Right after Hurricane Sandy, I got a query from the Huffington Post about the relationship between climate change and fashion. It was exactly the same kind of query that got me started on this blog eons ago. Here is the article, which I think is pretty well-done and represents my answers very well. As always, the comments are worth a read.
Here is the longer email reply I sent the writer:
These are really complex questions, considering that "textiles" include materials ranging from agricultural products to petroleum products to recycled materials, and their production and transformation into clothing takes place all over the world. Fibers such as cotton and linen require land, water and a hospitable climate to grow. Similarly, wool and other animal fibers depend on the same resources as meat production. The man-made fibers, ranging from petroleum-based materials such as polyester and acrylic to regenerated cellulose and protein materials (rayon, lyocell, PLA) each have their own production processes and requirements. If you expand the sustainability question to include not only climate change but other environmental factors, such as pollution, the issue gets even stickier.
The short answer is that climate change will impact plant fibers in the same way as the food supply. It isn't just a matter of higher temperatures; the real impact is in the higher likelihood of drought and catastrophic, crop-destroying weather. We may also see greater threats from pests and plant diseases. For petroleum-based fibers, the availability and cost of crude oil is an obvious factor. Recycled and regenerated fibers show promise, but not all are truly sustainable. For example, both lyocell and rayon are regenerated cellulose fibers, but the rayon process is much dirtier -- and that includes rayon made from bamboo, which is often promoted as sustainable because of the way the plant is grown.
I doubt that we can attribute specific styles such as cropped pants to climate change, though consumers may be more interested in clothing strategies that help them cope with "unseasonal" weather -- summer weight but springlike clothing for 80-degree days in March, for example. These strategies may include layered clothing or zip-out linings, zip-off sleeves, colors and fabrics that can span seasons. In a weak economy, I can't see consumers expanding their wardrobes. Retailers and manufacturers may be feeling this uncertainly more than consumers; when summer temperatures extend into October, it throws the traditional seasonal retail calendar out of whack.
As for "whether natural vs. synthetic textiles are better for our changing climate", I am assuming you are asking about sustainability, not comfort. The uncomfortable truth is that overconsumption is a major factor in climate change. We buy much more clothing today than we did a generation ago, and too much of it is "fast", disposable fashion. If we define "sustainable fashion" as made of particular fibers but still ready for Goodwill in a few months, we are deluding ourselves.
Rather than predict the future, I'd like to offer my own personal wish list for sustainable fashion.
- 80% of my wardrobe would consist of basics (underwear, socks, classic skirts, jeans, plain tops) that would form the backdrop and foundation for the 20% of my wardrobe devoted to really special pieces (accessories and festive clothing)
- the 80% basic wardrobe would be made by fairly paid workers, using environmentally sound materials and methods
- the 20% "special" wardrobe would artisan-made, either by me (in my ample free time) or a fairly-paid craftsperson.
- a robust textile products recycling system, including refashioning, second-hand clothing and raw material recycling similar to existing paper, metal and plastic systems.
- expansion of clothing rental programs for women -- wedding dresses, formals, high-end maternity wear.
- better labeling so consumers could easily identify green, ethical and fair trade products.