Climate change and the resulting environmental impact has made headlines around the world in recent months, following the actions of Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl who received international attention when she started protesting outside the Swedish parliament and created a viral ‘school strike for climate change’ campaign. Indeed, the issue of sustainability has become a hot topic, not least in the fashion industry where there has been growing discourse about the seismic ethical questions surrounding fast fashion. In a move which indicated a sea change in the fashion community, the fashion capital of the world, Paris, recently made significant steps towards legislation to shape a more sustainable fashion industry. This May, French president Emmanuel Macron appointed Francois-Henri Pinault, the CEO of luxury conglomerate Kering SA (the group behind Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Yves Saint Lauren) as the French spokesperson for global fashion sustainability targets. Speaking at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit last month, Pinault commented on the move in an impassioned speech to those gathered at the conference “despite what we’re doing, things are not moving. I could understand it if we were the only company working towards this, but we aren’t. It’s amazing what some of the biggest companies are doing. But the results don’t work.” He continued: “we really need to define targets together. The first stage is to choose three or four objectives that are the top priority for the industry and commit to working towards them together to find solutions. I’m [confident] we will reach a level that none of us individually could reach by working alone.”
The dangers of fast fashion
“The biggest issue is the fact that non-sustainable fashion exists and there isn’t legislation to prevent it,” says Julian Prolman, founder and president of Ministry of Tomorrow, a fashion house which supports livelihoods in Kenya and cruelty-free products. Another key issue is “sheer consumerism,” adds Sian Rowlands, CEO of RETOLD, a pre-owned luxury fashion boutique in Dubai. “The rate at which ‘we’ as a society buy and mindlessly discard our everyday fashion pieces. Fast fashion brands drop new styles every week, so essentially we have moved away from two fashion seasons per year, to 52. And with the rise of social media and the dislike for being seen in the same outfit more than once, we’ve created a collective mindset that needs to have new pieces all the time. It takes about 2,700 litres of water to make a cotton t-shirt, which is as much as an average person (who is lucky enough to have access to fresh, running water), would drink in three years. The throw-away society we have cultivated thinks it’s acceptable to buy a ‘cheap’ item, wear it once or twice and then simply toss it out. But ‘cheap’ is never actually cheap. Someone somewhere is paying for it, meaning the farmers that grow and harvest the cotton who are being pressured by increasing demand, or the less than-minimum-wage workers who produce the items in factories far out of society’s minds’ eye. The fashion industry is broken, we have moved away from ‘make do and mend’, to ‘buy buy buy’.” Rowlands tells L’Officiel Arabia.
Moreover, fast fashion does not only negatively impact on low paid workers but has a resounding impact on 3 the environment. According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, textiles production causes 1.2 billion total greenhouse emissions per year, that’s more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. While a report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature that more than a third (34.8%) of all microplastics in the world’s oceans were caused by the textiles industry. The report which is entitled Engineering Out Fashion Waste concludes that both governments and the fashion industry need to tackle the crisis as a “matter of urgency”, suggesting that the industry work towards developing environmentally-friendly fibres and to tackle textile-related plastic waste.
Despite the need for increased action, the past decade has seen an increase in awareness in the fashion industry, something that outside of niche brands, was not readily acknowledged in previous years. “The past few years have definitely seen a shift in the fashion industry,” said Anand Kumar, managing director of luxury company ABRA VM & SD International. “Aside from the awareness created about the damage that fast fashion is causing to the environment, the fact that brands have taken notice and started acting on improving their supply chain and enabled the sustainable fashion movement to go from a niche sector focused on artisan brands to mainstream fashion brands. The biggest change we’ve seen is the larger volume of sustainable fashion product on offer and hence there is larger buy-in and acceptance, but there is still work to be done,” he continues. “Really, I think ‘sustainable fashion’ has only started to gain proper exposure and momentum in the last five years,” Rowlands tells L’Officiel Arabia. “I believe it is the culmination of several factors. Despite champions like the inspiring Stella McCartney, who has been actively campaigning for almost two decades, I feel that it’s only now that people are starting to properly pay attention. Initiatives like the Fashion Revolution, which shines a spotlight on working conditions and equity within the workplace for the workforce that actually makes the clothes we buy and is calling for transparency in the fashion industry. I also think it’s been vital that major brands like Adidas, H&M have already begun the pursuit for sustainable practices, and even if they are only making small steps, it all starts to add up, and paves the way other brands to follow suit, and puts pressure on them to do so sooner rather than later. There are of course big brands that are making much bigger waves, like Patagonia, and it seems in the last couple of years there is a rise in these socially and environmentally aware businesses.”
Sustainability in region
“I feel like the shift has happened in the region over the past three years, Dubai is such a retail-heavy city, but only a tiny tiny percentage of the brands focus on sustainable fashion. There are a few local, homegrown brands that produce ethical fashion, and then a small handful of preowned stores. In the US, 20% of fashion retail stores are resale (second-hand/pre-owned stores), whereas here in the UAE that percentage is much less than 0.01%. Globally I have seen a lot more of a noticeable shift, after years of the snowball slowly, slowly gaining momentum, it is now too big for the international fashion world to ignore,” Reynolds explains. It’s an important step forward, says the sustainability advocate that consumers are increasingly aware of the benefits of the industry. “Personally I think governments should be doing much more to legislate manufacturers and hold them accountable to higher, cleaner standards. However, this won’t happen overnight. Together we can save the planet. Once we understand the critical point we are at, and the small steps we can all take to make better choices, together we will make the change!” she concludes.