For decades, countries like Germany have resisted implementing school uniforms. But dress codes in schools are not just for the elite. They can help reduce social stigma for students living in poverty, as well as helping fight the climate crisis.
BERLIN — Few consumer goods contribute as much to climate change as clothing does. And fewer groups are more vocal about protecting the climate as school children. Yet they could make a major contribution to climate protection in a very simple way.
German politics values consensus, so it is hard to imagine a political debate that doesn't mention equality in some way. Parties and governments want to make social differences in everyday life as invisible as possible – and to encourage citizens to be sensitive. Perhaps this is why the desire to avoid any form of discrimination is now considered good manners by more and more adults.
Young people, on the other hand, are still learning and forming their personalities — which is why they still exclude and judge based on appearance, character and social background. This exclusion among children often happens in cruel ways.
Undermining the Influencers
150 years ago, teachers might have tried to beat character sensitivity into pupils with a cane. Fortunately, those days are gone. What has remained is the popularity of teasing – for example, when someone is wearing clothes from the discount store instead of wearing brand-name clothes.
Many adults will recount stories of how they used to suffer terribly as children when their parents could not afford to buy them sports shoes with three stripes, instead choosing the knock-off brand with two stripes. The exclamation “Aldidas,” a combination of the discount supermarket and Adidas, still has the power to make people blush.
There's a cultural practice of reducing people to their externals that can be bought
Those who do not wish to concern themselves with statistics may disagree on how big the social divide is and where it is heading. But there should be little doubt that the exclusion of young people for not wearing the “right” clothes has increased. This is reinforced by influencers on social media. They are paid handsomely by big brands and make it very clear what one must wear to fit in, even on the schoolyard. This is well known by school authorities and political leaders.
Nevertheless, the most pragmatic means of limiting such discrimination has been ignored in Germany for decades: the school uniform.
School uniforms are not necessarily a symbol for the rich and aristocratic
Character over appearance
In Germany, attempts to introduce school uniforms are often rebuffed with an argument that reflects a rather provincial world view. It is argued that school uniforms are worn in elite, fee-paying schools like Eton, in the UK, or Gormanston in Ireland — and that they are therefore a symbol for the rich and aristocratic. The opposite is the case. Whether in troubled neighborhoods in England, the Irish countryside, or in many African countries, school uniforms are a common sight. In many countries, such as Bangladesh or Ecuador, they are compulsory. No one would assume that all children there are rich and aristocratic.
Even in the rural west coast of Ireland, tailored jackets for 14-year-olds are not part of the school uniform, as is often the case at Eton. However, uniforms consist of trousers, skirts and jumpers, skirts and cardigans, and a tie in the school colors. On days with school sports, a jogging suit and polo shirt are worn — both also uniform. The cost is about 40 euros per set.
Above all, the climate wins
After a while, the uniforms are worn by older siblings or sold in the schools’ second-hand markets — living sustainably rather than adopting a disposable mentality. In Germany, which is much richer, the cost of such school uniforms would be even less significant in relation to family income. In any case, the clothes worn from morning to late afternoon cost only a fraction of the many different combinations the average German schoolchild has in their wardrobe.
Germany's wide range of clothing for all ages serves to underline individuality in Western societies. This has led to a situation where individuality is primarily defined in terms of appearance rather than character, values, and educational preferences. But wouldn’t you rather describe someone by their beautiful singing voice, their knowledge of French cathedral architecture or their touching miniature paintings than by their shoes made in China? And do we want to teach future generations this cultural practice of reducing people to their externals that can be bought?
The climate calculation
Now — especially in Western Europe — support for climate protection is probably the highest among school children. At the same time, there is hardly any consumer good whose production is as environmentally harmful as textiles. This starts with the CO2 emissions during production. Then there is the environmental damage caused by toxic substances in the manufacturing process, which often ends up in bodies of water and ultimately in the oceans in the Global South.
If German schools introduced school uniforms for reasons of climate protection, their pupils would not only spend a large part of the day wearing more durable and cheaper clothing than before. They would also save on CO2 emissions. Above all, social inequalities would become less visible, at least in the classroom. Those who advocate for equality would have won, as would those who outlaw social discrimination. But above all, the climate wins.
Those who consistently reject school uniforms should not take their children to “Fridays for Future” climate demonstrations. And those who have so far criticized "the establishment" for doing too little for the climate can now demonstrate with a concrete demand for climate protection: “More climate protection through less textile consumption!” or “School uniforms for the climate!” instead of “School strike for the climate!”