With the growing specter of global climate change looming larger each 50 degree January day, there is a lot to talk about when considering our environmental future. 2012 was the warmest and the second most extreme in terms of weather in recorded history for the contiguous United States. Plausible deniability of Climate Change is all but impossible for any legitimate scientist. As we begin to truly have conversations about it, we discuss things like our “energy future,” the impact on farming, and crops like coffee beans— which may now become scarce— and these are important conversations to have. But we don’t often talk about some of the more day-to-day logistical impacts of an increasingly warm world. How will this impact our concepts of fashion and our cultural outlook on body image, and what is an appropriate level of coverage in a world on fire? In case you’re wondering where this is going, let’s spell it out— how is climate change going to affect our professional dress codes?
Addressing The Obvious Solution
The simplest answer is that it won’t change our dress at all. You could make this assertion based on the wonderful technology of air conditioning and climate control. We can keep our offices around the country at a nice cool 71 degrees, with the humidity perfectly monitored and maintained at 47%. We can work in a climate-controlled Eden while we pound away on our keyboards.
This is a nice vision, isn’t it? But there are things we now know to be true. We know that energy is only growing in cost, and that air conditioners are very energy intensive. We know that the world is getting warmer and that as a result the energy costs to make our offices cooler will only increase. We also know that these air conditioners are part of a negative feedback loop where the energy air conditioners consume create more carbon, which drives up the temperatures, which requires more air conditioning and so on ad infinitum.
So what are some other potentialities that might arise as a result of rising temperatures this summer? What else could happen to make us cooler assuming that turning up the air conditioning as an option is off the table?
Read this next phrase in the most fabulous voice you can possibly muster in your mind— TOTAL FASHION OVERHAUL!
Undressing Business Culture
The culture of business, with some exceptions, is not the most practical when it comes to summertime apparel. Pants, in the summer, are less than ideal. You need your legs, among other things, to breath. Your ankles were built for thermo regulation— also walking, but stay with me here— for air to pass over all the vasculature that runs to your feet and dissipate some of that heat. Women do have a few more options in this category, skirts are admissible in some circumstances as well as dressy shorts among other options, but this is not always the case. And for men options are generally fairly limited. One of two scenarios can happen.
Textiles in the fashion industry go through a dramatic transformation. There are fabrics today that people wear on occasion which have been designed to breath better in the summer. Linen is a good example. But most pants are designed to be year round pants, especially denim and chinos.
There has also been a lot of experimentation with textiles in recent years (though this could just be marketing). UNIQLO comes to mind as an example of using technology with their heat-tech and cool-tech lines, meant to trap or expel heat as necessary. However, It’s hard to imagine wearing poly-cotton blended pants. While I imagine they’d be terribly comfortable, it would look ridiculous for men to return to the days of wearing polyester pants. Disco is dead and it took stretchy pants with it.
Scenario 1 has potential, but seems to have some issues with feasibility and likelihood of adoption.
In this scenario the social mores around work-appropriate attire shift based on a seasonal dynamic. Bermuda is a great example of a culture that has already adopted this behavior. They invented their own shorts, aptly named the Bermuda Shorts, for people to wear in the hot months of the year when pants would feel like a form of self-flagellation, a sweaty prison of propriety.
While this might be a difficult step to take for American businesses, to modify what is deemed appropriate to wear in a professional setting, there is something that might motivate business leaders more than anything— money.
For example, if you allow your employees to wear tank tops and shorts to work, while still demanding a level of quality and presentation in their attire, companies can allow the temperatures in their offices to be set closer to 80 than seventy degrees. According to carbonrally.com, air conditioners are responsible for 16% of the average homes energy costs. Now imagine the costs in office buildings, which are typically much more spacious and as a result more expensive to cool. The transition begins to seem like an extremely reasonable cost-cutting measure.
Is The Climate Right?
Ultimately, this coming summer, as things start to get hot agin, what is likely to happen in office parks across America? Companies will crank their air conditioners and we’ll continue to exist in that climate controlled Eden, occasionally being forced to throw on a sweater because it’s “a bit chilly.”
But as we begin to think about the need for broader changes, in a world growing increasingly aware of it’s environmental sins, cultural changes like this can have a massive impact. Change is hard, especially institutional change, but if we all realize that something as straight forward as changing a dress code could cut our carbon output by 10% or more, as a conservative estimate, what is really holding us back?
Newton explained it best with his first law of motion— objects in motion stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. I guess the question is, can we muster enough force to get out of our own way? It might take momentum, but in the face of so many other obstacles around the world, changing a dress code seems as easy as changing clothes.
You can find Joey Camire on Twitter.