How is high fashion making strides in sustainability?

women walking

By Emily Gates

Mass-production, mass-waste and mass-emissions are issues often attributed to fast fashion. But it is no secret that high fashion hasn’t been much friendlier to the environment.

As an institution so interwoven with activism and protest, high fashion simply cannot avoid participating in the ongoing global conversation surrounding sustainability. So what do luxury brands have to say on the matter?

Recent industry changes

2019 was a big year for environmental action in luxury fashion: France announced a ground-breaking law which banned the burning of unused clothes, a long-established practice carried out by high fashion brands. We also saw 56 major retailers sign The Fashion Pact, an initiative announced by the French president Emmanuel Macron demonstrating a commitment to crucial environmental goals. It was championed by luxury retail group Kering, which, according to its website, claims that “luxury and sustainability are one and the same“.

These larger, high-end corporations possess the power to influence the rest of the industry. The styles that end up on the high street debut on the runways; hopefully sustainability maintains pride of place on the forthcoming trend reports.

Last year’s London Fashion Week was also disrupted by environmental action group Extinction Rebellion, who staged a funeral procession outside the main fashion week venue on its final day.

Photo of three Extinction Rebellion protest signs, from top to bottom reading: “Fashion is a thirsty industry. Fibre growing often takes place in countries already facing a water crisis. Fashion is fucked”, “Buy no evil” and “Repair, rewear, rebel.” Credit: Extinction Rebellion Press Photos.

In February of this year, Fashion tech company Ordre released a report, Zero To Market, detailing the carbon footprint created by the travel of thousands of organisations and brands involved in international fashion weeks. It revealed that, in one year, 241,000 tonnes of CO2e were emitted as a result of travel associated with attending and participating in the four principal fashion weeks – New York, London, Milan and Paris. That’s enough to light up the Eiffel Tower for over 3,000 years.

Another investigation, making the case for reimagining the current textiles economy, issued by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, reported that textiles production accounts for around 93 billion cubic metres of water used in a year. The foundation’s main aim is to stimulate the transition to a circular economy; so far it has collaborated with leading names such as Burberry and LVMH on the “Make Fashion Circular” initiative.

It’s clear that the fashion and textiles industries must source alternative production methods and business models in order to have a viable future within a society that values sustainability.

So, what are big brands doing about this?

With websites such as Depop and Vinted becoming extremely popular in recent years, it’s no surprise that luxury brands are now encouraging this amongst their consumers. Gucci recently announced their collaboration with The RealReal, a luxury re-sale website set up in 2011. The partnership marked National Consignment Day and the site now has sustainability partnerships with three major brands, working alongside Stella McCartney and Burberry since 2018 and 2019 respectively. When users purchase Gucci through The RealReal, a donation will be made to One Tree Planted, championing biodiversity and reforestation.

A similar trend that promotes this consumption cycle over the dominant, linear one is upcycling. The aforementioned Ellen MacArthur Foundation report stated that customers miss out on around $460 billion of value annually by throwing away clothes that could still be utilised. Excess seems to be ingrained in fashion consumption, but brands are now starting to acknowledge this.

In a piece featured in the September 2020 issue of US Vogue, when asked about the future of fashion, Dries Van Noten responded: “when you see the way we worked before — sometimes, not always — I mean, what were we thinking? Why did we make all this?” He represents a growing consensus around the superfluity of the clothing industry.

If there ever was a time to find creative ways to reimagine our old clothes, it’s now. This year, Italian fashion house Marni reused outerwear from past seasons to create 25 new coats for their SS21 collection. However, this was principally employed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which saw designers and their teams separated, therefore turning to their old collections (or even their own curtains) for inspiration.

Coronavirus: the unlikely ally 

The coronavirus pandemic cast a cloud of uncertainty around the future of many industries, but also allowed everybody to slow down. Fashion week was inevitably cancelled back in February, so it came as a bit of a surprise when, despite debates around the necessity of its performative elements in the midst of a global pandemic, each of the four fashion capitals gave the SS21 season the go ahead. Having said that, none resembled the fashion weeks of the past. New York reduced its schedule to three days, London went totally digital, whilst Paris and Milan opted for a ‘phygital’ approach — staging a blend of socially distanced, physical runway shows and digital presentations.

The stripped-back nature of this season’s fashion weeks drastically reduced the amount of travel taken, yet individual brands presented spectators with admirably innovative responses to the limitations imposed on them by the pandemic. John Galliano, the creative director of Maison Margiela, produced S.W.A.L.K. II, a film in collaboration with photographer Nick Knight, to showcase his collection.

Loewe launched their SS21 menswear collection by opting for a ‘Show-in-a-Box’. In lieu of receiving an invite to a show, a multitude of industry-VIPs were presented with a branded box, packed with paraphernalia ranging from fabric swatches to a letter from creative director Jonathan Anderson.

Description: Photo shows an open white box surrounded by contents including fabric swatches, a letter, a vinyl record, postcards and cookbooks printed on paper blocks. Credit: Loewe

These unorthodox approaches to the spring/summer season due to the coronavirus outbreak also attest to the immense potential for adaptation that the industry possesses. Though sustainability might not have been the driving motivation, these brands have certainly demonstrated the existence and viability of substitutes to the theatre of excess we currently observe twice a year. Whereas the fashion industry may have been content with taking steps towards sustainability, the pandemic has forced these steps to become leaps. High fashion clients must question whether a return to what we knew pre-Covid is acceptable, and ask whether unsustainable practices have a place within our society.

Stella McCartney: the shining star of sustainable fashion

One brand that has been offering sustainable high-end fashion since 2001 is Stella McCartney. Their latest move, entitled the ‘Eco Impact Report 2020,’ provides a level of transparency seldom offered by major fashion labels, detailing the full extent of the brand’s environmental impact over the years 2018 and 2019. Since the beginning, they have avoided using fur, leather or any other animal skins in their collections.

By taking steps such as using recycled polyester – which has a 75% lower carbon footprint and uses up to 90% less water than virgin polyester -, banning the use of plastic water bottles in their offices and using lower-impact metals in their bag chains, the brand has so far successfully reduced its environmental impact each year. The sheer amount of action taken by the brand at all stages of running a clothing retailer is laudable. If only every brand was as stellar as Stella.