2018’s edition of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit on the 15th and 16th May capped off an extraordinary year for the movement to make fashion sustainable. As Vogue proclaimed, 2017 ‘was the year that sustainable fashion got sexy’. Brands renounced the use of fur and started a genuine conversation about sustainability with their customers. It’s well and truly on the fashion agenda – from the factory floor to the boardroom. The real question is, why now?
The steady drum-beat of figures and statistics has certainly been eye-opening. To quote just a few, McKinsey has found that around 100 billion items of clothing are made each year, of which two fifths will end up in a dump. A report released by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation states that the amount of clothing bought has doubled in the last 15 years while the number of times an item is worn has declined by 20%. Most damning of all, the fashion industry is the world’s second-largest polluter, behind only oil and gas. The current model has been described as ‘take-make-dispose’.
Second, ‘circular manufacturing’ has provided fashion houses with a new consumer-friendly language to communicate their efforts. Flick through a recently published sustainability report by any major fashion label and you’ll find the term. Essentially, it means orienting the entire process, not just the relationship between brand and customer, around regeneration and recycling. It’s not difficult to see why the concept has gained traction – it combines a marketing-friendly name with a genuine effort to engage with sustainability throughout the supply chain. Importantly, it makes intuitive sense and can be translated to the consumer in a way that EP&L reporting simply can’t.
Stella McCartney is a champion of the approach, as is the brand’s soon-to-be former backer Kering which has instituted a raft of sustainability-focused measures over the past few years. On an industry-wide level, the recently published report from The Global Fashion Agenda cites it as one of its 7 key priorities.
Thirdly, consumers are increasingly concerned with the provenance of the products they buy and are willing to align their money with their principles. I’ve written previously about the growing millennial engagement with brands that authentically reflect their values. CSR and sustainability can drive revenue and innovation, not just the PR budget.
And the fact is that for the luxury market, sustainability is an easier cost to absorb. The high-fashion price-point already has a quality premium baked in – customers understand that they are paying for the best. As that definition of ‘best’ changes to include sustainable practices, luxury companies have greater latitude to transfer at least part of the cost onto shoppers more than willing to make purchase decisions per their values.
In any case, the dichotomy between revenue and sustainability is by now out of date. Innovation can and should offset much of the additional expense of knitting sustainability into every part of the process. From better, cheaper fibres and textiles through to more efficient energy use, the potential for innovation around sustainable practice to unlock growth and revenue is set to increase exponentially.
Finally, there is an increased awareness among fashion houses and designers that sustainable clothing doesn’t have to look like it’s going to be worn to Burning Man. Designers like Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood have shown season after season that it’s not all hemp and hand-me-downs. Stella McCartney’s footwear is highly sought after and the material is as soft as any real leather – you’re not going to get blisters like your mother said you would! Vogue’s ‘coat of the year’ in 2017, a canary yellow number designed by Raf Simons, used faux-fur, although to look at it you would be none the wiser.
It is worth noting that ‘sustainability’ is butting up against several other cultural forces which seem to run counter to the trend. For a start, disposable fashion is more popular than ever – clothes which exist for an Instagram photo session and not a moment longer. Cheaper clothing available online and delivered to your door by companies of questionable origin is becoming more and more common. The apparel treadmill seems, if anything, to have sped up even as more businesses start giving greater importance to circular manufacturing and recycling.
However, the signs suggest that sustainability is here to stay. Not only because there are genuine environmental and societal reasons for engaging with the issue, but also because the commercial argument is increasingly turning in its favour. ‘Sustainable luxury’ is moving from being an oxymoron to a tautology as more and more brands wake up to the necessity and opportunity built in to the sustainability agenda. I for one am excited to see how the best and brightest luxury businesses will innovate and transform to embrace this new era.