Sat 25 January 2020

With the average shopper unable to afford sustainable options from designer brands, what is the solution?

Last month, it was announced that Stockholm Fashion Week, due to take place on 27-29 August, would be cancelled so that the Swedish Fashion Council could explore a more sustainable platform for future designers.

Plans for this sustainable alternative will be revealed later this year.

The timely announcement comes at a moment when many are starting to question their own lifestyles, reflecting a general sentiment of a shift towards sustainability.

Meanwhile, the arguably better-known Copenhagen Fashion Week is at the forefront of the sustainability drive within high-end fashion circles, according to Vogue Australia. Having established a sustainability board, Copenhagen will publish its three-year plan for its fashion week later this year. Single-use plastic bottles have already been banned and Copenhagen Fashion Week is well on its way to helping the country become carbon neutral by 2025.

France, too, is attempting to curb the carbon footprint of the fashion industry, with an organisation in place to ensure that companies are responsible for the end cycle of their clothing. It is a legal requirement for them to organise their own recycling programme, approved by the French public authorities, or, alternatively, use an organisation that has been legally approved.

However, most brands are focusing on whether fashion weeks are still financially viable rather than their impact on the environment. With models, reporters, influencers and other industry people being flown around the world for them, it doesn’t take an expert to see just how big a carbon footprint fashion weeks can have. 

In June, Burberry announced its bid to become carbon neutral in operational energy by 2022. The move follows a public backlash after it was revealed that, in 2018, the fashion house destroyed more than £28 million’s worth of unsold clothes and perfume. Burberry is, of course, not alone in this. It is a way for luxury brands to maintain the value of their products by counteracting over-saturation and ensuring that discounted products do not get sold cheaply elsewhere. Somewhat ironically, it is often shareholder pressure to expand that leads to excess products. 

However, the conversation appears to be shifting for the better.

Following its 2018 Harrods window display, which consisted of a pile of donated clothes, Demna Gvasalia of Vetements told Vogue that the only way for a brand to become fully sustainable is to limit production. He said that items on sale are a marker of over-production, adding that the 30% or so that isn’t sold ends up in landfill. Vetements places emphasis on quality, limited production and recycled materials – something we are seeing from other brands, too.

In her AW19/20 show, Stella McCartney showcased upcycled clothes, such as dresses made out of old t-shirts. Her show also called for people to support the conservation of the Leuser ecosystem in Sumatra, Indonesia. Since the launch of her line in 2001, McCartney has, famously, forgone leather and fur in her clothing and was one of the winners of the 2019 CO10 Leadership Awards for her efforts in sustainability.

In Italy, Miuccia Prada has recently announced that the iconic Prada backpack will be made out of recycled nylon by 2021.

Sustainable fashion is in the companies’ best interests from a financial standpoint. Internet searches for sustainable fashion increased by 66% in 2018, with more specific items such as sustainable denim seeing a 187% increase. 75% of consumers see sustainability as very important to them.

The issue, however, is that the average consumer simply cannot afford to buy sustainable options. Fast fashion still reigns supreme and even companies selling sustainable denim and recycled swimwear are part of an industry that relies on mass-production and mass-consumption.

Although elitist and inaccessible, high-end fashion might just have the resources and the benefits of a more limited production line to do something about the issue. One can hope for a trickle-down effect.

As Orsola de Castro, co-founder and creative director of Fashion Revolution has said: “The reason why we’re in this mess is because this creative industry has been taken over completely and entirely run by business”. We need to find a way to step back from the capitalism.

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