being able to fulfil customer need, and will hopefully decrease the number of items that are thrown away.

Another idea is a ‘penny per garmet‘ levy, which would require retailers to pay a penny for every item they sell. The money would then go towards recycling the clothes instead of throwing them away.

Only 1% of material from clothing is currently recycled for new clothing and only 12% is recycled for other uses.

We are slowly waking up. We’re getting rid of plastic bags and single use coffee cups and we are reducing the amount of meat we are eating. Hopefully, we will begin to phase out disposable clothing and the climate-changing emissions it produces.

There are some companies who are already trying to do their bit for the environment, such as Adidas, who have said they will only use recycled polyester by 2024. H&M have begun mending clothes for free so that they are not thrown away.

When speaking to Imogen Evans, she rightly noted, “the main problem is trying to educate millennials who aren’t necessarily interested in fashion because these are the people who are mindlessly buying from Pretty Little Thing and Misguided every other week.”

As consumers, we need to change our attitude towards clothes.

We need to stop seeing items as disposable and start buying fewer better quality items which will last longer. This way, we will reduce how much we are all contributing to climate change. Buying less clothing at a slightly higher price and recycling old clothes is a small price to pay for better quality products and reducing our carbon footprints for the earth.

Sustaining Breastfeeding for our Environment

The health of our planet is affected by the way babies are fed. We know that breastfeeding has overwhelmingly positive impacts on both mother and child – with long-term health effects that last a lifetime. Yet, safeguarding women’s and children’s right to breastfeeding and providing necessary support for women is also of incredible importance for our environment and in tackling climate change.

To break it down, there are a few noticeable impacts that breastfeeding has on combating climate change – when put in contrast to the use of breastmilk substitutes:

  • Reducing waste in your home from breastmilk substitutes
  • Reducing methane gas from cows that produce milk to make formula
  • Reducing industrial waste and pollution from production of breastmilk substitutes
  • Reducing fuel consumed to transport products to market
  • Reducing use of energy to heat formula and sterilize equipment
  • And in the long term – reducing energy use and waste associated with ill health and deaths of children and mothers

Yet, aren’t these points just a necessary evil for women who are not able to breastfeed? For some, yes. David Clark of UNICEF puts it into perspective for us:

“Entire sections of society mistakenly believe that large numbers of women cannot breastfeed and that formula is a necessity, and that any harm caused to the environment is a necessary evil. The breastmilk substitute industry (estimated to be worth $41.5 billion in 2012 and forecasted to double in size and reach $63.6 billion in 2017) has played a significant role in idealizing the use of their products and persuading women that they are either as good as, or better than breastfeeding.”

Like in so many other areas of our lives – especially as women – we are bombarded by marketing telling us how to look, how to behave and what life-changing decisions to make. Breastfeeding is not excluded from this. The detrimental environmental impact of breastmilk substitutes is a responsibility for all of us to bear – not mothers alone. We need to provide enabling environments, supporting policies and changed attitudes that give women the freedom to choose to breastfeed, as part of our efforts to combat climate change.

The biggest task ahead is communicating the important linkages between breastfeeding and the environment – taking the conversation about breastfeeding beyond nutrition to the impact on sustainability and women’s rights, and putting it into practice.

An example of how this is being done is through the work of Pan Asia Pacific. Their work focuses on creating a just and pesticide-free future with strong partnerships at the grassroots level – including with agricultural workers, indigenous peoples and rural women’s movements. They acknowledge that poor women from poor communities are more susceptible to pesticides, which further puts their babies at risk during pregnancy and breastfeeding. They promote women’s and children’s right to breastfeeding – yet they do so with caution, as they know the implications of working in polluted environments.

Safeguarding breastfeeding is an essential step in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals – including the targets related to climate change and our environment – and requires us to collaborate across sectors and at multiple levels. One such partnership is the Breastfeeding Advocacy Initiative (BAI), which aims to raise awareness of the contribution breastfeeding can play in combatting climate change.  

“Through the Breastfeeding Advocacy Initiative, UNICEF is reaching out to partners beyond the world of infant and young child feeding and this must include allies in the field of environment and climate change,” Clark explains. 

Let’s increase action by ensuring that groups working on environmental issues understand the linkages between breastfeeding and combatting climate change – making this a central part of our advocacy strategies. Advocacy must also include the normalization of breastfeeding as a sustainable way to feed babies – including the message that breastfeeding contributes to reducing our carbon footprint. New mothers and the younger generation need to be informed of the environmental impact of formula feeding in addition to receiving the support they need to choose to breastfeed.

To ensure that sustainability and environmental protection is a central part of breastfeeding advocacy we must broaden our messaging to include environmental and climate change arguments, like curbing the overuse of pesticides and fertilisers. To protect mothers and children that are the most vulnerable, we need to partner with grassroots organizations that work among poor and marginalized groups.

Lastly, the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes creates a framework for us to limit the formula feeding industry and thus safeguard our environment as well as women’s and children’s right to breastfeeding. Let’s ensure that The Code is fully implemented and monitored regularly.  

World Breastfeeding Week takes place from 1 – 7 August 2017. Celebrating collaboration and sustainability, it will focus on the need to work together to sustain breastfeeding. World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) has created an online platform with downloadable resources available in a range of languages to support individuals and organizations in their own campaigning and advocacy. 

SDG 13: Climate Change – Faces Behind the Numbers

There’s something very unique about working at grassroots level and experiencing firsthand what the community is facing. A single day is enough to make all the statistics fade into the background and replace them with vivid images of what the numbers really represent.

I am currently taking part in the fifth Climate Change and Development in Africa (CCDA-V) conference themed, “Africa, Climate Change and Sustainable Development: What is at Stake at Paris and Beyond?” in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. As a pre-event to the conference, the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change (AYICC) convened the first African Youth Conference on Climate Change (AfriYOCC) themed, “African Youth Responses to Climate Change and Food Security, Action from the Frontline”. The workshop served as a valuable space for young people to share their climate solutions and incorporate their recommendations to the African Youth Position on the Road to Paris (COP21). I also had the opportunity to serve as a panelist on the topic : “Gender Mainstreaming in Climate Governance and Community Based Adaptation”.

ccda

All the high-level dialogues taking place for me put a spotlight on the community that will have to live the consequences of the outcome of these discussions. Here are my thoughts on the subject.

Goal number 13 of the new Sustainable Development Goals, “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” means so much to a lot of climate activists all over the world. 2015 is a momentous year for our movement. The world needed to agree on its future and we were able to have a standalone goal on climate change. The targets of this goal hold a promise of climate justice and keeping our world safe, for us to be able to breathe long enough to fight another day.

The first target articulates the importance of strengthening the resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries. Achieving this target is impossible without having the necessary climate change measures integrated into national policies and strategic planning, which is outlined in the second target. The remaining targets also cover critical issues surrounding awareness raising and capacity building, as well as the very backbone of any movement financing. The urgent need to make the Green Climate Fund operational and make sure the developed world follows up on its commitments has been well emphasized. The target highlights the agreement reached for the developed countries to jointly mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020, to address the needs of developing countries for meaningful mitigation, as outlined in the Copenhagen Accord.

Gender

The fifth and last target which focuses on promoting mechanisms for raising capacity for effective climate change related planning and management brings me to a point I would like to discuss further. It highlights a focus on women,  youth,  local and marginalized communities in countries that do not have enough resources and are being disastrously affected by the hazards of climate change.

We are standing on the verge of COP 21, and we have high hopes for an agreement that will practically complement this goal and deliver for the most marginalized. But we still echo reservations that crumble our much-needed unity for saving the earth. Most concerns arise from factors strongly related to economic growth implications of pursuing a certain development path. One can argue any sort of “development” is meaningless if it compromises the planet we live in, whereas affordability and issues surrounding technology transfer make it that much impossible for another to be as passionate for the cause. A just climate solution can only be reached, when can work on the divide between the global north and south with the utmost integrity and concern for the those whose daily lives rotate around these decisions.

The issue of gender is also a huge factor in determining how effective our programs will be on the ground. Women and children are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis and we have established that empowering women and girls is our ticket out of poverty. But we need to translate that knowledge into a set of practical actions that will work through the social constructs which need to be challenged.

Gender mainstreaming in the fight against climate change could not be anymore pressing than now as we are literally racing against time. We acknowledge that empowering women has a ripple effect and positively trickles down to every member of the household. And typically, the rural women of Africa are forced to walk long hours of the day for lack of access to safe drinking water, are more vulnerable to gender-based-violence and remain over-burdened by exclusively bearing reproductive roles around the house.

We have early warning communities that largely consist of women. On a recent gender-analysis I was part of in the east side of rural Ethiopia, we found that the women were more interested and willing to join the early warning community set up by the Disaster Prevention, Preparedness and Control Office of the government. The men justified their lack of interest by saying the women were more “close to the issue” therefore more sensitive and responsible to communicate. On the other hand, a well established norm renders the men the sole decision makers, with better access and control over resources. It is crucial that we creatively engage the men.

We all have a long way to go in building community resilience. Our efforts require that much cross-sectorial collaboration more so than a singular focus on a single thematic area. There is a strong correlation between population, health and environment which we cannot disregard as we plan our programs. We need to remember that behind the numbers there are faces of real people and at individual, local and global levels we have to commit to nothing less than our very best to collaboratively strive towards a world where the impacts of climate change are not only slowed down, but halted. Preserving our planet not just for us but for future generations is all of our shared responsibility.

Illustrations for the SDG campaign have been made for Girls’ Globe by artist Elina Tuomi.

Helping Girls and Women Before a Disaster Strikes

On July 11th, we recognize World Population Day – a day to focus attention on the urgency and importance of population issues. This year’s theme, Vulnerable Populations in Emergencies, is one of critical importance as the rights of girls and women are affected most in emergency settings. Take a disaster triggered by climate change as an example. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, a household survey from Oxfam in Aceh, Indonesia, found that up to four women died for every male in the most affected areas. In some villages, all of the deceased were women. Why? In Aceh, girls and women often not encouraged or taught to swim or climb trees. They also spend majority of time in the home caring for children – homes vulnerably positioned near the shoreline.

Girls and women are also more susceptible to gender-based violence in emergency settings where feelings of stress and powerless can lead increased physical and sexual violence, and exploitation. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, rape was reported as an epidemic that followed as girls as women were displaced and left vulnerable to attack.

While the sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and women are a pressing concern globally, that concern is heightened during an emergency. Rather than waiting until a disaster strikes, the health and rights of girls and women must be addressed now, especially as the world is currently solidifying a new, universal set of goals, targets and indicators that UN member states will be expected to use to frame their agendas and policies over the next 15 years.

Half of the world’s current population –over 3.5 billion – is under 30 years of age. While their lives differ across regions and countries, young people share basic human rights, including those pertaining to sexual and reproductive health. Adolescents need information and services to support healthy decision-making related to sexuality and reproduction, and before an emergency occurs. Ensuring access to such education and services before an emergency could help to inform and empower girls, especially when placed in an even more vulnerable setting.

Many barriers prevent young people from obtaining comprehensive information and quality services, such as limited access to education, poor education attendance due to unintended pregnancy, and weak heath care infrastructure. Yet it is the comprehensive sexual and reproductive education that is essential for young people to be aware of the respect and rights due to them as humans. To this end, scientific evidence on the sexual and reproductive knowledge, attitudes, and health of young people can strengthen the work of health care providers, educators, disaster relief providers, and advocates working to improve the lives of girls and women. Working together to provide that evidence is Guttmacher Institute and International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), who have a long history working together to increase public awareness about sexual and reproductive health issues.

Photo Credit: Guttmacher
Photo Credit: Guttmacher

In 2013, the organizations released Demystifying Data: A Guide to Using Evidence to Improve Young People’s Sexual Health and Rights, a publication designed to provide and contextualize a wealth of data on adolescent sexual health and rights in 30 countries, as well as provide guidance on how to apply the data to advocacy, education and service efforts. The guide was designed to be a resource for youth advocates, sexuality educators and service providers as well as others working to advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people around the world. By providing demographic and socioeconomic information about young people, as well as measures of their access to, need for, and use of sexual and reproductive health information and services, policymakers and decision-makers can clearly see the evidence for effective design policies and programs to meet young people’s needs for sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Photo Credit: Guttmacher
Photo Credit: Guttmacher

Recently, the organizations shared new infographics for advocates and educators to “know the data” and “use the numbers”. Together, the guide and infographics will allow those working with young people to bring about much-needed changes, such as provision of comprehensive sexuality education; increased access to sexual and reproductive health services; improved policies to protect the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people; and increased understanding of where the need is greatest in order to focus efforts on the most vulnerable young people.

Demystifying Data is comprised of three core chapters which highlight 70 key indicators on issues such as sexual activity and marriage; contraceptive knowledge, use and need; childbearing; sexuality education in schools; adolescents’ ability to advocate for and ensure their own sexual health; and societal norms and gender equality. By ensuring girls and women are educated in such issues, and equipping them with the tools and services to lead safe and healthy lives, we are protecting them even more if and when an emergency or disaster strikes. Consider a pregnant woman in Nepal.

In April 2015, a devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, killing over 3,400 people. Hospitals were overcrowded and injured people were displaced and even treated in the streets.

“In times of upheaval or natural disasters, pregnancy-related deaths and gender-based violence soar,” said Priya Marwah, UNFPA’s humanitarian response coordinator in Asia and the Pacific. “Many women lose access to essential reproductive health services and give birth in appalling conditions without access to safe delivery services and lifesaving care.”

In response to Nepal’s earthquake, the United Nations Population Fund coordinated with the government and humanitarian relief to deploy reproductive health kits, as well as emergency staff to assist in the protection of girls and women. We must, however, protect girls and women and ensure access to full health services, including sexual and reproductive health, before an emergency.

Thanks to guides like Demystifying Data, we can equip the world with the data to improve sexual and reproductive health and right, create better policies, and ensure a healthy and prosperous future for girls and women.

Cover Photo Credit: United Nations, Flickr Creative Commons