May 23, 2024

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How to resist fashion over-consumption and still dress well

10 min read

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This week:

  • How to resist fashion over-consumption and still dress well
  • The campaign to make a climate ballad the No. 1 song in Britain
  • These are the ways rural Canadians are more vulnerable to climate change

How to resist fashion over-consumption and still dress well

At 17th Avenue Thrift, you can only buy two of these pairs of pants at a time — if you want to re-sell them. Perhaps the leopard print and the magenta pairs? (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Katie Swailes loves fashion. But she hates the societal impact of the fashion industry. 

“The amount of toxins that are in the clothing, the way they’re ending up in the landfills so rapidly, so many companies are treating their workers just horribly. That’s the kind of stuff that just makes my blood boil,” she told the radio program What On Earth.

Swailes, a student at McMaster University in Hamilton, is the leader of a non-profit in Markham, Ont., called Hand In Hand, which recruits young people to work on social issues like sustainability. But she acknowledges that sustainability can be difficult when it comes to the clothes we wear.

“There is a pressure to follow trends,” she said. “The way they go so fast — they come in and they’re out.”

It’s a dilemma for climate-minded people who love clothes, especially during the holidays — a time of year filled with special events as well as a flood of marketing that often encourages you to treat yourself while shopping for others. 

The UN Environment Program says the clothing and textile industry is responsible for between two and eight per cent of global carbon emissions and also has impacts on pollution, biodiversity and water consumption.

So how do you scratch the itch to shop for new clothes and still have fun with fashion? Kelly Drennan says there are lots of ways to freshen up your wardrobe while limiting the environmental impact. 

Drennan, the founding executive director of the Canadian non-profit Fashion Takes Action, said that while stricter laws are needed to improve sustainability in the industry, personal responsibility matters, too. According to the 2019 McKinsey State of Fashion report, the average person buys 60 per cent more items of clothing than they did 15 years ago and keeps them for only half as long as they used to. 

“The average garment’s only worn seven times and usually it’s because it wasn’t made very well,” said Drennan.

It’s hard to resist the psychological urge that drives many of us to hit the malls in search of retail therapy, Drennan said. But she suggested the first step to breaking a clothes shopping habit is a closet audit. 

“The most sustainable wardrobe is the one we already have.” 

Since most people wear 20 per cent of their wardrobe 80 per cent of the time, she recommends you “shop your closet” and take stock of what you already have. 

“Put on a podcast or a playlist and just pull all the stuff out of your closet and count up how many pairs of jeans or sweatpants or hoodies or T-shirts you actually have,” she said. “Once you see it all there, it’s pretty shocking, actually.”

She advises taking care of clothing to cut down on the need to shop: wash clothes only when they’re really dirty, and learn to sew on a button and darn a hole. If you do need a new piece of clothing, Drennan suggests buying second-hand. 

“It can be really fun and then when you do find a treasure, it’s so rewarding.” 

Another fun approach, she said, is organizing clothing swaps with friends. For special events, like weddings or proms, Drennan suggests renting. 

“[Renting is] also really fun,” she said. “You can actually rent very expensive designer pieces, but at a fraction of the cost.” 

There’s another way to make not having new clothes fun, said Drennan: get creative with repurposing and upcycling. Dye that old shabby shirt a fresh new colour or turn old jeans into a tote bag. 

Swailes and her teammates at Hand In Hand took this route at a recent sustainable market they organized. They wanted their volunteers to advertise their non-profit but didn’t want to order a pile of brand new hoodies. 

“We challenged everyone to go and find whatever piece of clothing [they] wanted: a hoodie, a shirt,” she said. “We printed our logo on it, everybody found something and everything was different, which is kind of fun, too.” 

For Swailes, that distinctiveness is all part of the fun of a sustainable wardrobe. 

“One of the best parts about putting your style together second-hand is I feel like you can find your own style,” she said. “It’s much more unique and individual to you.” 

— Rachel Sanders


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Check out our podcast and radio show. This week: ‘Tis the season — well, ’tis always the season — to talk about climate. We’ve got tips on how to have a good conversation about our warming world around the holiday dinner table. What On Earth drops new podcast episodes every Wednesday and Saturday. You can find them on your favourite podcast app, or on demand at CBC Listen. The radio show airs Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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The Big Picture: The campaign to make a climate ballad the No. 1 song in Britain

A woman is seen crying while singing.
A screen shot from the video to Louise Harris’s climate-themed song We Tried. (LouiseHarrisMusic/YouTube)

Every year, people in Great Britain engage in the festive drama of the “Christmas No. 1” — the song that tops the U.K. singles chart the week of Christmas. The winner is often a straight-up pop tune (e.g. The Beatles’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You) or something seasonal (Band-Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?). But sometimes, music-lovers conspire to elevate more esoteric songs (such as Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name or the theme song from the children’s series Bob the Builder).

This year, a strong campaign has emerged around We Tried, a deeply affecting song by Louise Harris about the urgent need for climate action. Harris is no dilettante when it comes to this issue. In 2022, she climbed a gantry on a British highway to protest new oil and gas projects in the U.K. Earlier this year, the Just Stop Oil activist was arrested for playing We Tried outside Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s house. A plaintive piano ballad that builds to a dramatic chorus, We Tried has an accompanying video that features Harris staring into the camera, tears streaming down her face. (It’s impossible to watch it without some sort of emotional reaction.) 

We Tried has already gone to No. 1 on the U.K. iTunes singles chart, and the effort to make it this year’s Christmas No. 1 has won the support of British grandees like naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham and legendary producer Brian Eno. Harris’s competition this year? Songs by Wham!, the Pogues and Sam Ryder.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web


These are the ways rural Canadians are more vulnerable to climate change

A man looks at the remains of a home as wildfire haze hangs in the air.
Trevor Manzuik, who was evacuated from his home, views a property that was destroyed by the Lower East Adams Lake wildfire while using an all-terrain vehicle to check on his neighbours after returning home by boat, in Scotch Creek, B.C., on Sunday, August 20, 2023. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Rural Canadians are in many ways more vulnerable to climate change than urban dwellers and face extra challenges to adaptation, says a new federal government report.

Among the key conclusions in the Canada in a Changing Climate synthesis report released late last week is that climate change is harming Canadians’ health; the country’s aging infrastructure, from buildings to roads to the electrical grid, is at high risk from extreme weather; food and natural resource production is also vulnerable; and Canada isn’t doing enough to adapt.

The report compiled 10 key conclusions from half a dozen reports published since 2017.

While issues like urban heat islands and urban flooding have received a lot of media attention, the report found rural and remote communities experience “higher risks to health, safety and well-being from critical infrastructure decline or failure.”

It also noted that many rural, remote and Indigenous communities rely heavily on agriculture and natural resource industries, such as forestry. Those are “particularly sensitive to changes in climate, as they rely on favourable weather conditions and are vulnerable to extreme weather.”

Ashlee Cunsolo, a researcher at Memorial University in St. John’s who co-authored the report, said rural and remote communities actually have many lessons to offer other parts of Canada.

“Since rural and remote regions have been on the front lines for so long, there’s a tremendous amount of overall understanding of climate awareness that’s very different than other parts of the country,” said Cunsolo, who has been working with Inuit communities in northern Labrador and across the North for more than a decade.

She said people in rural areas start off with some disadvantages compared to urbanites. One is transportation, as remote communities often have limited road access. Some rely on seasonal ice roads that form over lakes only when temperatures are cold enough — something that happens less with global warming.

“If [the roads aren’t] forming and the shipping isn’t able to happen, then that’s a major disruption on people getting food and getting supplies,” Cunsolo said. Many of the communities she works in are fly-in communities that rely on planes not just for food and supplies but critical services like health care.

That isn’t just the case in the Far North. Dr. Kyle Merritt is a family physician who heads the emergency department at the Kootenay Lake Hospital in Nelson, B.C., a small community in the Selkirk Mountains that relies heavily on forestry and tourism. He said over time, many health services for his community have been centralized in the bigger urban centre of Kelowna, about a 350-km drive away. 

“As soon as there’s any kind of disruption, things really fall apart,” he said. “Having more services in our communities, I think, would increase resiliency.”

This year, wildfire smoke made headlines for its incursion into urban centres like Toronto and New York. But it’s been a recurring summer problem for many years in many rural communities like Nelson, which is surrounded by forests and mountains. 

“The smoke sometimes lasts for weeks and it’s dense and intense,” he said. He said it’s especially hard on patients with asthma or other respiratory conditions.

Both Cunsolo and Merritt said there are also impacts on mental health. While Nelson has not yet been evacuated because of wildfire, Merritt said the risk is on everyone’s mind.

Meanwhile, rural residents often have closer ties to the land.

“A lot of people would exercise outdoors or spend time in nature, and they just won’t do that when it’s smoky outside, because of risks to health,” Merritt said. 

Cunsolo said in the communities she works with, climate change has altered the surroundings to the point that it has affected people’s sense of place and cultural continuity.

The good news is that people in communities experiencing these effects are already finding solutions, Cunsolo said. There’s “innovation happening in rural and remote areas that really put them at the forefront of adaptation in Canada.”

That includes building up shorelines and sea walls and adapting buildings for changes in permafrost, she added. But it also includes improvements in telemedicine to make virtual medical appointments more interactive, and cultural learning and wellness programs for those who can’t get out on the land safely.

Fiona Warren, knowledge assessment manager with Natural Resources Canada, was lead author of the new report. She said that while rural communities tend to have fewer resources to adapt to climate change, “there’s often a higher degree of social cohesion. People really look out for their neighbours.”

She gave the example of a project in three Island Lake First Nations communities in Manitoba. It provided children with backpacks full of emergency supplies and trained members of the community in self-care and psychological first aid.

Warren said a key goal of the report is to share examples of what communities and people in different regions are doing to encourage adaptation in other parts of the country.

“I would like people to be inspired by the fact that there is a lot going on,” she said. “But at the same time … one of our key conclusions is that we’re not doing enough to close the adaptation gap, so there really is a need to do more.”

Emily Chung

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