Green is the new black: Fashion’s new eco-conscious direction

Words by
John Arlidge
Photography by
Isaeka11 / Dinadankersdesign / Shutterstock

14th May 2021

From cutting carbon emissions to using recycled plastic and offering resale, see how luxury brands are embracing sustainability — and with it a new ethic

It should be spring/summer on planet fashion, but the industry is, instead, facing an autumn/winter of discontent. Thanks to Covid lockdown, the catwalks of London, Paris, Milan and New York are dark. Many boutiques, department stores, malls and factories are closed. Worst of all, the vast glut of stock exposed by store closures has revealed the industry’s dirty secret: rampant overproduction and excessive use of resources. 

This triple whammy has forced some of the biggest figures in the business to confront an issue too long swept under the red carpet: the environment. No lesser figure than Anna Wintour, former US Vogue editor and now chief content officer of Condé Nast, concedes: “We are forced into a moment when we have to reset.” 

But how? For every home worker who has decided they don’t need to buy anything new ever again, there is another whose increasingly threadbare loungewear serves as a reminder of the joy that fashion can bring. “Beauty comforts, reassures and heals the spirit. I’m sure people will want that after such dire times,” says Giorgio Armani, the long-serving fashion designer, who confesses when he gets down, he buys shoes. 

How to square this guilt/joy circle is the question furrowing even the most Botox-smoothed brows on the virtual front row of recent digital catwalk shows. 

The biggest criticism of the modern £1tn fashion industry is that, in a desperate race for market share, brands over-produce. They do too many collections — up to eight per year, rather than simply spring/summer and autumn/winter lines — and stage too many costly, elaborate shows around the world. The result is a vicious cycle of early full-price sales in boutiques and department stores, followed by deep discounting and then, for some brands, the burning of stock. That’s bad for brand equity and disastrous for the environment. 

Before the pandemic grounded most planes, fashion accounted for more carbon emissions than the aviation industry. More than 100 billion garments were churned out in 2019, double the number made in 2000. Many consumers only wear an item a few times before getting rid of it. “We were producing way too many clothes, doing way too many shows. We can’t go back to that speed,” admits Edward Enninful, European editorial director of Vogue.

Some of the biggest names are beginning to act, to show that fashion can mend its wares and its ways. Kering, the luxury goods behemoth that owns Gucci, Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta, has introduced environmental profit and loss accounts that put a financial value on the company’s environmental impact. “In times of crisis, it’s important to show you can run a good business and, at the same time, protect people and the environment,” says Kering’s head of sustainability, Marie-Claire Daveu. Gucci’s creative director and Kering’s biggest grossing designer, Alessandro Michele, has pledged to reduce the number of the label’s shows from five a year to two. 

At arch-rival luxury giant LVMH — the conglomerate behind Louis Vuitton, Dior and Fendi — Jonathan Anderson, creative director of its Loewe label, has begun making clothing out of recycled plastic bottles. Prada is using yarn spun from recycled ocean plastic to make its iconic nylon backpacks. Balenciaga and Burberry now tout not only the quality of their fabrics and leathers, but also their green credentials. Chanel, meanwhile, has appointed a new global chief sustainability officer, Kate Wylie, formerly global vice president of sustainability at food and drink company Mars. She will report to the French maison’s chief executive and co-owner Alain Wertheimer.

At fashion weeks, concepts and methods that were once the exclusive domain of young, fringe designers — using old stock fabric, for example, or cutting up and refashioning last season’s unsold garments into something new — are now being adopted by mainstream brands, including Maison Margiela. Activewear brand Patagonia last year launched ReCrafted, a collection of one-of-a-kind pieces made from scraps of fabric waste. Priced between £40 and £200, they cost more than new versions of the items, but customers snap them up so quickly they often sell out, says Alex Kremer, who oversees the initiative. 

It has become standard practice for labels to claim their catwalk shows are “carbon-neutral” because they offset the carbon emissions they can’t eliminate from the supply chain or travel by donating to, for example, forest restoration projects. Critics, however, question the effectiveness of offsetting. 

It’s not all about clothes. Swiss watchmakers are also showing off their green side. In February this year, Frédéric Arnault, the new CEO of Tag Heuer — which is part of LVMH — announced that when a model of his brand’s Connected smartwatch becomes obsolete, customers can return it and have the steel case and strap recycled to make a new model. The batteries can be recycled too, he adds. “When you bring back your smartwatch, we’ll take it to recycle it and we’ll give you a percentage of the retail price of the smartwatch for you to purchase the next one,” he says. 

“In times of crisis, it’s important to show you can run a good business and, at the same time, protect people and the environment”

Retailers are following the lead set by brands. Selfridges is introducing clothing rental, a second-hand fashion shop, beauty-pack recycling and a “concierge” to help organise product repairs as part of a five-year sustainability plan. The retailer has also created a labelling system that highlights products that are organic, forest-friendly or vegan. Luxury e-tailers, including Net-a-Porter, MatchesFashion and Zalando, have introduced similar labelling schemes. 

The retailers’ moves are more than purely altruistic. There is a strong business case for embracing reuse and resale. The second-hand market, pioneered by resale sites such as Depop in the UK, Vestiaire Collective in France, TheRealReal in the US and YCloset in China, is expected to grow faster than fast fashion in coming years. In the US, it is projected to more than triple in value in the next 10 years, from $28bn in 2019 to $80bn in 2029, according to Thredup, an online consignment and thrift store brand. Small wonder Gucci, LVMH, Tommy Hilfiger, Levi’s and Anna Sui are experimenting with the idea — after years of shying away, claiming it is difficult to scale and could dilute brand strength. 

Other brands and retailers, such as activewear brand Girlfriend Collective, FanFare and Zero Waste Daniel, focus exclusively on “circularity” — encouraging consumers to return old clothes so that fabric can be recycled and reused. It’s early days, but designers and executives say it won’t be long before the larger brands do the same. As one puts it: “It makes good business and environmental sense to offer your customers the chance to return older garments to be recycled into new ones for you to buy at a reduced price or in return for a voucher offering money off a new garment. It’s a virtuous loop in every sense.” 

Fashionistas are also keeping an eye on regenerative agriculture, a conservation and rehabilitation approach to farming. California-based non-profit Fibershed is working with brands to source sustainably and ethically farmed wool. Outdoor clothing company Patagonia, meanwhile, has helped to launch a certification for regenerative organic agriculture.

What of fast fashion, which accounts for a vast and growing chunk of the 80 billion garments produced annually? Back in March last year, some observers predicted lockdown, combined with the climate emergency, would persuade many younger, eco-conscious consumers to shop less. As if. Once stores reopened, the biggest queues across Europe were outside Primark, helping it to a record market share over last summer. The £4 skirt and top looks safe for now — and is likely to stay that way as the recession deepens and spending power declines.

But that doesn’t mean fast fashion retailers are avoiding reform. Organic and recycled fibres, once a rarity, can now be found in the likes of H&M. The Swedish brand’s chief executive, Helena Helmersson, has pledged “to produce what we can sell and make sustainable products — and remake and resell”.

In spite of all the new initiatives, the challenge for fashion to demonstrate that green is the new black remains huge. The latest research indicates that the industry is still growing so fast — the volume of apparel and footwear being produced is forecast to increase by 81% to 102 million tonnes by 2030 — that it is becoming less, not more, sustainable. A study by the Global Fashion Agenda in Copenhagen and the Boston Consulting Group last year revealed that the industry’s progress on everything from carbon reduction to ensuring living wages for workers was 30% slower in 2019 than the year before. 

But executives and their advisers are undeterred. Leading fashion analyst Karl-Hendrik Magnus, at McKinsey, says: “Fashion is about emotional attachment, loyalty and excitement for brands. We are convinced that, in the future, brand love and brand loyalty will very much be dependent on the sustainability attributes that a brand enables or builds with its consumers. It’s not only a need, but also a huge opportunity for this industry to reinvent itself and create things that are exciting to the consumer in new ways.”