Climate Crisis Makes for Real Fashion Emergency

May 1, 2024
Voices of Environmental Justice banner
Environmental reporting must capture the lived realities of workers making our clothes, columnist Yessenia Funes argues. Above, a garment worker at a clothing plant in Nicaragua. Photo: International Labor Organization, Marcel Crozet, via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED).

Voices of Environmental Justice: Climate Crisis Makes for Real Fashion Emergency

By Yessenia Funes

Over 13 years ago, journalist Elizabeth L. Cline worked undercover in Bangladesh to see for herself the conditions garment workers were experiencing. A year later in 2012, she published her book, “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion,” which exposed in painful detail the realities this vulnerable workforce faced.

Today, over 10 years later, the issues remain — except there’s also climate change. Cline remains dedicated to connecting the dots between fashion, sustainability and human rights. These days, she’s working to ensure other journalists do, too. The industry finally appears ready to get the story right.

“There’s been a dramatic increase in the number of people and staff and resources that are going toward this topic,” said Cline, who is now a lecturer of fashion policy at Columbia University. “Now, sustainability is really front and center in a lot of fashion publications like Vogue Business, Teen Vogue, Fashionista.”

And I agree. Climate and environmental publications are also recognizing the value of these stories. I used to serve as the climate director and am currently editor-at-large for Atmos, where fashion was a pillar of its founding back in 2019. Atmos, however, isn’t a fashion magazine like Vogue; it’s a climate outlet where fashion is a beat and a focus area.


Beyond talking points to lived realities

With the creation of outlets like Atmos and a growing body of resources on the intersection of fashion and environment, there has perhaps never been a better time to explore the issue. But journalists must ensure that these stories go beyond industry talking points.


We have a duty to shed light

on the environmental and climate

challenges workers face day to day.


The reporting must capture the lived realities of workers making our clothes and shoes. We have a duty to shed light on the environmental and climate challenges they face day to day.

If journalists are going to report on how a company has cut its emissions, we should also report on whether that company has offered workers wage increases or improved working conditions to survive the growing impacts of a hotter world. These are climate solutions, too.

Stories exist across the supply chain. Many clothes begin on a farm to produce fabrics before they make their way into a factory where they’re sewn and dyed. Communities and their stories exist across that spectrum of creation.

Textiles are woven from organic material that becomes the fabric. There’s wool, which comes from sheep. Linen derives from the flax plant. Cotton is among the most notorious of all. It’s a plant and textile dripping in a violent history that we in the U.S. know well — yet its present story of hardship and ingenuity remains underreported.

In February, Cline participated in an effort to publish Cotton at the Source, a storytelling initiative in partnership with environmental groups Cotton Diaries and A Growing Culture. The project includes a toolkit and case studies to help journalists better cover the agriculture industry that feeds fashion, an industry that largely exists in the Global South, where a history of exploitation and colonialism has left workers with few protections and economic opportunities.

“Journalists play an incredibly important role in society where they are documenting reality and also shaping reality at the same time,” Cline said. “The public and the industry and our government rely on journalists to tell them what is going on.”


Avoiding simplified, sensationalized narratives

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a few cotton farmers during a reporting trip to Brazil last year. I saw the crop growing alongside banana and acai trees. Every grower I spoke to was trying to integrate agroecology onto their farms, where they skip pesticides and harmful fertilizers and, instead, rely on seasonality and natural harmony between plants to keep the soil healthy and ward off pests.

They were trying, but the work wasn’t easy. Their process involved a lot of experimentation, and sometimes, they reverted back to pesticides or monocultures because the alternative was too expensive.

The story I told, however, wasn’t about their failures. It was about their expertise as folks who have worked the land for generations. It was about their health, which was being affected by chemical use on farms.

The truth is rarely black and white. It’s usually complex. It’s our job as journalists to unpack the reality, no matter how messy it is.


‘A lot of what we read about fashion

is very siloed and simplified or

sensationalized narratives.’

                                — Marzia Lanfranchi,

                                          Cotton Diaries


“A lot of what we read about fashion is very siloed and simplified or sensationalized narratives that often focus on brands and center Western perspectives,” said Marzia Lanfranchi, co-founder and content director of Cotton Diaries. “But what about the common people doing the hard work? The ones who are actually getting their hands dirty?”


Assessing climate impacts on garment workers

These stories don’t exist only on cotton farms. You can also find them in apparel factories where clothes are being pieced together stitch by stitch.

Secondhand clothes in a Tanzanian marketplace. Photo: ILO, Marcel Crozet, via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED).

Last year, the ILR Global Labor Institute at Cornell University published a report on the ways flooding and extreme heat made worse by climate change will affect garment workers across the Global South. The findings underscored a major loss of productivity as storms and heat waves hit countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan and Vietnam.

The authors also shed light on the health and income ramifications for workers themselves — and the responsibility of fashion brands. These stories are long overdue.

“There’s a lot of catching up,” said Jason Judd, a co-author of the report and executive director of the institute. “If you read our two reports, there are 30 questions in there. Each of those could be an investigation or story.”

These workers are urgently experiencing the impacts of extreme weather now, despite contributing little to climate change itself. Meanwhile, their governments are left with the challenge of developing infrastructure and safety nets for their constituents to withstand the climate crisis. Most can’t even afford to meet their people's basic needs, like access to food and clean water. How will they invest in climate resiliency?

The workers Judd interviews for his research bring this conundrum up often, he said. Their perspectives are sorely needed in coverage of loss and damage, the U.N. plan for wealthy polluting nations to offer financial assistance to low-income nations that have emitted minimal (if any) amounts of greenhouse gases.

He’s happy to work directly with journalists who want to connect with on-the-ground voices or who need guidance parsing through his center’s data. Media exert pressure on the private and public sectors to make change. Without that coverage, business as usual will continue — and so will the suffering of workers.


Reporting remotely, plus resources and sources

Reporters don’t need to travel and meet with folks in person, either. It’s always ideal, of course, but we don’t all have the budgets to get to India or Indonesia to meet farmers or garment workers directly.

I conduct most of my reporting remotely. In these situations, it’s critical to work closely with groups like the Global Labor Institute or A Growing Culture, which can connect sources to reporters and provide critical context from their own time on the ground.


The fashion and sustainability story is

no longer about plastic-free runways

or creative designers. It’s about

the people whose sweat goes

into assembling our clothes.


The fashion and sustainability story is no longer about plastic-free runways or creative designers. It’s about the people whose sweat goes into assembling our clothes. It’s about the corporations that exploit them and the governments that ignore them. We need more of these stories — urgently.

If you’re unsure how to get started on this beat, here are a few tips, resources and source suggestions:

  • Cotton at the Source Media Toolkit: You can find story ideas and case studies here. The authors also offer some important do’s and don’ts to ensure you’re approaching communities and the topic sensitively and thoughtfully.
  • Higher Ground: Fashion's Climate Breakdown and Its Effect for Workers”: The in-depth, two-part report offers a wealth of data to either complement stories teams are already working on or to help serve as the foundation for new stories. The report authors are also glad for journalists to repurpose the document’s visuals and graphics in ways the public can better appreciate.
  • Remake: This nonprofit organization (for which I did some research and writing last year) has been leading the charge of holding the fashion sector accountable. They publish a report in which brands receive a score for meeting their sustainability promises. The report is a great resource, and the staff serve as excellent sources to interview.

Yessenia Funes is an environmental journalist who has covered the justice beat for nearly a decade. She publishes a creative climate newsletter called Possibilities. Funes has written for publications like Atmos, Vogue, The Guardian, Earther, HuffPost and more. Her approach to storytelling amplifies the voices of those on the frontline of our present-day ecological crises. Her reporting has taken her to remote Indigenous communities in Nicaragua, the hostile desert of the American Southwest and post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 18. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

SEJ Publication Types: