LONDON — Last month, on the final day of London Fashion Week, hundreds of black-clad demonstrators gathered in Trafalgar Square to embark on what they called “a funeral march for fashion.”
Gathering behind a band and giant painted coffin, they slowly processed en masse down the Strand, shutting down traffic on the busy thoroughfare as they chanted and handed out leaflets, leaving gridlock and chaos in their wake.
It was just the latest in a series of efforts designed by Extinction Rebellion, or XR, to disrupt the most visible British fashion event of the year. First, protesters covered in fake blood performed a die-in and demanded fashion week be canceled on opening day. Then, outside the Victoria Beckham show, activists had lined up, brandishing posters emblazoned with statements like “R.I.P. LFW 1983-2019” and “Fashion = Ecocide.”
Sustainability is at the forefront of the fashion conversation today in a way it has never been before, and the emergence of XR — which 18 months ago consisted of just 10 people in Britain and has since swelled to millions of followers across 72 countries — has stoked the increasingly heated discussion.
Although the movement targets numerous industries and governments worldwide, a recent focus on fashion has been particularly high profile.
Extinction Rebellion, which held demonstrations outside the Manhattan headquarters of The New York Times earlier this year demanding the newspaper increase its focus on climate change, has a distinctive hourglass logo, viral social media campaigns and creatively packaged demands for drastic action. It calls itself the fastest-growing climate and ecology direct action movement in history.
Come Monday, the most ambitious protest effort by the group yet will get underway, with tens of thousands of protesters planning to bring roads around Westminster to gridlock; there will also be a sit-in at London City Airport. This is the beginning of two weeks of environmental demonstrations that will also include repair stations where people can bring their old or damaged clothes.
So how does it all work?
Extinction Rebellion, which originally grew out of the activist group Rising Up! and relies solely on crowdfunding, has three key goals: that governments are transparent about the impact of climate change; that they reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025; and that governments worldwide create citizens’ assemblies to set climate priorities.
The group has been deliberately conceived as a self-organizing, non-hierarchical holacracy. There is no single leader or group steering its strategy, tactics and goals. Instead, it is a loose alliance of 150 groups across Britain alone, with volunteers organized into working subgroups, and support teams and responsibilities distributed among chapters.
Meetings and planning sessions tend to take place in online forums and on messaging apps, with meetings offline used for training and creating a sense of community.
Extinction Rebellion is not the first modern protest movement to organize in such a way (there are parallels in particular with the Occupy movement), though the setup can foster a general sense of confusion and disarray.
Volunteers cheerfully describe planning meetings as “pretty crazy and disorganized.” A news conference last week ahead of the latest mass protests involved a fair amount of shouting and technical difficulties, and at London Fashion Week, certain planned protests failed to materialize. With the exception of the funeral march, turnouts were generally lower than anticipated.
Indeed, the success, and confusion, around the XR approach to fashion — a sector responsible for about 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations — is fairly representative of the state of the group at large.
“It’s always somewhat chaotic and messy, but I suppose that’s part of the beauty of Extinction Rebellion,” said Sara Arnold, a coordinator of Boycott Fashion, an XR subgroup that has made headlines by urging people to buy no new clothes for a year. “You learn to just run with it and hope for the best.”
Ms. Arnold, 32, studied fashion design at Central St Martins before environmental concerns led to a decision not to design or produce new clothes. She founded the clothes rental company Higher Rental, and though she refuses to be classified as a leader — “there are no leaders at XR,” she said — she has been one of the more visible and vocal figureheads in the group’s efforts to hold the fashion industry to account.
For her, a key reason fashion has become a target for XR activists is because it shapes people’s aspirations.
“This is not about the survival of the fashion industry, this is about the survival of the planet,” Ms. Arnold said, peering through her trademark oversize glasses. “We are now in a state of emergency. Stopping people consuming is really the only way of having any impact at this point, which is a difficult message for many people to take on board. The changes we are seeing from some brands remain extremely superficial.” Ms. Arnold continued.
Unsurprisingly, XR’s mission and messaging are not popular among many conventional fashion brands and retailers. But the group has also been spurned by another, more surprising, industry faction: sustainable brands.
Another coordinator, Bel Jacobs, a former fashion editor of the free daily newspaper Metro, said that she and other Extinction Rebellion members had found themselves the target of ire from those who said the campaigning was damaging to a new wave of businesses attempting to improve the ethical and environmental footprint of clothes.
“By asking for huge sacrifices, we know we are alienating ourselves but we are also shifting the Overton window and empowering people, both in and outside the industry,” Ms. Jacobs said. “As a communication tool, fashion is so influential. We all have to put clothes on and that has power.”
There is some dispute even inside XR about whether it is better to work with the fashion industry or against it.
Last summer, for example, three members of Extinction Rebellion appeared in an advertising campaign for the luxury fashion designer Stella McCartney, roaming the Welsh coastline in expensive new designer clothing, without letting other chapters know. The Boycott Fashion coordinators said the first they heard of the partnership was when they saw the photographs. They were, Ms. Jacobs put delicately, somewhat surprised.
However, at the London news conference last week, Douglas Rogers, an XR spokesman, insisted that the absence of a solid hierarchy is what gives the movement its strength. Fresh efforts were underway to further decentralize its organizing systems from a London rebellion support office to autonomous regional bases, as British police announced this week that they would seek new legal powers against protesters.
More than 1,100 people were arrested at Extinction Rebellion’s protests in April, in a police operation that cost £16 million, or $19.7 million. About 850 protesters have been prosecuted and 250 convicted.
“Of course it can be challenging to maintain a communal sense of control, but without visible leadership it makes us stronger in the face of those who would want to break the movement down,” Mr. Rogers said, amid a scrum of reporters and activists and vocal pleas that chairs get stacked to make more space in the room.
“I actually find moments like the Stella McCartney campaign reassuring because it shows this really is a rebellion,” he said. “Rebellions are messy and overlap and are forged from lots of opinions and actions. It would be very worrying if XR acted like some superslick Silicon Valley-style business. Not that there is much chance of anyone actually thinking that.”