Behind the glamour and luxury of catwalks lies a business that thrives off wasteful consumerism. The climate crisis is forcing us to rethink our ways.
The biannual round-up of catwalk shows is triggered by the arrival of thin women in midtown Manhattan during the last days of August. The prevailing style is now unified after the shows in Paris, Milan, and London.
This season, the final of the decade in a decade, may be the end for that sense. There was something to celebrate after a summer of fire in high Arctic and Amazon. the arrival in New York harbour of the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg after she crossed the Atlantic on an emissions-free yacht.
She stated that her first duty was to participate in a climate protest ahead of the UN climate summit in September. “We must stand together and take actions because otherwise it might not be too late.”
It would be unusual for anyone to want to purchase personal luxury goods. Fashion, which is not subject to environmental scrutiny, now faces increasing regulatory and consumer pressure to raise its profile on a globalized market that is estimated to generate EUR1.5 trillion annually.
It is difficult to balance selling the luxury and fashion dreams while also reassuring clients that it can all be done without further damaging the environment. This tension between climate crisis and consumption has been on the international scene for the last month.
At the G7 summit in Biarritz last week, 32 fashion companies signed a “fashion pact” that emphasized sustainability. They included some of the largest luxury brands in the market – Chanel, Ralph Lauren and Prada – as well as “fast fashion” producers, including H&M Group and Zara. Fast fashion retailers have come under fire from environmental campaigners for encouraging a market that sees around 300,000 tonnes of clothes dumped in UK landfills each year.
Francois-Henri Pinault is the chairman and chief executive at Kering, a French luxury-goods conglomerate which owns Balenciaga and Gucci as well as Alexander McQueen, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga. However, the so-called pact is not able to set any specific goals for reducing planet-heating emissions.
A United Nations study found that the fashion industry accounts for 10% of all greenhouse gases and 20% of all water waste. It also consumes more energy per unit than both the shipping and airline industries.
Although the figures are not disputed, the message is clear: Fashion is a major polluter and an industry that relies on the human desire to find the latest, there are still questions.
It is hard to believe that French fashion houses would respond to growing consumer pressure if they didn’t. Kering has been publishing an “environmental profit and loss” statement for its products since 2015. Its rival LVMH, the owner of Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, as well as a stake in Stella McCartney – the label famous for banishing fur and leather – has yet to follow suit.
Others have also joined the rush for updated sustainability reports. Tim Blanks, a leading analyst from Business of Fashion, stated that the fashion industry was late to this. “Fashion brands have been held accountable and are developing an awareness of the consequences that they have done wrong.”
Amber Valletta, a supermodel from the says that while she appreciates being told she looks good in certain outfits, she felt disconnected between her job as a model and her business. She told the Observer that she began to “connect the dots with the environment” and “low-cost labour” around 15 years ago.
She claims that fashion is an isolated industry with only a few thousand people at its top: “Fashion, it is an insular market. The power isn’t held by that many people. Although we live in a fashion bubble it slowly trickles down to cheap labor and fast fashion. We are affecting many people and the planet.”
Valletta decided to stop making a fashion line. She felt it would only increase the number of products available, and not in an environmentally sustainable way. “Something went wrong.” She said that we lost meaning in what was being done and that people also lost meaning between what they want and what they purchase. The question is: How can we make things work the right way? It’s almost like we need to change how we make, sell and wear things. It’s all really.
She is currently working on a documentary about the underlying issues. “It is important that those at the top of the industry be the leaders of the changes. “We fought for many causes in the past. We now have to fight for sustainable development.” She said, “Now we must fight for the planet.”
Brands may need to produce less when consumers demand more in order to be truly sustainable. According to the Global Fashion Agenda’s report, sustainability progress is actually declining – as much as one third. It warned that brands have not yet solved the dilemma of growth and managing their environment.
To avoid further straining the planet’s resources, clothing production is expected to reach 102 million tonnes per year by 2030. Sustainability efforts must accelerate.
Blanks was the chair of this year’s Fashion Sustainability Summit in Copenhagen. Respect for the environment is essential if you want to be inclusive.
Pinault says that it is important to not underestimate the hard work being done by different companies. He is trying to get companies signed up to eliminate single-use plastics and speed up the industry’s transition towards renewable energy. He said that the problem is that everyone is working in their own little corner, so even though we try our best, all we do is totally offset by growth.
Kering, which has done more than most to manage this equation has seen its environmental scorecard (measured in air emissions, water pollution, and land use) getting worse.
It seems that the trend is to purchase less, but buy better. This is based on the idea that consumers will cherish and reuse the clothes, and avoid the seasonal cycle. Blanks stated that couture is more sustainable because it’s expensive and has no disposable value.
He said that the Valentino haute couture show was so amazing that it received a standing ovation for 10 minutes from an audience, some of whom were moved to tears by its beauty.
“It’s a ethos of the Heirloom – where you can see this ethos in action in a very real manner is the highest end market.”
Haute couture is expensive, but it is possible to replace seasonal shopping with clothes that show thoughtfulness and care. Blanks stated that haute couture is more enjoyable because it’s about creativity and self expression, which can be more rewarding and challenging.
This isn’t new to environmentally conscious millennials – many have adopted Earth-saving circular economy resellers like DePop, Farfetch’s Second Life and the RealReal en masse. In a season when the New York fashion emporium Barneys went bankrupt, the RealReal is valued at $2.39bn.
Michael Groffenberger, RealReal’s director of marketing, said that focusing on luxury products and keeping them in circulation through resale is a sustainable way to buy luxury.
It acts as a broker between sellers and buyers for secondhand haute couture – so-called authenticated luxury consignment. Groffenberger points out that 64% (or consignors, as it is known) of the company’s millennial sellers or consignors say that the main reason they use the service is to reduce their environmental impact.
There are also signs that the design community is awakening. Prada, an Italian fashion house, has stated that it plans to source all its iconic Nylon accessories made from recycled materials by 2021. Versace and Giorgio Armani have both stopped using certain materials.
Orsola De Castro, of Fashion Revolution, a campaigning group for greater transparency in the industry, stated that “we have years of talking but now we are at the forefront.” De Castro credits the growing awareness to several events, including the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in 2013, growing awareness of the environmental damage from microfibres, and the impact of British fashion house Burberry destroying PS30m of stock to guard against conterfeits (the French government floated a plan earlier this year to outlaw the widespread practice of destroying unsold clothes and luxury goods).
De Castro stated that “the negative impact of fashion industry has reached its peak and now consumers are starting to ask the right questions.”
Extinction Rebellion, a UK protest group, announced plans to end London’s fashion week on September 13. In a letter to the British Fashion Council, the group wrote: “In recognition of our existential threat, we ask for the British Fashion Council be the leaders that the world needs now to cancel London Fashion Week.” There is little hope of that happening, but in New York nine labels have so far refused to stage fashion shows at Hudson Yards, a vast development on the city’s westside in protest against real estate developer Stephen Ross, who recently held a re-election fundraiser at his Hamptons home for climate-change denier Donald Trump.
Fashion contributes PS32bn to the UK’s economy. Britons also buy more clothes than any other European country. It would appear that they also throw away a lot.
Stella Tennant, a model and Oxfam charity launched a campaign to protest the 11 million clothing items that end up in UK landfills every week.
For their Second Hand September campaign, the pair are asking consumers to abstain from buying new clothes for 30 days, and shop, ideally, at Oxfam to raise money for its programmes.
The campaign is “slap in the middle of the show season”, as the Financial Times pointed out.
Tennant says that she has never been a seasonal shopper. “The things I loved 20-years ago, I still love. Our insatiable need for new things is the enemy. Humans love new things. It’s part of our humanity. It’s exciting to see the creative designs that these talented designers come up with.”
“In terms of sustainability we have become extremely indulgent in the amount of stuff we buy, and how much we throw away.”
She points out that this is not a Valentino couture gown: “The skill, craftsmanship, and so many people making it so extraordinary… It’s difficult to find the right balance, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we should stop. But, as consumers, we need to be more mindful.”
Designers echo this sentiment. Designer Maria Cornejo from New York, who has received several sustainability awards, is currently working with Hyundai to “upcycle excess leather from cars seats” in her designs.
She said that while no one is going to stop using, it makes economic and ecological sense to reimagine materials from a past life. Cornejo says that people don’t buy secondhand cars unless they are looking for something special.
Cornejo said that if some companies “greenwash” their products, it’s better than not taking any action at all. It’s the only way to go because they are moving in the right direction. It is the future. Everyone has to accept some responsibility for the events.
This message seems to be reaching the red carpet, where the practice of wearing clothes only once for photos was first observed. It is now being passed down to Instagram, fast fashion, and mass-market.
Fashion glossy US Vogue published a story titled Earth to A-Listers calling on movie stars to bring the sustainability issue to the red carpet during award season following the UN’s “terrifying” climate report.
Nicole Phelps asked, “Wouldn’t it be powerful for these same celebrities to re-wear gowns they’ve worn in the past-advocating against throwaway culture which sees consumers toss garments after one use like they do with iced-coffee cup?
Michelle Hicks, a model, had her own view on red-carpet tyranny. “It became an rat race to be the coolest and most fashionable thing. It’s only once you are photographed in it. That’s a bad thing.”
Hicks will be attending Carine Roitfeld, fashion editor and stylist, Harper’s Bazaar party this week in her 20-year-old Galliano gown. It’s beautiful, so why not wear it again?