London Fashion Week: protest group Extinction Rebellion stops traffic

The climate action group wants the five-day fashion event to be cancelled

A taxi and a bus wait as Extinction Rebellion activists block a road, holding signs, during protest outside a venue for London Fashion Week, Britain February 15, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
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Never afraid of making a sartorial statement, Extinction Rebellion returned to London Fashion Week (LFW) on Saturday calling on organisers to cancel the biannual extravaganza.

The climate action group staged a funeral procession during the last LFW in September, attracting 20,000 protesters many of whom were dressed in macabre attire.

This season’s protest was a more subdued affair outside of LFW organisers’ the British Fashion Council (BFC) headquarters. As strong winds hit the capital, the number of protesters was considerably smaller than last year but they still managed to cause traffic chaos by blocking the road on the Strand. Instead of outlandish costumes, demonstrators, singing songs and beating drums, stood in front of a long queue of fashionistas waiting to get into the BFC headquarters with signs.

"We thought how do you follow a funeral?" Bel Jacobs, Extinction Rebellion co-ordinator, tells The National. "In terms of a narrative structure it is probably not the strongest, but the reality is fashion week is still going ahead, the problems are still there and we need to keep highlighting them."

Unfortunately, the problems are very much still there. The fashion industry contributes to 10 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions and consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined. Further, 85 per cent of clothing is said to end up in landfill every year, according to UN figures.

People gather in central London for an Extinction Rebellion protest during London Fashion Week, in London Saturday Feb. 15, 2020. The environmental pressure group Extinction Rebellion are targeting what they allege is the global impact from the ephemeral fashion industry.(Katie Collins/( / PA via AP)
The fashion industry contributes to 10 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. AP

But why target London Fashion Week in particular? For starters, many of the climate group's co-coordinators were once part of the industry. Jacobs was formerly the fashion editor for daily newspaper Metro, quitting in 2013 after the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. The collapse, which killed 1,134 people was the deadliest garment-factory disaster in history.

“Lots of people from Extinction Rebellion have come from within the fashion industry, and we see what’s wrong with it,” she says. “I think people are aware that we’re seriously in trouble. We want people to be congruent in their actions because we’re in a climate emergency. We can’t show new clothes on a catwalk with a load of skinny models anymore.”

Another reason is the global reach the five-day event has. This year, 78 brands, 103 stores and 346 events are part of the showcase.

“Fashion Week itself is an amazing platform,” Jacobs adds. “It’s part of the global fashion month where people travel from all over the world to come and see shows. If an organisation like the BFC cancels Fashion Week in light of the climate emergency, I can’t think of a communication that would have as much impact.”

One of the protesters was Emma, who had taken along her nieces, 3 and 5. The wildlife biologist from the south-west of England joined Extinction Rebellion last year and has since decided not to buy any new clothes.

“Since LFW last year, my husband and I took a no-new-clothes vow. Now we buy most things from charity shops and we fix what we have. And we make sure what we get second-hand is really good quality and will last us,” Emma, who only wanted to give her first name, says. “It saves money.”

Septuagenarian Peter Cole was out protesting with a sign warning of the damage that fashion has on the planet and the people that work in the industry. “The fashion industry exploits vulnerable people, mainly in the global south, where they slave away for very little in the way of reward to produce our clothes,” he says.

Cole, who is emeritus professor of respiratory medicine at Imperial College London, joined Extinction Rebellion on the advice of his grandchildren. He adds: “One of my posters says: ‘I’m a rebel because otherwise I can’t look my grandchildren in the eye.’”

Since last year’s demonstration, the BFC has responded to calls for LFW to become more environmentally aware. A Positive Fashion Exhibition showcasing sustainable brands has been put together this year by the government-funded body.

Opening the event on Friday, February 14, BFC chair Stephanie Phair called for the industry to come together to tackle “sustainable practices” in a “decade of change”.

“Our mission is to ensure that the fashion industry continues to grow in a sustainable way both in the UK and internationally. In volatile times, creativity flourishes. Not only in design, but in business models and sustainable practices,” Phair said.

“It’s a refiguring of what they’re doing already,” Jacobs says. “But none of it is really in the mindset of the climate emergency. It’s still about selling as much as possible. One of the things we need to face in the fashion industry coming up is that we must reduce production. We have to reduce the amount of clothing that we make.”