Sustainability is the hottest buzzword in fashion right now. Let’s be fair, it’s not easy for an industry built around wide-eyed escapism to face up to the sometimes grim reality of its own world – but it is happening.
The collapse of the garment factory Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013 and the release of The True Cost, an exposé fashion documentary aired in 2015 and directed by Andrew Morgan, sent a shockwave through the system. Add to this, the fashion industry is the second largest polluter, second to oil. Cue customers starting a conversation with: ‘Can the fashion industry really change?’
The who, what, where and when has followed as consumers (especially millennials) become more conscious about their purchases and, in turn, demand change.
At the tail end of 2016, according to the McKinsey Global Fashion Index, fashion was worth an estimated $2.4 trillion. So it comes as no surprise the apparel industry accounts for ten percent of all global carbon emissions, the primary human cause of global warming.
And it’s making fabric that comes at a cost to the climate. Year after year, around 70 million trees are used to make fabrics like rayon, viscose, modal and lyocell. Have you checked your clothing label lately? It’s there in black and white. And it doesn’t stop there. It’s been estimated over a billion animals a year are killed for their leather and 50 million for their fur.
But trade associations, luxury groups, educational institutions and non-profits are making way for change. Glasgow Caledonian University’s Fair Fashion Center is a pioneer in its own right. Working with around 30 CEOs and 211 brands – a mixture of luxury conglomerates and massive retail and distribution companies – that are collectively responsible for $200 billion in business.
But most of the brands, for now, have decided to keep their good work away from the public eye. However, François-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of Kering, whose luxury labels include Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Gucci, isn’t shying away from discussing the subject matter and changes that need to be made.
And then there’s Stella McCartney. She’s is an inspiration for her sustainability model – and also part of the Kering Group. Working with NGO Canopy, she’s ensured (since she started her label) that fabric production meets strict sustainability standards.
Sourcing everything from a certified forest in Sweden, with the extraction process happening in other certified mills around Europe, the impact of transportation is reduced. At the annual talk held at the London College of Fashion in November last year, she said: “Fashion is getting away with murder – it needs to be answerable and more questions need to be asked.” And she’s right. She’s living proof it’s achievable. Fifty-three percent of her entire womenswear collections and 45 percent of her menswear is sustainable.
Fast fashion is the killer. People dispose of clothes after only a few wears without giving it a second thought. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the fashion business is responsible for 85 percent of all textiles that make their way to landfills – around 21 billion tonnes.
That’s why the high street brands are stepping up to the plate, like H&M’s take-back, where customers bring back their old clothes in exchange for a discount on a new purchase. Since 2013, they’ve collected around 30,000 metric tons of old clothes, giving them to charity shops or using them as fibre material for insulation.
Last year, fast fashion giant Zara launched Join Life (in a similar standing to H&M’s Conscious Collection in 2011) using organic cotton, recycled wool and Tencel. Meanwhile, Topshop’s Reclaim range is a capsule collection made up of 20 pieces created from existing stock of jersey, cotton and denim off-cuts.
They say a good pair of jeans can last you a lifetime, which is why Levis’s Water<Less jeans process has been met with considerable acclaim. By removing the water from stone washing, the company estimates the changes cut water usage by up to 96 percent for some styles.
And finally, this year should also see the appearance of the Higg Index. This apparel and footwear self-assessment collection is working on a standardised supply chain measurement tool so garment tags can educate shoppers about their purchases’ social and environmental effects.
It is looking good for sustainable fashion.