Climate change was all the talk for Fall 2019, but how do we make the jump from runway to reality?

Fashion took a trip into the future this season, and for once, it wasn’t just a fantasy but a warning. As part of New York Fashion Week, Milk Studios Gallery held a launch event for “Unfortunately, Ready to Wear,” a prototype clothing collection comprised of fireproof jackets, air pollutant bandanas, and storm warning headphones. Engendered as a collaborative project between Milk Studios, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and 21-year-old influencer Luka Sabbat, the collection, with its “future-facing” clothing, is a call to action against climate change.

It only makes sense that on the night of the release, Milk Studios was hot. Uncomfortably so. The temperature was a projection into a tangible future where climate change makes life unlivable. “Climate change is real,” said Sabbat to the people gathered for his opening. “I made it uncomfortably hot in this room for you to know that there’s people that go through this every day, and they don’t have a choice.”

The rhetoric behind “Unfortunately, Ready to Wear” is that those of us who do have a choice should make the right one. According to Sabbat, doing so entails using our social media platforms to promote changes we care about. It involves taking the Natural Resources Defense Council’s [NRDC] pledge to “commit to personal climate action in 2019.” The pledge, which can be found on the collection’s website, asks its users to partake in one or more actions, ranging from lifestyle choices like cutting down on plastic to the smaller gesture of actively engaging family and friends in conversation about climate change.

This collection comes about in a season more preoccupied with environmentalism than ever before. Hillary Taymour, the New York-based designer and founder of Collina Strada, named her Fall 2019 collection “Low Carbon Diet.” Against the booming voice of teen activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, models took the runway with reusable bottles and food-filled glass containers in hand. This condemnation of single-use plastic was complemented by show notes advocating recycling.

The message continued with Chromat’s new collection, titled “Climatic.” The collection, based on Miami, a city directly threatened by rising waters, comes from designer Becca McCharen-Tran’s desire to spread awareness about climate change. In her show notes, McCharen-Tran wrote, “As I’ve been living in Miami longer, I’ve become more interested in climate change and global warming and how we (as a part of the fashion industry) are contributing to environmental devastation.” In line with that, each member of the audience received a booklet full of Chromat images alongside facts about overconsumption and environmentalism.

If this season’s runway is any indication of what’s coming in style, it seems that “personal climate action,” as it’s dubbed by the NRDC, is turning into a trend. This isn’t surprising, considering that over the past few years, politics have been inherently trendy. It was the year of #MeToo when Tom Ford models walked with “Pussy Power” purses. The year before, Demna Gvasalia stamped Bernie Sanders-inspired logos over Balenciaga’s runway. Amidst President Trump’s unwillingness to act on alarming reports about climate change and the public’s increasing distress, influencers like Sabbat are manifesting public concern about the planet.

It all comes back to demand. Take Chromat as an example. According to McCharen-Tran, the company relies on deadstock fabrics, works with factories that have been vetted for fair labor practices, and uses sustainable Lycra from used fishing nets for the production of its swimwear. But, despite the fact that Chromat has been fairly sustainable for the past five years, environmentalism hadn’t been part of their brand until this season. “I’ve never really talked about our own sustainability because we had so many things to deconstruct and I kinda thought our customer didn’t care,” said McCharen-Tran. It seems that now that as customers explicitly care about the planet, designers do too.

“Amidst President Trump’s unwillingness to act on alarming reports about climate change and the public’s increasing distress, influencers like Sabbat are manifesting public concern about the planet.”

According to United Nations statistics, the fashion industry alone emits more greenhouse gas than that produced by both international flights and maritime shipping journeys. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation asserts that $500 billion are lost in clothing underutilization and waste costs every year, and it’s calculated that about a whole garbage truck’s worth of clothing is sent to a landfill every second of every day. That statistic alone proves that it is better for brands to address social and environmental issues than it is for them to ignore their existence completely. But there’s something jarring about designers handing out recycling tips instead of addressing their own roles in environmental issues.

Within all of this talk of “personal climate action” at New York Fashion Week, there has been little to no mention of corporate and collective climate responsibility. Framing this narrative around individual choices feels like an overused capitalist argument, if not just a deflection of corporate blame. If Sabbat’s prototype collection shows us anything, it’s the phenomenon by which political issues can be exploited for the sake of a spectacle, on the runway and in industry at large. This romanticized narrative might make us think, but it’s capacity to make a significant impact is dubious in the least.

At London Fashion Week, a more aggressive conversation took place. During Vivienne Westwood’s Homo Loquax show, models walked wearing merchandise brandishing anti-consumerist slogans like “All profit belongs to me, so long as you keep buying crap.” Stopping mid-catwalk, many of them spoke into a microphone to address the threats of consumerism, Brexit, and climate change. Meanwhile, people piled outside of London’s fashion week venues holding signs that read “Climate change = mass murder” and “Ethical is always on trend,” as part of a protest organized by the international environmentalist group, Extinction Rebellion.

The attack on politicians and corporations that took place during London Fashion Week tackled the issue of climate change from the opposite perspective than that employed in New York. On its own, this approach to environmental resolution is a no more holistic, no less performative tactic than the latter. After all, in both fashion weeks, the narrative surrounding global warming felt more a spectacle than it did a conversation. It is then ironic to consider that in Paris (the city that recently announced its aim to be the most sustainable fashion capital of the world by 2024), there were no environmentally inclined theatrics at all, save from a single Marine Serre collection crafted from bed sheets and scarves.

“This romanticized narrative might make us think, but it’s capacity to make a significant impact is dubious in the least.”

What this incongruence tells us is that in both loud and subtle forms, the climate change conversation is now embedded into the fabric of global fashion. We’re at a tipping point, and if Paris’s approach to sustainability vouches for anything, it is that there is a way to go about change without screaming revolution.

Though the media systematically underreports it in favor of clickbait and of-the-moment breaking news, positive change is happening in long-term, tangible ways. Last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland, included the launch of a fashion industry charter for climate action. Within the list of 40 signatories, Stella McCartney, Adidas, Burberry, and the H&M group were only a few of the big names who vowed to make their companies more climate-friendly. The charter includes 16 targets, of which reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030 and low-carbon transportation suppliers are goals. While environmentalist protests often make headlines, the climate change charter has yet to make waves.  

To talk about recycling, to watch fashion shows that advocate for a more environmentally-conscious tomorrow, to stand out and protest fast fashion, are all more accessible ways to participate in a better tomorrow than that of simply sitting around and watching industry titans make decisions for us. But the thing about the climate change conversation is that it is ultimately that—a conversation—not a monologue. In moving forward towards a better tomorrow, it might serve us and Sabbat well to remember that productive dialogue isn’t necessarily about how loud or cool our own voices are. Amidst drama, emotions, and uncertainty, it’s about not losing sight of what we want to take away from it. The evidence is clear: if consumers continue to demand clothing produced in environmentally-conscious ways, fashion will most certainly listen.