Shortly after the start of the pandemic, there was a lot of discussion about how the fashion industry must become more sustainable. First, there was the Forum Letter in May 2020, led by Dries Van Noten, asking that discounting only take place at the end of the season and calling for changes to be made to the fashion calendar. Then came the Rewiring Fashion letter, asking for the latter as well as the reimagination of the shows. Then, there was the CFDA and BFC’s message to the industry, recommending that designers focus on no more than two main collections a year. All of these were positive signs that the industry was finally coming together to take tangible action on reducing its impact on the planet.
Fast forward to this fashion month however, and many of those conversations have died down. While CO2 emissions may have dropped because editors and buyers aren’t travelling to in-person shows, we know that most of fashion’s environmental impact comes from the production of garments themselves (more than 70 per cent of emissions comes from upstream operations in the supply chain)—an issue that the majority of brands still aren’t addressing.
“Out of 315 show notes and press releases we collated from brands showing on schedule in New York, London, Milan and Paris this season, only 26 per cent made a clear reference to sustainable or socially responsible practices in the production of their garments.” Few gave a holistic outline of the work they’re doing, with more smaller, independent designers mentioning eco-friendly practices compared to bigger brands.
The noticeably quieter discussion around sustainability this season suggests that little progress is being made in the industry, and at nowhere near the pace that is necessary. “It is deeply distressing,” Maxine Bédat, executive director of the New Standard Institute think tank, tells Vogue. “We’re not seeing greater transparency and the work we need to see.”
The fashion industry needs urgent and concrete action on sustainability
There’s no doubt that fashion needs to clean up its act—and quick. It’s estimated that the industry is responsible for a shocking four to 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions,with even the lower end of the estimates exceeding the annual emissions of the UK, France and Germany combined.
Back in 2019, more than 50 brands, including the likes of Burberry, Gucci and Prada, committed to reducing emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, and reach net-zero emissions by 2050 as part of the UN’s Fashion Charter (the latter goal also features in The Fashion Pact, a coalition of fashion companies committed to reaching environmental targets).
Worryingly though, emissions produced by the fashion industry as a whole are actually increasing, not decreasing, with the volume of apparel and footwear predicted to rise by a staggering 81 per cent by 2030 to 102m tons a year. A recent report by the Global Fashion Agenda and management consultants McKinsey found that emissions are likely to rise to 2.7bn tonnes a year by 2030, if no further action is taken over the next decade. Even if progress continues at the current rate, emissions would remain at the same level they are today as the size of the industry grows—showing just how urgently action is needed.
“This is a math problem; it’s a time-math problem,” Bédat says. “If we’re just looking at climate change, we have to reduce emissions at a specific pace within a specific time, and we know how to do it. Let’s start by doing the nuts and bolts.”
Non-profit climate change pressure group Stand. Earth has set out a five-step roadmap for a fossil-free fashion industry, which includes more ambition and accountability from brands, an aim of 100 per cent renewable energy in the supply chain, and a move away from fossil-fuel derived fabrics such as polyester.
Of course, tackling greenhouse gas emissions is only part of the puzzle—other issues including waste, pollution, chemical use and deforestation also need to be high on the agenda. That’s why it’s crucial that brands start directly addressing these problems rather than sweeping them under the carpet. “These challenges are not going away,” Bédat continues. “The more we say, ‘We’ll deal with it later,’ the worse the problem is going to be.”
Sustainability has to be a priority
While this season was disappointing when it comes to progress on fashion’s environmental impact, there were glimmers of hope. The appointment of eco-minded designer Gabriela Hearst at Chloé has shown how sustainability can be put front and centre at a major luxury house, with the brand describing this season’s collection as four times more sustainable than AW20 in regards to materials. “The reality we’re living is that we have only nine years to figure out how to do business before we’re in a critical situation with no chance to reverse back,” Hearst told Good Morning Vogue of the rapid speed at which change needs to take place.
Meanwhile, rising designers such as Priya Ahluwalia have always placed sustainability at the heart of their businesses. “We’re always aiming to do things in a positive way— it’s part of the DNA,” she explains, adding that she’s part of a new generation contributing towards a more eco-friendly fashion industry. “I hope the more disruptors we have, other businesses are going to have to take notice and change their ways.”
While COVID-19 and the economic fallout it is creating has undoubtedly put many brands in a precarious position, it’s essential that companies address sustainability head-on, and don’t simply carry on as before. “I think the biggest danger facing us as we come out of the pandemic is that we forget everything that we learned at the beginning and go back to business as usual,” says Harriet Vocking, chief brand officer at sustainability consultancy Eco-Age.
With the climate crisis becoming ever more pressing, fashion brands have a responsibility to take their environmental impact seriously. Sustainability simply isn’t an option—it must be an urgent priority.