In Paris, Milan, London and New York, Fall Fashion Month Highlighted Sustainability. But Is It All Just Window Dressing?
Whether it was the solar-powered lights in Missoni’s show, the Green Carpet Awards in Milan, or upcycled materials in some of the most luxurious designs, sustainability was on point in 2019’s fall fashion month. Fans of eco wears will have more options than ever in spring and summer 2020. But is the fashion industry making the real changes needed in order to be a responsible participant in a sustainable global economy, or are these efforts just window-dressing?
Gabriela Hurst led the trend this fall by declaring that its show would be carbon neutral; Gucci soon did likewise. Many shows included highly visible initiatives to improve their ecological footprints. Saint Laurent used biofuels to power the 414 spotlights at its Paris show, while Louis Vuitton boasted a plywood set that would be recycled, and Dior’s set included 160 trees slated for donation afterward to community gardens.
The clothing on the runways has upped its eco game too. Stella McCartney, an ardent voice for sustainable fashion for two decades, is no longer on the fringes but at the vanguard. Her work this year includes a new faux fur called Koba, made from recycled polyester and corn. Meanwhile, brands like Alexander McQueen, Alaïa and Givenchy upcycled past fabrics for their spring and summer lines. Courrèges used algae-based vinyl and replaced its exotic leathers with one made from the pirarucu fish—an Amazonian food staple whose skin is often discarded.
These measures are fantastic. We need more of them. We also need to acknowledge some truths about the fashion industry as it stands today. This business, where the necessity to clothe ourselves meets the joy of creative expression, is worth over a trillion US dollars annually in retail sales. That’s about four times what UN agencies estimate it would take to end global hunger.
The Global Fashion Agenda
This past May, the Global Fashion Agenda Pulse of the Fashion Industry report projected that the global apparel and footwear industry will have grown to 102 million tons by 2030, “exerting an unprecedented strain on planetary resources.” The report estimated that about a third of consumers are now inclined to choose or switch fashion brands based on which one is doing more for the environment. However, the report added, this is not enough to drive global change.
Carbon offsets are great, but do they enable companies to keep polluting as long as they buy them? Is leather from pirarucu fish addressing the fact that pirarucu are at risk of extinction due to overfishing? Reclaiming and upcycling fabric is great, but what happens when the resulting clothes are no longer wearable? Is it really keeping nonbiodegradable materials like polyester out of the landfill, or just delaying their arrival by a few years before they sit there for decades? Organic cotton is great, but what about the intense water demands of this crop in a time and in areas subject to growing water scarcity? What does sustainable fashion even mean, anyway—especially in an industry that encourages us to constantly change our look, buy more, and not wear what’s been seen before?
In the UK this fall, the Extinction Rebellion group sought to cancel the London fashion week entirely. Bel Jacobs, with Extinction Rebellion’s “Boycott Fashion” campaign, recently told CNN that “many sustainable labels are genuine pioneers in seeking to transform the industry from inside out. However, we are in an ecological emergency and […] there is enough clothing currently in existence for us to clothe the world umpteen times over. In this scenario, even the production of a single organic T-shirt looks out of sync.”
Governments are also concerned about the fashion industry. England’s House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee remarked last February in its “Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability” report: “Given the stark scientific warnings we face on climate change and biodiversity loss, we must reinvent fashion.”
How does this happen? The Global Fashion Agenda highlights four priorities for immediate implementation: supply chain traceability; combating climate change; efficient use of water, energy and chemicals; and respectful and secure work environments. It also highlights four priorities for fundamental change: sustainable material mix; circular fashion system (so that clothing at the end of its lifespan does not go into the landfill); promotion of better wage systems; and the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (managing the changes brought about by increasing automation and digitization). If you want to gauge how sustainable your chosen fashion brand really is, these eight points are a great place to start. But even more profound and powerful is our collective paradigm shift to recognize that we are all interconnected. We are not separate from the plant and animal lives that went into the fabric we wear, the people who helped to manufacture it, the dyes that may run off into waterways from its factory, the oceans into which it sheds micro-fibres every time we wash it, the whales struck and killed by container ships carrying it overseas, or the choked earth of a landfill where it may rest for decades after we are gone. When we really understand this, a whole new clarity and responsibility can grace the runways—and our closets.