On a recent morning in Madrid, the photographer Harley Weir stopped herself mid-sentence to address a minor crisis: she had just caught sight of a plastic water bottle—an item strictly forbidden on her sets. Weir isn’t the only one to impose such a ban; so does everyone who falls under the umbrella of Art Partner, the powerhouse agency behind fashion photographers like Mario Sorrenti and Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott.
Lately, though, Weir and Art Partner have been thinking bigger than plastic-in-the-room.
In partnership with a jury including Livia Firth and the designers Gabriela Hearst and Francisco Costa, they’ve set about raising awareness of COP25, for the upcoming 2019 United Nations climate change conference, where participants will discuss climate change implications and (hopefully) make pledges for net zero carbon emissions by 2050. (Their timing couldn’t be better, albeit for unfortunate circumstances; if Donald Trump’s controversial plan to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement goes forward, this will be the last time that U.S. representatives attend.)
Known as #CreateCOP25, Art Partner’s plan of attack conveniently doubles as an opportunity for up-and-comers. The agency, plus Weir and the rest, has invited any and everyone between the ages of 14 and 30 to submit artistic proposals that will be publicized at COP25, urging governments to take action. As for what they’re looking for, well, that would be pretty much everything, including spoken word, photography, fashion design, experimental film, and performance art. The jury will choose a winner, plus five runner-ups, to receive $10,000 and $2,000 respectively, to go towards future climate change-related projects.
Of course, it’s virtually impossible that a piece of spoken word or performance art could save the planet from destruction. The point is to spread the word far and wide, and to get creative communities thinking about how they can contribute to the fight against climate change—rather than contribute to climate change itself.
It’s a tall order, and for the fashion industry in particular, it’s also an inherent contradiction. Going carbon-neutral will never be as effective as halting production altogether—though of course the latter will not occur, as it requires going of out business.
Jury member Gabriela Hearst knew as much when she launched her label, and it’s something she’s kept in mind ever since. This past season, she took things up a notch, from swapping plastic for corn-based recyclable heels to staging the first-ever “fully carbon-neutral” fashion show. (Gucci soon followed suit, and the luxury conglomerate Kering announced that Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, and more of its brands will soon do so, too.)
“It’s a significant expense for us, but the most important thing is that we send a message, which for me is the most pressing thing at this moment,” Hearst said over the phone from New York. “We need to wake up and take responsibility really quickly, collectively. We’ve just been going too fast.”
It’s hard to imagine fashion slowing down, let alone scaling things back—and in any case, even if a show like Gucci’s is carbon-neutral, attendees coming from the U.S. still needed to travel 4,000 miles to attend. That’s a lot of jet fuel burned. As Weir and many other photographers knows firsthand, travel is a nearly insurmountable hurdle no matter the season.
“I just can’t completely shut down travel,” Weir said, pointing once again to the fact that she was on a job in Madrid. Instead, she’s been doing her best to “keep a balance,” whether cutting out plastic or offsetting her carbon footprint by donating half of the money she spends on each of her flights. Still, Weir is far from satisfied—to the point that she’s taking a break from shooting fashion editorials. “It can be a lot of waste,” she said. “I don’t think people understand how much energy goes into a shoot.”
That hasn’t stopped her from taking photos altogether. At the very least, she’s still regularly posting photos of garbage to @rubbish_1.2, the Instagram account she’s run since 2015. It’s got all of the makings of a potential winning submission to #CreateCOP25, though Weir is hoping that entrants to the contest—which closes on Friday—will get a bit more creative than that. At the end of the day, though, her advice is simple: “I think it’s just important to make this cool. To make caring about the environment cool.”