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Can Fast Fashion Be Sustainable?

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Independent environmental certifications offer a better indicator of a product's eco credentials, including labor conditions for workers involved in production. Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Jeanette Cwienk

This summer's high street fashions have more in common than styles and colors. From the pink puff-sleeved dream going for just €19.99 ($22.52) at H&M, to Zara's elegant €12.95 ($14.63) halter-neck dress, clothing stores are alive with cheap organic cotton.

"Sustainable" collections with aspirational own-brand names like C&A's "Wear the change," Zara's "join life" or H&M's "CONSCIOUS" are offering cheap fashion and a clean environmental conscience. Such, at least, is the message. But is it really that simple?


Going Green, or Just Greenwashing?

"Fashion brands are capitalizing on the fact that consumers are interested in buying fairly and ecologically produced items," said Katrin Wenz, an expert in agriculture at Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND). "Organic cotton is certainly a step in the right direction, because neither genetic modification nor synthetic pesticides can be used in its production. But these own-brand sustainability labels rarely tell us anything about what happens later on in the production chain."

Viola Wohlgemuth, a textiles expert at Greenpeace, says companies create their sustainability labels and criteria themselves. "Sustainability is not a protected or specific term, which leaves the door wide open for so-called greenwashing," she told DW.

Independent Certifications Trustworthier

Both experts emphasize that independent environmental certifications offer a better indicator of a product's eco credentials, including labor conditions for workers involved in production. Examples include the Global Organic Textile Standard label (GOTS) and the IVN Best certification, which is awarded by the International Association of Natural Textile Industry (IVN).

Heike Hess, head of IVN's Berlin branch, says using organic cotton alone "is not enough to make fashion really sustainable," and that producing clothes involves a more involved production chain. After being grown in the fields, cotton fibers have to be separated from their seeds, spun, dyed, printed and sewn to create finished items of clothing.

"Ecological and social standards are important at every stage of production," Hess said. "That includes minimizing the use of harmful chemicals, managing water usage and waste, limiting CO2 emissions and ensuring human rights, fair wages, protections for workers and much more. Only then can fashion really be called sustainable."

And that comes at a price. Organic cotton summer dresses certified with the GOTS label usually cost somewhere between €60-100 (about $67-113).

Water Polluted and Wasted

Textile production often uses harmful chemicals, especially during the wet processing stage when threads are formed, dyed and woven, says Wohlgemuth. According to the UN Environment Program, around 20% of global wastewater is generated during textile dyeing and processing. Communities and ecosystems in textile producing countries across Asia are worst affected.

Since launching its 'Detox My Fashion' campaign in 2011, Greenpeace has secured commitments from some 80 global companies in the fashion industry to eliminate hazardous chemicals by the end of this year.

But that alone doesn't imply sustainability. Growing cotton also requires a huge amount of water and vast areas of land, says Sabine Ferenschild from the Südwind Institute for Economics and Ecumenism in Bonn.

"Organic cotton is only sustainable when grown in rainy regions such as India, and planted in combination with food crops rather than in competition with them," she said. "But we have seen that cotton farming is increasingly being shifted to desert regions. That can never be sustainable."

Eco Collections Remain a Market Niche

Ferenschild is critical of major fashion brands' attempts to go green with their own criteria and labeling for certain products, while the majority of what they're selling is still produced conventionally.

Germany is pursuing a new approach to green certification with its government-backed 'Green Button' label. A company can only use the label if all its products comply with high environmental and labor standards. These standards are not as strict as those demanded by organic certifiers, but experts say the 'Green Button' label is a step in the right direction, as it prevents producers offloading responsibility to subcontractors in the production chain.

An 'Eco' Dress for €20 ($22.60): Too Good to Be True?

According to the Bremen Cotton Exchange, organic cotton costs between 10 and 50% more than conventional cotton. Premium fibers boost prices the most; the raw material is not necessarily the most important factor in terms of cost.

Global fashion brands like H&M are able to keep their prices down, even for the products in their "sustainable" ranges, due to the huge volume of items they produce, textiles expert Ferenschild told DW.

H&M uses its own "CONSCIOUS" label for products which contain "at least 50 percent sustainable materials, such as organic cotton and recycled polyester." It is not clear to consumers what percentage of organic cotton is used in the items labeled as such. In response to DW's request for clarification, H&M wrote: "Across our entire range, H&M uses 16 percent organic cotton according to our most recent figures."

According to the Bremen Cotton Exchange, just 0.7 percent of the global cotton harvest in the 2017/18 season was organic.

The Real Problem Is One of Quantity

Even if the big fashion brands wanted to move further towards truly sustainable production, current consumption habits would make that almost impossible. The real problem is that far too many clothes are being produced. According to a 2015 Greenpeace study, there are more than five billion items of clothing in German wardrobes alone.

"A party top is worn on average just 1.7 times," said Viola Wohlgemuth. "Fast fashion is the SUV of the fashion industry. It will never be sustainable. The fashion industry needs to shift away from production and towards service provision."

There are already some examples of this: outdoor brands offering to repair products, jeans companies selling second-hand items alongside new, sustainably produced pairs. Even fast-fashion giant H&M's website now has tips on how to care for and repair for clothes.

But to be successful, this shift would need consumers to get on board. And that, says Katrin Wenz from Friends of the Earth Germany would mean "buying fewer and longer-lasting items, repairing damaged clothing, passing on clothes you no longer wear and choosing to buy second hand."

Perhaps then, sustainability in fashion could be more than just another trend.

Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.

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By Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

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An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."