We are moments away from the end of the fashion month. After New York, London and Milan, as the lights fades over the last runways in the French capital, I can't help but wonder: why are we still doing this?
Generally speaking, we are well aware of the negative environmental impact of the fashion industry: sustainability is not just a buzzword now, and it looks to be more than just a passing trend. However, not enough people actually know, or spend time to reflect about the environmental impact of fashion week itself. Creating one-off pieces to showcase on the runways as the new trend of the upcoming season is costing a lot. Not in terms of money but in terms of environment.
According to the report Zero to Market, published a few days ago in the New York Times, the carbon emission produced annually by fashion people and clothing collections moving around the planet for runways is about 241,000 tons. To give you a sense of the number, it is enough to power Times Square for 58 years. Or to keep the Eiffel Tower lit for 3060 years.
The report was released by the fashion technology company Ordre.com and a climate-change consultancy called the Carbon Trust. The research adds up the annual emissions of all transport that forms an integral part of the wholesale buying process, and it analysed the latest data from the thousands of retailers and brands that sent people to major fashion weeks and trade shows.
Fashion shows in September move thousands of designers, models and professionals, as well as hundreds of guests, press and influencers. According to the report, travel to New York was responsabile for the highest amount of carbon (37% of all emissions), shortly followed by Paris (28%), London (18%) and Milan (17%).
"While the emissions measured in this study are likely to be a small percentage of the fashion industry’s total emissions, it is a highly visible part of the industry where positive change has the ability to be influential across the supply chain and other industries,” explained Pauline Op de Beeck, sustainable fashion lead and client manager at the Carbon Trust. “We are an industry that thrives on innovation, and now is the time to start thinking about the business of fashion differently” added Simon P Lock, founder and CEO of Ordre.
The obvious questions now are: can fashion weeks ever be environmentally justifiable? Surely, long gone are the days in which one could create a rocket inside the Gran Palais, as did Chanel in the 2017 Paris Fashion Show, without anyone pointing out its environmental cost. And surely brands and designers are switching their approaches, boasting about carbon neutrality and announcing their sustainability goals. But is there some actual progress?
The findings paint a stark picture of the environmental impact of fashion month, showing that sustainable approaches must go beyond the garments themselves. While lower impact design initiatives were aplenty from New York to Milan, the next step needs to see companies actively rethink the events and presentations that form part of the wholesale business model.
The fashion industry is considered accountable for approximately 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions (more than the emissions of all international flights and maritime shipping combined). However, not only does fashion have an impact on the environment in terms of CO2 emissions, but the textile industry is also accountable for 35% of the plastic microfibers released in oceans and 20% of the industrial water pollution.
As Alden Wicker, award-winning journalist and sustainable fashion expert said: "Of course, runway shows create but a sliver of the environmental impact of the fashion industry, but they represent everything that is wrong with it. They’re inherently wasteful, with glossy sets built, torn down, and landfilled after a ten-minute spectacle. Attendees fly first-class from fashion capital to fashion capital, where they jump into black cars that ferry them around, leaving trails of disposable water bottles and gift-bag swag behind".
With scrutiny on fashion’s environmental impact mounting, the excess of major fashion weeks is increasingly at odds with the public commitments of major brands to operate more sustainably. Making profit should not be at the expense of the others nor at the expense of our planet.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) presented a new analysis of New York Fashion Week's environmental impact, which suggests that virtual fashion weeks might have to stay. The study found that the typical NYFW, in contrast to the predominantly virtual presentations experienced because of Covid-19, generates up to 48,000 tons of carbon dioxide and that air travel to the event makes up the largest percentage of NYFW's overall footprint each season. The next largest source of greenhouse gas emissions for NYFW comes from accommodation for guests (between 850 to 1,480 metric tons) and production of the collection itself (between 710 to 900). The report claims that production is the category in which "stakeholders are doing the most to be more sustainable." However, brands need to do more outside of that to address potential sources of environmental harm in the shows themselves.
Analyzing NYFW’s current ecosystem, the CFDA identified priorities and opportunities to make fashion weeks more sustainable: "We recognize that making NYFW more sustainable is but a mere drop in the bucket compared to the fashion industry as a whole, but it can serve as a bellwether for changes," said Sarah Willersdorf, BCG's global head of luxury, in a press release. "Sustainability is not a nice-to-have anymore. It is essential both for our planet and for the long term prosperity of the fashion industry."
And something is moving in the right direction. Some of the designers – Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood and Versace Group to name a few – are highlighting how important sustainability is. Since then, other luxury brands have read the room and started recycling and reusing runway set materials, offsetting the carbon emissions emitted by guests, and nodding to the coming apocalypse with logo face masks and recycled materials.
However, there are still several things that can be done to increase sustainability. For example, the industry could combine seasons and gender by having a single Fashion Week per year instead of two. And it could even increase the number of online events, continuing a 2020 trend, in order to decrease travel emissions. But first and foremost, the industry should turn Fashion Weeks into climate awareness, raising a new form of consciousness and understanding of the environmental impact of fashion by encouraging brands to apply codes of ethics by both promoting sustainability in the industry, and educating the audience about climate change issues.
Written by Miriam Tagini