By Arwa Lodhi
Every guest at the Vivienne Westwood FW 2013-14 collection runway show at the Saatchi Gallery this season found something surprising on their seat: Dame Westwood’s Climate Revolution Charter.
The call to climate change action was written on the back of the show’s production notes. You can see the full version of Ms Westwood’s message to the world below.
It was certainly a refreshing change, and we agree with much of what this early punk advocates, including these important ideas:
- We have wasted the earth’s treasure and we can no longer exploit it cheaply.
- Climate crisis and economic crisis are like serpents who eat each other’s tail.
- Money is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
- Quality vs Quantity
- Buy less, choose well, make it last (we don’t want the ‘latest thing’ just for the sake of it)
- Cut out plastic whenever possible
- Consider the responsibility of having or not having children
- Tackle the need for clean energy
- Establish the Arctic Commons; save the rain forests
But there are quite a few points that Ms.Westwood makes that seem rather unstudied and naive.
Eluxe spoke to Simon Cullen,* who heads the Economics Department of a large corporation, to get his view on some of her statements in the Climate Revolution Charter.
VW: Our economic system, run for profit and waste and based primarily on the extractive industries, is the cause of climate change.
SC: Let’s be clear: the cause of climate change is the increase of CO2 and other gases. To a significant extent, this is the consequence of human activity. Arguably, the process started with the industrial revolution but has accelerated dramatically over the last decades. This increase of CO2 emissions and the greenhouse effect are primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels. In addition, the planet is enduring widespread environmental degradation that affects its ability to cope with these changes.
This is a consequence of modern life–we, the consumers, are putting ever-increasing demand on natural resources – virtually everything you use or buy comes from nature one way or another.
New technologies will need to be a fundamental part of any solution – in particular to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. But while there were 1.5 billion people 100 years ago, there are today over 7 billion. Dressing, housing, fueling and feeding this ever-increasing population contributes to the problem.
VW: Economists treat economics as if it is a pure science divorced from the facts of life. The result is…willful confusion under cover of which industry wreaks havoc scot-free and ignores the human and environmental cost.
Economics is indeed a social science, and as such it reflects social behaviors, values, preferences. For far too long, however, society has treated the environment as a non-scarce good, or to put it differently, it assumed that the environmental impact of our economy would be simply absorbed by the environment. In economic terms, society dismissed much of the negative externalities from our activities.
As the social valuation of the environment changes, so economic analysis has to be part of the solution. Ultimately, economic analysis is concerned with the most efficient allocation of resources based on the value that society, trading in the marketplace, attribute to finite resources (human made or natural resources). Economic incentives can reflect these changes. In fact, the most promising prospects for curving CO2 emissions, for example, follow economic analysis and rely on market-based solutions.
VW: Curb the corporations, especially the extractive industries and agribusiness.
SC: While there are firms with poor environmental and operating records, it is overly simplistically to blame the ‘evil’ corporations. Companies are only legal structures to effectively organise economic activity on a large scale. In fact, per unit of production, the impact of smaller companies tends to be much higher than large corporations.
The key issue is ever increasing demand. When human populations rise, when living standards rise, demand for natural resources, including food, rises too.
VW: If we want to have a sound economy, we have to have a sound environment. What’s good for the planet is good for the economy; what’s bad for the planet is bad for the economy.
SC: In the long term, that seems to be true. But the essence of the problem is now more political than economic – and, as mentioned already, it is intimately related to social values. It can be summarised thus: is society prepared to endure short term pain today – i.e. lower economic growth – in order to avoid higher costs in the long(er) term?
The choice if for society to make. Then it would be up to the regulators and political decision makers to implement.
Besides authoring the Climate Revolution Charter, Vivienne Westwood has donated £1 million to the Cool Earth charity, which aims to prevent logging in the rain forests of the world. However, she needs to do far more: her brand ranks the lowest rating for environmental sustainability on Rank a Brand, and virtually nothing about her own range can be classified as ethical or environmentally friendly.
When questioned about this by the Guardian newspaper in 2007, she said: “I don’t feel comfortable defending my clothes. But if you’ve got the money to afford them, then buy something from me. Just don’t buy too much.”
By not being willing to change her company’s product and practices, Westwood joins the likes of BP and Shell, who talk a good deal about environmental degradation being a problem, then continue to perpetuate the practices that accelerate it.
John ‘Johnny Rotten’ of the Sex Pistols once called Westwood (and her ex-partner, Malcolm McLaren) “a pair of shysters; they would sell anything to any trend that they could grab onto”.
Unfortunately, all evidence seems to point to Westwood using the Green Movement as just another trend to sell into.
Main photo: V&A Museum, London
Other images: Vivienne Westwood