Why is Extinction Rebellion so focused on fashion?


Several of these London-based climate activists come from the industry.

“We will engage in a boycott of the fashion industry,” proclaimed Extinction Rebellion activist Sara Arnold, protesting outside the Victoria Beckham show at London Fashion Week

She accused the industry of unethical production, trashing the environment and driving overconsumption. The solution? Cancel fashion week as a commercial concern and turn it into a forum for “convening change”. Stop the business-as-usual of making seasonal collections. Instead, “We will take joy in making do with what we collectively already have, and learn to share repair, re-wear and re-love,” she said. “We challenge ourselves to radically rethink our relationship with clothes.” 

Arnold and her fellow protestors used Beckham’s high-profile show at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office building in Whitehall to voice their concerns over the fashion industry’s global carbon footprint.

They wore old T-shirts overprinted with Extinction Rebellion (XR) graphics and jackets appliquéd with protest slogans. Their placards proclaimed, “No fashion on a dead planet,” “The ugly truth about fashion!” and, “Fashion = ecocide.”

Surely the last one is a bit much, though. Ecocide

“Well,” says Arnold, “it is a huge amount of carbon emissions that we’re talking about. It’s debatable how much, but we think about seven to 10 per cent… anyway, it’s more than the whole of maritime and shipping combined.” It is indeed, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s A New Textiles Economy report from 2017.

What’s more, Arnold points out, natural fibres have to be grown, using up valuable land and water in the process. Synthetic ones are worse – being derived from non-renewable fossil fuels. To add insult to injury, when we wash and wear garments made from polyester and nylon, they shed thousands of microfibres contributing to ocean plastic pollution. 

But there are other industries with negative environmental impacts. Why not target coal and gas, animal agriculture, plastics, or transport? Of course, protesting outside a transport conference can’t compete with fashion week for photo opps.

Image credit: Clare Press

Image credit: Clare Press

But there is perhaps another reason that XR has fashion in its sights – it’s personal. Several of the movement’s key figures come from the industry.

Arnold studied fashion at St Martins and used to work at Dover St Market. Later, she launched a designer fashion rental website called Higher Studio. One of XR’s co-founders Clare Farrell is an ex-fashion designer, who has shown at London Fashion Week herself as part of the (now defunct) Estethica sustainable fashion hub. 

These days, Farrell would prefer to shut the whole thing down. “It would be great if we could all carry on, and people could make sustainable collections and be listened to, and the industry would change and what would actually result in something meaningful,” she tells me. “But it’s just not a great time to be in the process of production right now.” 

An XR sub campaign, Boycott Fashion, is led by several London fashion world fixtures, including Bel Jacobs, a former newspaper fashion editor, and stylist Alice Wilby, who used to work for Eco-age and has been involved with Fashion Revolution. Safia Minney, the ethical fashion pioneer behind People Tree, is also involved. 

On the last day of London Fashion Week, they organised a “funeral” for the event. Minney – clad in a black lace widow’s veil – addressed crowds outside an H&M store, suggesting the time for sustainability fixes was over. “We’ve asked citizens: please, buy ethical; buy fair trade, it has not worked,” she said. “We need to slow down the fashion system.” 

While XR’s official calls for the British Fashion Council to cancel fashion week fell on deaf ears, Arnold says the did engage in talks, and that they are keen to negotiate. “I’m not saying fashion’s over, quite the opposite. Fashion’s got a role to play within this but we need to reconnect with what fashion actually is and that’s a mode of communication.” 

A recent story in the New York Times claimed, “There is some dispute even inside XR about whether it is better to work with the fashion industry or against it.” Certainly, the group’s tactics can appear confusing – the mix of theatrical protests (funerals!), full-on civil disobedience (swarming shows, closing roads, daubing public buildings and pavements in fake blood – it’s beetroot, by the way) then the whole sitting down and talking thing. Yet this is the stuff of a grass roots, leaderless movement. Not everyone agrees, and that says Arnold, is absolutely fine.

Extinction Rebellion began in the UK a year ago with this agenda: to pressure governments to declare climate emergency, act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025, and set up “citizens’ assemblies” on climate change. 

In April, more than 1000 activists were arrested during XR protests in the UK. Now they’re aiming for another big push. This week has been dubbed the Worldwide Rebellion.

Until recently, the noise had been more subdued in Australia. But on Monday, protestors blocked City Road in Sydney’s Ultimo with several getting arrested, while in Melbourne an estimated 100 protestors targeted the Energy Australia offices on Bourke Street. As I write this, one XR activist is currently suspended off Brisbane’s Story Bridge. Is it really spreading? Or does it remain just a few privileged white people who can afford to court arrest making a lot of noise on social media?

Another XR co-founder Roger Hallam writes in This Is Not a Drill, the new “Extinction Rebellion Handbook” (published by Penguin): “First, you need the numbers. Not millions, but not a few dozen people either. You need several thousand. Ideally 50,000.”

Asked about the numbers, Will Skeaping (co-author of the book) tells me: “It doesn’t mean everyone out on the streets. It certainly doesn’t mean everyone getting arrested, and going to prison. It just means a big groundswell of activity and affirmative, positive attitudes towards what we’re doing… what we’re trying to do, unlike previous movements, is not just make small differences to society, we’re trying to shift the paradigm completely.”

He said targeting fashion makes sense, but now he’s got the advertising industry in his sights. Skeaping is an ex ad man himself – he used to work for the McCann London agency.

Episode 97 of the podcast Wardrobe Crisis with Clare Press features Extinction Rebellion. Listen here.