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What's A Climate Shadow?

Clothing takes a toll on the global climate and environment. Ever wondered how your climate action work impacts your community compared to your carbon footprint?

roadside trash, sheep, coastline
A visual critique of overconsumption.

Today’s clothing industry takes a toll on the global climate and environment. In fact, estimates suggest that 8-10% of the global carbon emissions are generated by the birth to death lifecycle of clothing. This number also ignores the environmental impact of the industry. With this high environmental toll, do you ever wonder if changing your individual shopping and cleaning habits around clothing is enough to move the dial? If so, you aren’t alone.

Trying to calculate the carbon footprint of your clothing is difficult at best, supply chains are too convoluted to easily track, and garment tags, if legible, do not tell the whole story. But, does it really matter? We are more than a calculation. Are we calculating ourselves away from the real work that needs to be done to combat the climate crisis?

Emma Pattee thinks so and she wants to replace the traditional numerical carbon footprint with your Climate Shadow. The #ClimateShadow, as defined in her MIC article incorporates all we do in the name of healing the planet and balances it with our carbon footprint if you choose to calculate it. And, you may be surprised that she thinks we should be lessening the importance of the individual carbon footprint in favor of climate action in our communities.

Why? Because individual independent actions need to be promoted to have a large impact. Coordinated actions and promotion help. We should focus on raising issues with our local community and beyond, join groups that advocate for the climate and look at where we work and how we can impact our employer’s climate practices. Only as groups, we can create sufficient impact to change the trajectory of the planet’s future.

"If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself" Henry Ford
shadow of limbs from a tree.
Nature's shadow, what is your climate shadow?

Individual Example:

Take for example someone who has solar panels on their home and drives an electric car. If they don’t advocate for cleaner energy across the board - what is their impact? It is wonderful that they are making individual changes. But both of these items on average still leave a US resident with a carbon footprint of about 7 tons CO2/yr. Scientists are saying that we should reduce to about 2 tons CO2/yr to reduce the effects of climate change. These actions are a great start for those who can afford it since the average American produces 16 tons CO2/yr, but insufficient to tackle the large systematic issue we face. And, for many who cannot afford to make those investments or live in areas where infrastructure is lacking to support it, these actions are impossible to do alone.

So, tackling the systems in place in the fashion industry tackles large CO2 emissions and pollution across the globe. The carbon shadow is a wake-up call for everyone to speak their truths and advocate for what they believe in. And, this counts in moving us to a cleaner future as much or more than eating a plant-based diet or walking to work.

Ms. Pattee doesn’t say those individual actions aren’t valuable, just that they aren’t enough. And, she has an idea about why individual rather than corporate action is being advanced.

"When BP co-opted the concept of the carbon footprint and tied it to small, "feel-good" activities like shortening your showers or hanging your clothing to dry, they crucially shifted the narrative from corporate accountability to personal responsiblity." Emma Pattee

We need to shift the focus back to corporations, and one industry that needs more focus is the clothing industry.

To combat the clothing industry’s planetary impact we need to

  • Shorten supply chains

  • Create clothing closer to home from crop to shop

  • Lessen the dependence on synthetic fabrics made from oil.

This means pushing makers to go to sustainable solutions but also creating less clothing overall.

This is the hard part even though creating sustainable clothing can be challenging to make in larger volumes - making fewer garments means either

  • Contracting business models and decreasing profits


  • creating an entirely new paradigm around clothing.

This won’t happen until sustained pressure is put upon the industry.

How can you help reduce the clothing industry's footprint?

  • I could say - shop natural locally sourced sustainable clothing. And, that’s true - but there is more to the story since this again is individual action.

  • Support and promote groups educating consumers about the clothing industry.

    • Slow Fashion Movement - global - website and very active on Instagram.

      • Become a global ambassador for the Slow Fashion Movement.

    • Start community education and action group in your town/city.

      • Hold Clothing swaps, Mending groups, or Upcycle notions trade.

  • Write Letters to the Editor to local newspaper sharing insights on natural fibers, local clothing production, and how to reuse clothing you already have.

  • Support and promot clothing labels that support your values. Two examples

  • Support local fiber production to enrich local clothing available and promote these resources through social media.

  • Set up shop to produce local fiber clothing.

  • Help promote the reduction in the washing/drying/ironing of clothing - 1/2 of clothing’s CO2 footprint is in its care after purchase. Wool is naturally antimicrobial and doesn't require washing after each wearing.

Look at the list above and ask - do any of these actions appeal to me? If they do - please act and grow your local community around sustainable natural fibers. You will be doing so much more advocating for changes in clothing purchasing than simply creating your own sustainable capsule wardrobe (which is a great individual idea but won't get us where we need to be!)


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