Climate Hero Q&A: Elizabeth Cline

Elizabeth Cline

In World War Zero's new Climate Hero Q&A series, our team goes one-on-one with some of the most influential voices of the climate movement.

Elizabeth Cline is one of the world's leading go-to experts on fast fashion, labor rights, and sustainability in the apparel industry. She is a writer, regularly interviewed on television and radio by globally recognized news outlets, and is the author of two books: The Conscious Closet and the acclaimed expose Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. The latter revealed the impacts of fast fashion on the environment, economy, and society. It is regarded as a founding book of the modern global ethical and sustainable fashion movement.


WW0: Tell us about yourself and what you do outside the sphere of climate change?

EC: I'm an expert in the global apparel industry, particularly looking at labor rights and environmental challenges in apparel supply chains, most of which are located in Asia and other emerging economies and are heavily dependent on women of color.

MSNBC: Elizabeth Cline on Jansing & Co., May 13, 2013.

WW0: As a global village, what’s our biggest opportunity to reverse climate change?

EC: We have to listen to and empower the grassroots organizations and local communities that already live a low-carbon lifestyle.

WW0: What are some tips you would give to consumers for becoming more sustainable?

EC: Maintaining and caring for what we already own is key to regenerating ourselves and the planet -- it is probably the most important tool we have for living more sustainable and fulfilling lives. If you need something, buy it. But if you have all that you need, resist the siren call of newness and more just for the sake of more.

Jamieson & Smith: Alex James - Slowing Down Fast Fashion, September 27, 2020.

WW0: What aspect of climate change do you think isn’t talked about enough?

EC: Fashion's connection to climate change isn't talked about enough. I would also say, in general, over-consumption in high-income countries isn't talked about enough. It takes energy, and currently fossil fuels, to make consumer products. And it's actually very difficult to decarbonize certain consumer products, including fashion, because of the heat required to make textiles. So, as many more people move into the middle globally, how can we move high-income consumers away from disposable consumption? And more importantly, how can we incentivize consumer goods companies to move away from the disposable business model? Unfortunately, this is a big ask as the world has become exponentially more disposable in recent years, with everything from clothing to home goods, electronics, and furniture -- it's become more single-use than ever. This is where innovative policy has to come in. Companies won't make these shifts voluntary, as there's too much risk and investment needed for innovation.

Netflix: Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj - The Ugly Truth Of Fast Fashion, November 25, 2019.

We also don't talk enough about economic justice in transitioning to a low-carbon society. In fashion, for example, most of the carbon impact of clothing happens in factories that make yarns and textiles and on farms that grow fibers, many of which are in emerging nations. If we want to decarbonize fashion, major brands and high-income nations like the US have an obligation to help fund the transition along the entire supply chain and not just in their own backyard.

WWO: Are you working on a specific project that you’d like the world to know about?

EC: Yes, I’m an organizer for PayUp Fashion, which is a global coalition working to end starvation wages in fashion and increase brand accountability for the women who make our clothes. We have a roadmap for change called the 7 Actions. If you head to our home page and sign the petition, you can stay involved with our work to achieve these seven goals. One of the main drivers of environmental exploitation is wage theft, poverty pay, and the global race to the bottom -- to find the cheapest cost of production. Until we reform our policies so that large corporations must engage in responsible purchasing practices, including paying fair prices for their products, society will continue to over-produce and over-consume products.

NBC: Elizabeth Cline and Fashion Pollution, May 5, 2019.

WWO: Who would be on your list of the top climate heroes?

EC: Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, because of her positivity and accessibility. She wrenched the climate change conversation out of the realm of the doomsdayers and has given people a reason to believe in practical, achievable solutions to this challenge. Catherine Coleman Flowers, the author of Waste and an environmental justice activist, whose work always reminds me to think local and to be fearless. Her activism in recent decades has focused on sewage and environmental justice in the rural South (where we're both from). Climate change has doubled rainfall in the Southeastern US -- overwhelming inadequate and aging septic systems in Alabama, impacting the rural poor and mostly Black families. Flowers is now working with Columbia University on a waste system that would recycle water, use waste as fertilizer, and maybe even produce energy for homes. Flowers is helping turn a problem into a sustainable solution, which is inspiring.

WW0: Was there an event or cause that compelled you to take charge in the sustainable fashion space?

EC: The pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement galvanized me to move beyond my role as a journalist towards taking action. I’d been writing about the need for systemic change and grassroots organizing, but I was being cautious and sitting on the sidelines. The uneven impacts of the pandemic, and how it in every way singled out poor people, Black people and other people of color, is grossly unjust. And for those with privilege, we have an obligation to move beyond our own comfort (and I owe it to racial justice organizers for pointing that out) and our inclination to protect the status quo. Over the past year, most of my work has been around either organizing grassroots pressure campaigns for change in fashion, working to support progressive legislation like the Garment Worker Protection Act in California, or getting our elected leaders to pay attention to the sustainable and ethical fashion industry. It's uncomfortable leaving the status quo, but it's a small price to pay to realize the vision of the future that so many of us rallied around in 2020.

WW0: What do you think is the Biden Administration’s biggest opportunity to lower emissions?

EC: High-speed rail and public transportation. I personally fly more than I should because traveling by car within the Northeastern US is so inefficient and traffic is a nightmare. High-speed rail is good for climate, good for the economy, and good for society. My grandmother used to be able to take a train from South Georgia, where I grew up, to Atlanta, back in the 1940s. Underfunding our railways and public transportation set the fight against climate change back decades, but we now have the opportunity to fix this.

WW0: If you had an audience with leaders of the world’s most polluting nations, what would you say to them?

EC: As members of democracies, we already have an audience with our elected leaders every day of the year. We need to learn to use that power more often and more effectively. We can flood their inboxes with letters of concern, call and ask for meetings and town halls, hold rallies or protest on their doorsteps, form policy task forces, write articles and op-eds on policy, create ambitious policy plans and demand they adopt them, and on and on. And of course we can vote them out. We can replace them with more progressive leaders. The government is only an abstracted "other" if we allow it to be. We simply need to be more engaged on a day-to-day level with our electeds.