Twenty years ago, the eco-conscious consumer and the fashion-conscious consumer were two very distinct species. The former wore Birkenstocks and preached anti-consumerism, while the latter was a Carrie Bradshaw-like lady of excess who bought a new pair of shoes every week. Now, however, the distinction is blurring. Eco-fashion is no longer confined to insular hippie brands, while buzzwords like ‘sustainability’ and ‘carbon footprint’ are being embraced by luxury conglomerates like LVMH and Kering.
While the idea of eco-friendly fashion is not new to the luxury sector, thanks to the likes of Stella McCartney’s ethical, no-animal policies, it took a big step forward in 2012. It was then that Kering, formerly PPR, which controls Saint Laurent, Gucci and Alexander McQueen, among others, launched a long-term plan to implement sustainable practices throughout its supply chain, from reducing water consumption to eliminating PVC in its products to creating a heavy metal-free leather-tanning process. It marked a seismic shift in the willingness of luxury fashion brands and their customers to embrace eco-consciousness as part of their identity.
Kering’s pursuit of sustainability has had mixed results. The conglomerate has been 99 percent successful in meeting of its target of making all collections PVC-free; switched to sustainable sources for 81 percent of its paper and packaging; and rolled out LED lighting in its stores. A brand like Gucci, for example, has redesigned its popular Dionysus bag to be completely PVC-free. But Kering has fallen way short of its targets when it comes to sourcing gold, leather and rare animal skins from sustainable suppliers, demonstrating the difficulty of finding ethical, transparent partners in the emerging markets where those materials are often sourced.
Despite the challenges, Kering is determined to persevere with its sustainability targets. As the conglomerate’s chief sustainability officer Marie-Claire Daveu wrote in an editorial for The Business of Fashion, it’s time for brands to understand that luxury should inherently imply sustainability. ‘We do sustainability because we believe in it and we think that if we want to continue our business, it’s not an option; it’s a necessity.’
Customers agree with Daveu’s sentiments. According to a report this year from Harvard Business Review, corporate social responsibility practices have become a major driver of purchase decisions, with 88 percent of millennial consumers claiming that brands should do more good. Customers, particularly millennials, are also pushing for clean labels, whereby brands disclose all the materials in their products and where they were sourced.
The initiative from luxury brands and the outcry from the public has even influenced fast-fashion brands to adopt environmentally conscious practices as an incentive for customers to shop guilt-free. The Natural Resources Defense Council reported last year that more than 30 Chinese textile mills that produce clothes for Target, H&M, Gap and Levi Strauss & Co have dramatically reduced waste through the Clean by Design Program, cutting around 36 percent of water use, 22 percent of energy use per mill and at least 400 tons of chemical use.
China produces about half the world’s fashion products, which has wreaked havoc on the Middle Kingdom’s environment. In reaction, Chinese fashion brands are also going to green to curb the pollution of their homeland. Homewear-chic brand ffiXXed Studios produces its clothing in-house, managing each step of the design cycle from its workshop in Shenzhen. It uses only natural fibres and also upcycles leftover fabric from past collections. E-commerce site Squirrelz has become China’s answer to vintage and handmade mecca Etsy. Sustainable fashion has become the future of the industry.
It will be up to these brands to show consumers that they do not need to compromise style for sustainability. Even though fashion is struggling to reconcile its maximalist, consumption-heavy ethos with a future that demands eco-conscious behaviour, success stories like Gucci and Stella McCartney are proof that brands need not embrace the hippie-couture stereotype to make environmentally friendly goods. Green can be in vogue, too.