Sustainable fashion moving from trend to permanent style

New initiatives to clean up the industry were the stars of February’s fashion month

Indonesian models wear eco fashion apparel designed by Indonesian designers Felicia Budi, Indita Karina, Lenny Agustin during Detox Catwalk, organized by Greenpeace in polluted paddy fields in Rancaekek, West Java, to highlight the toxic pollution of the clothing industry as well as the idea that 'Beautiful fashion shouldn't cost the earth.' Photo credit: Victoria & Albert Museum
27 February 2019

It’s the end of what’s likely been the ‘greenest’ fashion month yet, with some of the most talked-about moments focused not on present trends but on a more sustainable future.

In recent years, the fashion industry’s environmentally bad habits have rocketed into the limelight: unsustainable agriculture fueling raw materials, greenhouse gas emissions of fast fashion higher than those of the transportation industry, enormous amounts of toxic waste and chemical mismanagement, and unfair and unsafe labor practices for many of the 75 million people who keep the garment industry going. It’s been deemed the ‘dirtiest’ industry after oil.

Biannually, in February and September, the cities of New York, London, Paris and Milan see the world’s top designers and brands showcase their upcoming collections to editors, buyers, influencers and the general public. This February and in the months leading up to it, the fashion industry demonstrated its realization that these detrimental practices don’t comprise a good look, and so it is shifting its style in a cleaner new direction.

In its first major environmental initiative, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Inc. (CFDA) launched a sustainability report in the run-up to New York Fashion Week that made waves with its uncanny level of utility. A compendium of practical advice for designers and brands, its 233 pages include a directory of sources for safe and sustainable materials (20 percent of all industrial water pollution comes from textile dying and treatment) and how-to manuals for companies to create sustainable roadmaps.

Bookended by high-profile sustainability events, New York Fashion Week kicked off with the Library Study Hall Sustainable Fashion Summit at the United Nations, seeing designers, scientists and experts discuss the interplay of fashion and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and ended with Fashion for Peace, a joint fashion show for SDG-conscious designers Norma Kamali, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Mara Hoffman and Mimi Prober. Indian spiritual leader and environmental activist Sadhguru posed for photos alongside. “We’re here to show we can do the same things a little more gently and peacefully,” he told Women’s Wear Daily.

Spurred on by the British Fashion Council’s Positive Fashion initiative, London Fashion Week was fur-free for the second time. Also in London, sustainable fashion brand Mother of Pearl partnered with the BBC to host a much-publicized series of talks on circularity, new technologies and sustainable practices changing the fashion industry. Mother of Pearl’s collection ‘No Frills’ proved a case in point for the discussions: the collection worked out cheaper than the brands mainline collection, designer Amy Powney told Landscape News in an email, because of localized production processes and vertical supply chains.

As the birthplace of haute couture, Paris announced its plan to become the sustainable capital of fashion by 2024, in tandem with its hosting the Olympics. Before then, the city – alongside the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, and Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode – is convening the city’s fashion community with its Paris Good Fashion initiative to together develop and implement a roadmap to undergo the five-year transformation required.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, more than 100 billion articles of clothing are put into the world each year, more than half of which end up in landfills within 12 months. With this in mind, recycling and re-using fabrics, textiles and entire wardrobes is increasingly disrupting the industry. Luxury consignment sites like The RealReal, where used designer goods are sold for fractions of their original price tags, and rental companies such as Rent the Runway, YCloset and Chic by Choice are quickly replacing traditional buying habits – and helping lower overall production needs.

Circularity is being championed most by young labels as well as helping lift these new names to fame. At Milan Fashion Week, Vogue Italia partnered with luxury platform Yoox for the second edition of The Next Green Talents, in which seven emerging global designers present upcycled high fashion made from Yoox’s unused samples, then put up for sale on the site. This dovetails with Marine Serre becoming the first French designer to be awarded the LVMH Prize with her winning collection showcasing more than 1,500 vintage scarves. Since, she has featured in full-page spreads in Vogue alongside her evening gowns constructed from upcycled scuba suits.

New York–based Bode was similarly among last year’s nominations for the prestigious CFDA/VogueFashion Fund for its handmade unisex garments showcasing the cultural heritage of fabrics – think suits made of 1920s Parisian bedding slip covers and jacket of cotton hand-woven and stitched into stripes by Burkina Faso’s Mossi people.

“They’re not only talented, they’re engaged with a rapidly changing world, reflecting a whole new set of values and beliefs about what fashion can and should be,” said Anna Wintour of the CFDA finalists.

“Our history is not the greatest for climate performance,” said Stephen Seidel, head of corporate responsibility for sportswear brand Puma, at the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP 24) in December. The industry is caught too much on the defensive, he said, and to set the tone for 2019 and onward, this time they want to get it right.

‘This time’ was specifically the launch of the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action at the COP, which is now the largest joint ambition of brands, retailers and supplier organizations to phase out coal by 2025, reduce emissions 30 percent by 2030 and bring the industry to carbon neutrality by 2050. Sustainability stalwarts like Stella McCartney and Puma were joined by the behemoth of fast-fashion H&M, luxury brands like Hugo Boss and Burberry, the China National Apparel and Textile Council, and other industry players whose green ambitions often get overlooked, hidden under the fleshy campaigns required to stay at the top of the global industry.

Each signatory is operating with its own timeline and initiatives. H&M is implementing a fair wage management system to ensure all of its employees fair compensation for their skills, with a baseline of minimum wage, as well as working with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to measure its climate and social impact. Puma is on track to run on 90 percent renewable energy by 2020; Maersk, which ships industry goods around the world, aims to reduce its 2018 emission levels 60 percent by 2020; Burberry is already one-third of the way to carbon neutrality.

The underpinning idea is that if brands band together and each evolve in their own style, eventually sustainability will be achieved while showing other industries that such sophisticated change is possible as well.


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