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Too Hot to Handle?

Record temperatures in Europe, the US and Asia this summer point to the real and present risks of climate breakdown. Fashion isn’t ready.
The Empire State Building cloaked in haze from Canadian wildfires with a large Bulgari billboard in the foreground.
The Empire State Building was cloaked in haze from Canadian wildfires last month, just one example of the fallout from extreme weather this summer. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s been a record-breaking summer — and not in a good way. Last month was the hottest June ever and the first weeks of July have included the hottest days in history. Apocalyptic signs of climate breakdown — compounded this year by the El Niño weather phenomenon — are everywhere.

Temperatures in Europe, the US and Asia hit unprecedented highs this month, with governments calling for people to remain indoors and stay hydrated. Tourist attractions shut down and hospitals grappled with a rise in heat-related illnesses. Out of control wildfires in Canada have sent dangerous smoke billowing across North America. Temperatures in China’s southeastern city of Hangzhou were so high they turned raindrops to steam. Heavy rain and devastating flooding have turned deadly in parts of Asia and the US. In Antarctica, sea ice levels have plunged to record lows. And forget taking a dip to cool off — in places like Miami and Greece water temperatures have breached 30C.

The waves of weather extremes have raised new fears about the rapid pace of climate change, with its fallout already being felt from fashion’s supply chain to retail floors.

To be sure, companies are taking steps to beat the heat. In places like California, southern France and Italy, luxury giant LVMH has modified its stores to cope with rising temperatures, offering refrigerated water fountains and ice to shoppers and allowing staff to go without jackets and take more frequent, shorter breaks. They’re also finding ways to sell items suited to soaring temperatures. Brands like Adidas have pitched technical gear designed for higher temperatures. In China, sun-protective clothing is all the rage.

The impact on business has been mixed. Though in-store sales in heat-afflicted markets in the US southwest and Europe dropped 6 to 7 percent in the week ending July 15, demand for hot weather categories like sandals, swimwear and shorts commonly jumped 10 to 25 percent, according to Planalytics, a company that measures the impact of weather on consumer behaviour. Businesses with an online footprint may have also been able to offset in-store declines, said Planalytics marketing vice president David Frieberg.

One thing’s for sure: while the world may be burning, we’re still shopping — increasingly via e-commerce from the comfort of an air-conditioned room. That may shield big brands’ profits in the near term, but it masks deeper vulnerabilities in fashion’s supply chains, where manufacturers and raw material producers are acutely exposed to climate risk, but under intense financial pressures that challenge efforts to build greater resilience into their operations.

Risky Business

In Pakistan, denim manufacturer Artistic Milliners is grappling with rising costs for key resources like water — a double challenge because Pakistan’s grid uses a lot of hydropower so dwindling water supply threatens access to energy, as well as processing capacity.

Last year, factories had to close for days on end as devastating flooding made it impossible for employees to come into work. The disaster hit the country’s cotton production hard with knock-on effects putting businesses higher up the supply chain in a more precarious position. Changing weather patterns are also contributing to changes in the way people shop that are upending seasonal buying cycles and making it much harder to plan, said Artistic Milliners responsible business practice lead Saqib Sohail.

It may not be obvious yet, but “chaos” is coming to raw material supply chains as resources become scarcer, said Hakan Karaosman, assistant professor at Cardiff University and chief scientist at EU-backed research project Fashion’s Responsible Supply Chain Hub.

“It’s getting real,” said Jason Judd, executive director of Cornell University’s Global Labour Institute. “In lots of places where the industry gets its product, extreme heat and ever more intense flooding are huge risks.”

The biggest risks fall on the most vulnerable, with garment workers in poorly ventilated factories and delivery drivers who have no recourse from the heat most exposed. If the health and safety issues were not enough, hotter temperatures mean lower productivity with real business impacts.

Historically, the sheer scale of big brands’ supply chains have shielded them from the fallout of extreme weather; a problem in one region could be offset by relying more heavily on another. But this is an everything, everywhere, all at once crisis.

Exactly how much climate breakdown is likely to cost the global fashion industry is the subject of new research by Cornell set to publish later this year. Top line: the fallout is big and fashion isn’t ready.

“The industry doesn’t have these risks in its calculus; this is somebody else’s problem,” said Judd.

The only way to stop the trend towards more weather extremes, climate scientists have repeatedly warned, is to drastically and rapidly cut global greenhouse gas emissions. For fashion, that means a shift to lower-impact materials, less polluting production processes and ultimately less production.

But what’s increasingly clear is that the industry also needs to start thinking about survival strategies to navigate a climate crisis that’s already here. That means deeper partnerships and investments throughout the value chain to build resilience against climate-induced shocks and protect workers from weather extremes.

“We are not resilient,” said Karaosman. “Livelihoods and people are in jeopardy.”

Further Reading

About the author
Sarah Kent
Sarah Kent

Sarah Kent is Chief Sustainability Correspondent at The Business of Fashion. She is based in London and drives BoF's coverage of critical environmental and labour issues.

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