Do you know the darkest open secret in the luxury fashion world? That the fashion apparel and textile is the second most polluting industry after oil and energy. You read right. From sourcing of materials to extensive production wastage and even massive unsold stock, each stage in the production and consumption of fashion is a tremendous strain on resources. The luxury industry as a whole has been much vilified for promoting extravagance and uninhibited consumption and it’s been struggling to stay relevant in the changing scenario of resource consciousness and austerity.
There is a unilateral emergence of a new kind of more conscious consumer who is looking for sustainable indulgences and luxuries- WWF Report and the onus is now on the industry to redefine it’s parameters and respond to the challenge. And many players are doing so positively. So with an eye on the world’s biggest climate conference- COP21 underway in Paris, Le Hedonist examines if the luxury fashion industry can be an agent of change in the sustainability stakes.
Begin at the beginning. Sourcing of materials is one of the most contentious issues in fashion. Though fractured and not as strong as it should be, there’s movement towards ethical sourcing and designing with sustainable and recyclable materials.
LEATHER LOVE: Stella McCartney started her business on a sustainable, cruelty free material sourcing model. She was much ridiculed for her lofty idealism. Until 2007 when a very reputed environmental report found that the livestock industry accounted for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire global transport sector. Since then many other players have followed suit trying to source or even organically produce substitutes that give the same feel as leather and have succeeded – case in point- the best selling McCartney tote Falabella.
FAUX FUR IS THE REAL DEAL: Faux fur is similarly on the rise with powers like Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney of course among others. Though Fendi still refuses to budge. While the fur traders contend that this is natural, sustainable material but demand trumps the natural pace of supply leading to unnatural accelerated breeding and various other cruel practices. So the sustainability angle really becomes a moot point.
NO MORE BLOOD DIAMOND: ‘Blood Diamond’ the movie sparked a big conversation around sourcing of diamonds and brought ‘conflict diamonds’ into daily conversation. But the movement towards ethical sourcing in the jewellery industry had started way before with Tiffany & Co. leading the way by committing to sourcing diamonds for it’s collections only in an environmentally responsible manner. This saw them do backward supply chain integration on massive scale so as to exercise control on how sourcing was done. Tiffany & Co. also only purchases stones from countries that are participants in the Kimberley Processes Certification Scheme- which safeguards conflict free mining as far as possible.
Yes looking for sustainable materials comes at a staggering additional cost and what some call ‘creative compromise’, though we like to think it requires a lot more creativity to bring to life creations in sustainable materials, but it’s being done and done well.
STOP FLIRTING & START COMMITTING
Many players have dabbled in innovative sustainable materials for the last several years. Like:
- Manolo Blahnik’s Spring 2012 range using discarded tilapia skins, cork and raffia.
- Marni added recyclable material like vinyl records and plastic bottles in it’s Summer 2012 jewellery collection.
- Organic cotton limited edition T-shirts by Gucci in 2009.
- Or YSL’s capsule collection in the same year called ‘New Vintage’ which used remnant fabric from past collections. Many other big players like Armani, Burberry etc have dabbled in one off creations from innovative materials over the years.
But these seem to be more PR stunts than actual commitment to sustainable fashion. We need a long term and driven impetus to eco-fashion. It’s high time social and eco excellence were added to quality and timelessness to redefine luxury. Sustained measures like the yearly Copenhagen Fashion Summit on sustainable fashion and the Green Carpet Challenge are most welcome.
Wasted resources = wasted gain
Inditex is world’s biggest apparel company owning Zara, Massimo Dutti, Pull & Bear & Bershka among others and it’s sheer scale of operation worldwide has forced it to put stringent and innovative measures in place that ensure a low environmental impact. Wrap your head around this- if every Inditex store accidentally left on one light overnight, it would add up to almost nine years of wasted electricity. Now you know why they’re worried about their carbon foot print? And they back it up with concrete action starting with their basic business model.
Most fashion players buy & produce stock in bulk and then market it, leading to a lot of waste in manufacturing and invariably unsold stock. Zara creates products in response to market feedback via quantitative & qualitative data collected from stores in real time. And as Zara successfully demonstrates, this is manageable.
Inditex also works on the principle of ‘lean manufacturing‘, a concept championed by Toyota which basically looks into eliminating wastage within the production process. And the profit figures? We quote Dr Hausman(Professor of Management Science & Engineering, Stanford University) on what he calls the ‘Zara Gap’ theory- ‘by adopting a more flexible, demand- driven operating model, there is an opportunity to increase their profits by 28 percent and their market capitalisation by up to 43 percent.’ Need we say more?
SLOW THE SEASONS
‘So last season’ is such a favourite put down but the fashion industry takes it very seriously. The actual seasons don’t change as furiously as fashion seasons do. Gone are the simplistic SS & FW days with Couture Week, Resort Collections, and what not marking the fashion calendars. This has caused the change designs race to spiral out of control. And this is a huge drain on resources by simple logic of more production leading to more pressure. Like Demna Gvasalia, the new creative director of Balenciaga said recently,“I’m not really sure if the market actually demands all those clothes….You know we deliver winter in July; it doesn’t make any sense…. I feel something needs to happen to find a new mechanism or system to work because it is a lot of money wasted as well, on development, on selling things we don’t really need.” These crunched timelines and pressure to constantly ‘renew’ doesn’t allow designers to focus their creative energy on stylish designs with lasting appeal and innovative materials.
THE FASHION DETOX
Some hard facts.
Some 3,500 chemical substances are used to turn various raw materials into textiles out of which almost 10% are huge human and environmental hazards.
It takes around 7,000 litres of water to produce a single pair of jeans.
The Chinese textile industry which accounts for almost 54% of world production creates about 3 billion tons of soot each year.
A single textile mill of moderate size can use up to 200 tons of water for each ton of fabric it dyes and mind you untreated toxic dyes are washed off mills into river systems.
The fact file can go on but we think you get the picture. Toxic chemical pollution from apparel manufacturing is a burning issue that is finally getting it’s due. Though it’s a small number, 18 companies(10% of global retail) including Valentino, Burberry, Marks & Spencer and H&M, have begun to eliminate toxic chemicals from their supply chains as part of Greenpeace’s Detox My Fashion campaign. But this is having a much desired ripple effect across the supply chain. Initiatives of giants like Inditex and Uniqlo are very stringent about supplier credentials and practices. Leading the way is Valentino which has publicly committed to eliminating all hazardous chemicals that are used throughout the entire production cycle by January 2020.
Experts have outlined 4 major ways of detoxing fashion:
- Choice of material- renewable and sustainable as far as possible,
- Eye on factories that dye and finish these fabrics- minimise use of harmful chemicals and untreated spillage into water bodies
- Transportation of goods- airways is a big no no
- Consumer care directions on garments- promote hand washing and shun dry cleaning as it again uses toxic solvents.
Davids: 1 Goliaths: 0
True to the biblical legend, smaller players are beating the giants in the sustainable fashion stakes. While the big whigs are hell bent on running archaic and eco-destructive production systems and business models while dabbling periodically in eco friendly PR stunts to manage the optics, smaller fashion houses are actually turning the page in this regard. Like John Patrick’s fashion line Organic which shows that luxurious clothing can be via ethical production. Or jewellery designer Monique Pean who makes high-end luxury with environmentally friendly materials like walrus ivory and recyclable gold. A lot of smaller design houses are also opting for less use of cotton and instead going for alternatives like tencel, hemp etc. They’re using waterless or chemical-free dyeing processes and less synthetic materials in production. So will the giants take their cue and follow suit?
Willing to green it?
It’s true the fashion sector is not known championing consequential issues- social, political or ecological. But this is one of the most powerful industries in the world not just in terms of the monetary stakes but also as the most powerful influencer and opinion maker. Will it just let that be a means to reap benefit or will luxury fashion choose to Green it? Then let’s not forget our role as consumers. There are plenty of smaller players raising the bar in sustainable fashion but we as consumers need to support them. A lot has to also do with the choices we make. So are we willing to green it?
May the Force of Green be with you!