Sustainability in Fashion: Not If but How

Photographed by Colin Dodgson, Vogue, March 2017

Following a sequence of successful fashion exhibitions, including Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion and Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, the Victoria & Albert Museum continues with Fashioned from Nature running from April 21, 2018, through January 27, 2019. The exhibition is said to “trace the complex relationship between fashion and the natural world” from 1600 to present day and will showcase innovative new fabrics and dyeing processes, inviting visitors to think about the materials of fashion and the sources of their clothes.

The exhibition will explore how designers such as Christian Dior and Dries van Noten draw inspiration from the beauty and power of nature. Also, it will promote environmentally and ethically conscious fashion with a series of pieces by British designers Stella McCartney and Christopher Raeburn. 

The exhibition meets l’air du temps, culturally underscoring the possibly most urgent issue of 2018 and beyond. The decision of committing to sustainability is no longer a question of if but of how. Placing environmental, social, and ethical improvements on the agenda of senior management is a requirement- not because it “looks good to do good” but more importantly, it is a necessity to ensure future profitability. The Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) and The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) predict that fashion brands’ profitability levels risk at least 3 percentage points if they don’t act determinedly, and soon.

On the other hand, the GFA and BCG predict a €160 billion- per- year upside for the world economy that can be achieved due to increased efficiency and diligent use of scarce resources, treating workers fairly, and addressing issues up and down the value chain. However, we are faced with a chilling reality. With overall apparel consumption to rise by a staggering 63%, from 62 million tons today to 102 million tons in 2030, due to a growing global middle class and unprecedented growth in emerging markets, is it even realistic to tackle this problem? My cynical side says “impossible”, but the optimist in me reflects upon the incredible work championed by Sustainable Angle, Positive Luxury, Eco-Age role models like Arizona Muse, and I say you know what, There is good in the world, there is motivation. We are an innovative generation. Yes, we can.

(Left to Right) Giorgio Armani, Miuccia Prada, Pierpaolo Piccioli (Valentino), Alessandro Michele (Gucci) Sustainable Fashion Awards, Milan 2017

Although significant changes have been made, with sustainable front-runners celebrated for example at the first Green Carpet Awards in Milan this past season, individual brands cannot solve the issue alone. One of the key outcomes of the most recent Pulse report underscores the power of collaboration in promoting the shift towards a sustainable future. We must build an ecosystem which encourages all parts of the industry to collaborate in tackling these major issues and to encourage change in order to in the future collectively reap the opportunities ahead. It is only through collaboration where promising ideas emerge and where companies can pilot programs and subsequently scale them up to commercial viability. Together with NGOs, industry associations, and academic leaders, substantial cross-industry and cross-functional collaboration can be fostered in order to stimulate change in a globally harmonised approach. Greenpeace also recognises the importance of collaboration in moving forward. Platforms must be built in order to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and cooperation between all sizes and types of companies.

Made in Spain label Sunad

Additionally, Greenpeace provides further recommendations. Firstly, the organisation emphasises the need for innovative design addressing longer life and promoting the extended use of clothing as an important intervention to help slow down the material flow. A central solution in minimising waste is the creation of higher quality clothes which are more durable and repairable.  Creating services to repair and refurbish clothes must also become a norm in order to encourage more re-use. We must shift away from products with an expiration date and instead design for long life. Consumers also hold the responsibility to educate ourselves and again develop a meaningful relationship to our possessions. “Make fashion great again”, where we appreciate and take care of our wardrobes. Clothing should be cherished, treated as physical extensions of ourselves, opposed to disposable objects simply fulfilling a need.

We must support transformative business models to enable a rise of “true materialism”:

“a switch from an idea of a consumer society where materials matter little, to a truly material society, where materials – and the world they rely on – are cherished.”

Additionally, we must define specific targets, reward design improvements, provide traceability and reporting, and raise funds for collaborative R&D across the industry to support the development of technologies and new materials.

While a gargantuan task, we cannot throw the towel.