Redefining “sustainable fashion”

Redefining “sustainable fashion”

In 2009, the Danish Fashion Institute organized one of the first sustainable fashion summits in Copenhagen, just in time for the UN COP15 summit. This was back when everyone thought it was funny to make jokes about green being the new black, and most people thought ‘eco’ and ‘vegan’ and ‘organic’ all meant somewhat the same thing, and while major fashion companies even had sustainability directors, they were based in tiny multi-story rooms and winding hallways away from the heart of the C-suite.

How things have changed.

Today, nearly every fashion brand, from mass market to luxury, swears they put sustainability at the heart of their strategic plans. On almost all of their websites are ESG (environmental, social and governance) reports the size of small books. Business leaders are clamoring to talk about how they are changing their businesses to tackle climate change. Promises to achieve carbon neutrality abound.

In 2018, the UNFCCC (the United Nations climate change body) unveiled the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, with its science-based goals for the fashion industry, including achieving zero emissions emissions by 2050. Last year, at COP26 in Glasgow, the group updated it to reflect the need to halve emissions by 2030; currently, approximately 150 partner brands and organizations have signed up.

Its objective is similar but unrelated to the Fashion Pact, created in 2019 by Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, and François-Henri Pinault, the managing director of Kering, himself in some way linked to the “CEO Carbon Neutral Challenge “. issued the same year by Marco Bizzarri, the general manager of Gucci (which belongs to Kering).

Then there is the Fashion Working Group, chaired by Federico Marchetti, former CEO of YOOX Net-a-Porter, and part of the Sustainable Markets Initiative created by Prince Charles. Just last month, the band released a “Regenerative Fashion Manifesto”, as well as plans for a program in the Himalayas to create a regenerative farm for silk, cotton and cashmere.

Yet for every development that suggests a serious commitment from industry and government to at least come up with a plan for systemic change (and a timeline for it), there is another that makes true sustainability, when it comes to out of fashion, seems as remote as ever. Greenwashing is still a pervasive problem, so much so that the European Union is about to tackle it, with its “Environmental Claims Substantiation Initiative”, which will be released later this year and essentially requires companies to substantiate claims such as “green” and “eco-friendly” with a recognized third-party methodology.

After all, the ultimate fast-fashion company, Shein, was valued at $100 billion. in its last funding cycle. Even it has an ESG manager, appointed at the end of last year – despite the fact that the company also has a business model based on overconsumption.

If you’re wondering how it works, well, join the club. It does not mean anything.

But neither is the term “sustainable fashion” itself. It’s an oxymoron. “Sustainable”, after all, implies “able to continue over a period of time”, according to the the Cambridge dictionary. “Fashion”, on the other hand, implies a change over time. Reconciling the two is impossible. No wonder the fight for net-zero emissions makes us all feel like Don Quixotes, hunched over windmills.

(And as William McDonough, the author of “Cradle to Cradle,” the seminal book on the circular economy, says, since when is “zero” the most desirable outcome?)

That’s before you start trying to skim through acronyms and abbreviations; Besides the above, there are GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) and CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) and NFFO (Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation) and TPH (Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons). To name a few.

We need a better way to frame the discussion.

We are therefore going to talk about “responsible fashion”: a term that designates a world in which all players, from the consumer to the CEO, via the manufacturer and the farmer, assume their role in the supply chain and the creation, and for the choices they make.

It may sound semantic, but it’s the difference between an end goal that seems impossible, perhaps daunting, out of reach, and the process of at least trying to get there: step by step, increment by increment, decision by decision.

Because there’s no simple answer to solving fashion’s role in climate change. Even the most obvious — don’t make or buy new things and don’t throw away old things — has negative implications for employment, skills and self-definition. (After all, people have adorned themselves to express themselves for about as long as they have understood themselves as “I’s”.) The crucial question for each of us, regardless of which side of the equation we find ourselves, is to think about and understand the effects of the choices we make, so that we can make better ones in the future.

And even, perhaps, to see these challenges as creative opportunities rather than burdens. Especially for brands: Limits often give rise to new ways of thinking and designing.

To bring to life what this means when it comes to clothing – especially as we begin to emerge into the world after a two-year period of near-hibernation and begin to rethink dormant wardrobes – we bring to you the stories of a group of small brands and manufacturers as they seek to act responsibly, weigh the trade-offs involved, and try to make choices that balance not towards zero, but towards a positive outcome.

How big does a company really have to be? How to scale upcycling when resources are limited? How do you share know-how, or even materials, with companies that are your competitors? How do you decide if leather is a by-product or a bad product? What do you, the consumer, need to know before buying, and how best to explain it? Is it possible to quantify doing “good”?

Twice a month, through Climate Weeks in London and New York, and leading up to COP27 in Egypt, go behind the scenes of the fight to give fashion a new look. Because in the end, it’s not just a question of product. It’s personal.

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