By Michael Shank

Food and fashion are among the industries contributing to climate change, writer says

As climate change becomes more visible, with 2016 as the hottest year ever on record, Peekskill residents, myself included, organized an environmental film series to raise awareness about what we can do to prevent global warming. There’s a lot we can do when it comes to our food, water and fashion choices, which are all connected to climate change.

Our Peekskill Environmental Film Series is free and features: Food Inc. (Feb. 16), which focuses on sustainable agriculture; Tapped (March 20), which highlights the environmental impact of the plastic bottled water industry; and The True Cost (April 20), which looks at sustainable fashion. All programs feature a guest speaker and start at 7 p.m. at Westchester Community College on 27 N. Division Street in Peekskill.

This film series focuses on individual action. It’s up to each of us to slow global warming in whatever way we can. While most of us are mindful of efficient lightbulbs and recycling, there are two major frontiers that have yet to be fully factored into our environmental equation: food and fashion.

On the food front, the climate impacts are clear. Meat, especially, is hurting the planet. One unit of beef protein contributes 150 times more greenhouse gas emissions than one comparable unit of plant-based protein. That’s a whopper of a difference. Pork and chicken have a heavy carbon footprint and are 20-25 times heavier in greenhouse gas emissions than plant-based protein. We need to eat less meat if we want to keep this planet from warming further.

When you consider organic farming versus conventional methods, the gains are even more pronounced. Organic agriculture captures significantly more carbon than non-organic and industrial-scale farming, which is often much more water and resource intensive (and you avoid all the pesticides, herbicides, and hormones).

We need to shift away from diets featuring a heavy intake of meats, along with refined sugars and fats and oils, all of which are expected to increase agricultural emissions 80 percent by 2050. If we do what’s sustainable for the planet, we also help prevent diabetes, heart disease, colorectal, ovarian and breast cancer, obesity, high blood pressure, and other diseases that lower life expectancy.

By reducing animal products, we cut out the middle person, which in this case is the cow, pig or chicken, and go directly to the source: plants. In doing so, we increase agricultural efficiency and effectiveness and ultimately feed more people: A Dutch study predicts that roughly 10.4 million square miles of grazing land would be immediately available, as well as 386,000 square miles of land that is currently growing crops for livestock. Time to start eating differently.

On the fashion front, the climate impacts are equally profound. Not only is fashion one of the most environmentally polluting industries, coming in second after big oil, but the apparel industry is responsible for 10 percent of all carbon emissions globally — thanks, in part, to oil-based polyester. Our clothes are one of the biggest contributors to global warming and yet few people are talking about it. Most clothes are only worn seven times before we discard them, forcing an astonishing 150 billion new articles of clothing to be made annually.

We can’t keep polluting our waters with the toxic chemicals that are used for bleaching and dying our clothing. Fashion is the second biggest polluter of water, emitting thousands of untreated chemicals into water systems worldwide. We need to start wearing differently.

This isn’t just about fashion’s environmental impact. Its impact on humans is also deeply disconcerting. The fashion industry’s race for the cheapest production has relied on laborers at the very lowest end of the wage spectrum in countries with few protections for workers.

The hard truth remains that low wages, forced labor, unhealthy and dangerous working conditions, and child labor are now rampant throughout apparel supply chains. Children are working in appalling conditions that amount to modern day slavery. If we have any moral fiber in our body, this unsustainable practice must stop.

Unless we want 2017, 2018 and 2019 to break “hottest year” records, making summers ever more humid and hot, we need to start changing what we consume. This isn’t just about lightbulbs anymore or taking the train. This is about what’s on the plate and what’s on the person. Time to make a switch, for our health, for the planet and for every person on it.

The writer, a Peekskill resident, teaches sustainable development at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.