On Tuesday 17 September, a crowd gathered beneath the Sir Henry Havelock statue in Trafalgar Square. The statue is inscribed with a quotation from the British general addressing those who went to war for their country: “Soldiers! Your labours, your privations, your sufferings and your valour will not be forgotten by a grateful country.” It’s a potent message, and an appropriate one under which to begin a march against what many are calling this generation’s war: the climate crisis.
The protest was organised by Extinction Rebellion, a grassroots environmentalist group that has mobilised the public like no other in recent history. Known as XR, the group campaigns against governments and organisations whose inaction is resulting in the destruction of rainforests and coral reefs, and the deaths of animals and humans. The fashion industry was always going to be high on its agenda.
Throughout history, fashion has been used as a platform for protest, from the suffragettes’ colour-coded outfits to Richard Malone’s F*** Boris T-shirt, which he wore on the catwalk at the end of his London Fashion Week show. But protests against the fashion industry have only recently evolved beyond the cliché illustrated in a scene from Sex and the City, in which animal rights activists scream “Fur is murder!” at Samantha and throw fake blood over her white fur coat. During September’s LFW, several peaceful protests dominated headlines, taking up space where the trends used to be. Love Disfigure championed body positivity; the inaugural Trans+ Pride called for liberation and inclusivity; PETA campaigned against the use of leather. In February, Vivienne Westwood used her own AW19 show to protest about climate change, and Stella McCartney cast models from XR.
On the first day of September’s LFW, XR campaigners turned heads themselves, gluing themselves to entrances and staging a red-carpet ‘die-in’ that symbolised the blood on the hands of the fashion industry. Some wielded signs that read ‘Fashion = Ecocide’. A core group, including Higher Studio’s Sara Arnold, former Metro fashion editor Bel Jacobs and People Tree founder Safia Minney MBE, made impassioned speeches, marched along The Strand and swarmed the streets, ending the week with a dramatic funeral procession complete with two coffins. XR called on the British Fashion Council to cancel future fashion weeks.
The fashion industry is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to environmental destruction, and it’s largely thanks to XR that consumers are increasingly familiar with the statistics. In 2018, the UN reported that 85 per cent of textiles end up in landfill or incineration, the industry consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industry combined, and produces 20 per cent of global wastewater.
“We cannot continue business as usual,” said Minney after the funeral, at which she spoke. “Businesses themselves need to be a tool for change, because being an ethical consumer is not enough – this level of consumption has to stop. We are finding ourselves at this cultural edge and we can change, but it’s happening far too slowly.” Arnold, one of the driving forces behind splinter group XR Boycott Fashion, agreed. “Fashion is a fundamental part of our culture, but the fashion industry is not. It prioritises profit over people, and XR is demanding that this changes.” Arnold drives change in her work, too, running rental fashion business Higher Studio.
Among LFW attendees, there was a general sense of admiration for XR’s mission. But there was also a disconnect, with many ready to point the finger of blame towards the high street but not accept responsibility within the luxury sector. Gucci and Burberry retroactively took steps to make their London shows carbon neutral, but is it enough? “Carbon offsetting isn’t a long-term solution,” says Minney. “Luxury brands have a moral obligation to show leadership in this area.”
Aside from championing second-hand, rental and vintage fashion in order to stem the bloody flow of new clothes, Extinction Rebellion doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but it is asking the right questions. Its volume is increasing in both noise and numbers, and soon the industry will have no choice but to respond. Like Havelock’s soldiers, XR’s labours won’t be forgotten – they will be remembered not just by a grateful country, but by an indebted planet.