Life in the Time of COVID
By: Maria Casey
It’s no secret that the fashion industry is changing. For the first time, our sustainability conversation has gone global and gotten political. At the G7, Emmanuel Macron announced his Fashion Pact — now 150 brands strong. Headed by Kering's chair and CEO François-Henri Pinault its goals are to restore biodiversity, heal the oceans, and achieve carbon neutral by 2050.
Meanwhile, the biggest runway shows of the season are featuring models of all sizes, shapes, and shades. Take Savage x Fenty’s 2019 New York Fashion Week extravaganza, which set the interwebs ablaze due to its inclusion of celebrities, former Victoria’s Secret models, and the diverse group of females strutting down the catwalk. But as incredible and game-changing as Rhianna’s show is said to have been (phones were banned so the we won’t know until Sept. 20 when it streams on Amazon—its sponsor), it also epitomizes the dichotomy the fashion industry currently faces.
The other Amazon is busy putting on a show too. As the fashion world looks to the runways, acres burn. It will take centuries for the rainforest to fully recover. While the two might not seem connected, the clothing, electronics, and disposables sold on Amazon, the cardboard it’s delivered in, and the ease of having things delivered same day or overnight have a link to the environmental crisis we’re currently facing. If we continue to prioritize convenience and looking good over doing good, in a century, we might only have one Amazon left.
Cue sustainable, slow fashion. Already revolutionizing the way couture houses design, how brands launch, and how we think about what we wear, its ethos is slowly moving into Fashion Week.
One Google search will reveal a multitude of articles and blogs discussing the relevance of Fashion Week in the Digital Age. Arguments for its demise claim that social media, influencer culture, and livestream access have it much less exclusive than it once was. It is true that the seasons Louis XIV dictated don’t reflect our current patterns of consumption. But juxtaposed against this are the creative energy, artistic excitement, and passion of clothing artists exhibiting their crafts.
Have you ever wondered why Fashion Week exists in the first place? Well, the credit goes to a famous publicist named Eleanor Lambert. In 1943, Americans were unable to travel to France while WWII raged on, so she started New York’s “Press Week.” Things have come a long way since then. Now, not only do we have the “big four,” New York, London, Milan, and Paris — there are about 77 in the U.S. alone and every week is Fashion Week somewhere in the world. At a minimum, that’s 129 fashion-related conventions every year.
But that comes at a cost. If you’re a fan of Fashion Week, you know what a glorious spectacle it is. Bedazzled sets, spectacular effects, models in all manner of coiffure—lacquered up or stripped down depending on the trend—showing off the most influential, buzzworthy lines. Each show is a production of magnitude and scale.
Events this big have an environmental impact on waste, water, transport and travel, and energy consumption. However, there’s a lack of information about how much waste Fashion Week produces. What we do know is that conventions of all stripes have large eco-footprints.
Travel comprises 90% of the carbon footprint. The carbon cost of a transatlantic plane ride is nearly the equivalent of a year of driving. An estimated 125 thousand people attend NYFW, so let's assume that 50 thousand attendees travel by airplane. That’s 80 thousand tonnes or three Lady Liberty-sized bouquets of carbon released into the atmosphere from flights alone.
Then there’s the waste. Think about it—most people who are traveling aren’t zero wasters, which means they’ll be relying on single-use plastics—from bottles to cutlery to plates. To get a sense of the size and scale, consider that when Microsoft eliminated plastic bottles from their conferences, they saved 600K annually. Estimating a price of $2 per bottle, that means a yearly savings of 300K plastic bottles. Not insignificant.
As far as a carbon-neutral Fashion Week is concerned, Copenhagen—also the world’s most bike-friendly city—has taken the lead. As of August 2019, they’d banned single-use plastics, and their goal is to become climate positive at FW 2020. Additionally, they’ve implemented aggressive sustainability standards for which they will be holding themselves accountable. CFW’s CEO, Cecilie Thorsmark, stated that “The detrimental impact of plastic pollution is one of many challenges to tackle on a global scale. Putting an end to the distribution of single-use plastic bottles during Copenhagen Fashion Week marks our commitment to reducing the quantity of plastic being consumed during the event, as well as our wish to inspire positive change.”
Has New York followed suit? Nope. Sustainability info isn’t readily available, nor do we see any massive campaigns that attempt to reduce the event’s environmental impact. We are seeing sustainability initiatives, such as the partnership between Hyundai and Maria Cornejo to incorporate manufacturing waste into her collection. While this is encouraging, it does nothing to stem Fashion Week's waste.
On a positive note, sustainable clothing lines are dropping out of NYFW. One of them, Mara Hoffman, previewed her new collection in-office instead.
We need to marry the pomp and circumstance of high-fashion to the reality of our climate crisis. As the industry continues to expand, we'll have to come to grips with fashion's role.
“By 2030, the global apparel and footwear industry is estimated to grow by 81 percent, placing an unprecedented strain on already scarce resources.”Vogue
Activist Greta Thunberg just sailed across the Atlantic to attend New York’s Climate Week because she refuses to fly. It’s a radical action that most of us wouldn’t undertake, but it speaks to the problem. Remember the bags that Amazon x Savage x Fenty used to lock down observers’ phones? What do you imagine happened to those? Sure, they might have been biodegradable and composted after use, but it’s doubtful.
Living in an increasingly interconnected and endangered world demands that we pay attention to more than just the Pantone Color Trend Report. The Fashion Week of the Future will account for all ecological impacts of production. We're still in sustainable fashion's infancy. When spectacle, sales, and PR take a backseat to sustainability, we’ll know we’ve arrived.