Essen­tials of style

Esquire (Singapore) - - Front Page -

There’s an ex­piry date to ev­ery­thing—trends, that ex­pen­sive bar of choco­late you tell your­self to savour one bite at a time, your favourite white shirt, a re­la­tion­ship—and our planet is no ex­cep­tion. It’s a mor­bid open­ing state­ment, es­pe­cially for a story on sus­tain­abil­ity in an is­sue about hope, but it’s the in­escapable truth.

And we’re only slowly grasp­ing at the re­al­i­sa­tion that our habits could has­ten Earth’s ex­piry date; thanks, in part, to a sea tur­tle.

Sus­tain­abil­ity is a rather broad and com­pli­cated term that in­volves a wide gamut of fac­tors and in­flu­ences. It’s a prac­tice that en­sures re­sources are care­fully in­vested at a rate that doesn’t neg­a­tively af­fect any en­vi­ron­men­tal, eco­nomic or so­cial fac­tors. Sus­tain­able fash­ion busi­nesses should aim, at ev­ery stage of their busi­ness, to min­imise any neg­a­tive im­pact their op­er­a­tions might have on the en­vi­ron­ment, as well as en­sur­ing that good ethics are prac­tised at the hu­man re­source level. One would think that the lat­ter is a given, but as many in­ci­dences in the Third World have shown—one land­mark ex­am­ple is the Rana Plaza col­lapse of 2013—that is not al­ways the case.

It’s easy to im­me­di­ately point fin­gers to fast-fash­ion brands, such as H&M, Zara and ASOS, as the main cul­prits. Com­pa­nies that pro­duce huge vol­umes of cloth­ing (by huge, we mean at least 600 mil­lion pieces each year) at in­cred­i­bly low prices would nat­u­rally raise ques­tions about man­u­fac­tur­ing and labour costs.

There’s also the na­ture of the fast-fash­ion busi­ness. In an ef­fort to quickly pro­duce style-fleet­ing clothes, new de­signs are in­tro­duced to the shop floor ev­ery al­ter­nate week, some­times more fre­quently. They’re cheap and of-the-mo­ment so they tend to be­come rather dis­pos­able. Let’s face it: you wouldn’t think twice about throw­ing away a cheap over­stretched jumper and get­ting a new one from the same brand.

Like send­ing off a bar­rage of golf swings with the hope of scor­ing a few hole-in-ones on par three holes, not ev­ery trend-driven de­sign will be snapped up by con­sumers. In a per­fect world, dead stocks should ide­ally be set at 15 per­cent of items pro­duced. For fast-fash­ion brands, that’s an es­ti­mated 90 mil­lion pieces of un­sold clothes each. In late March this year, H&M re­ported a stag­ger­ing USD4.3 bil­lion worth of clothes that they weren’t able to sell.

Yet, at the same time, th­ese are the same brands that have com­mit­ted to sus­tain­abil­ity fo­cused strate­gies. As of June 2018, 94 fash­ion com­pa­nies—in­clud­ing H&M, Zara, ASOS and brands un­der lux­ury con­glom­er­ate Ker­ing—have signed the 2020 Cir­cu­lar Fash­ion Sys­tem Com­mit­ment. This ini­tia­tive, by non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion Global Fash­ion Agenda, in­tro­duces the con­cept of cir­cu­lar­ity to fash­ion busi­nesses, where the life­span of a prod­uct doesn’t end af­ter it is dis­posed of.

A scep­tic would say that fast fash­ion’s adop­tion of more ‘sus­tain­able’ meth­ods is a farce. That a busi­ness model that has been un­der fire for un­eth­i­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing pro­cesses couldn’t be tak­ing on the green move­ment for any­thing other than good pub­lic­ity.

To be fair, H&M and Zara have dou­bled up on their ef­forts to be more sus­tain­able.

In a sus­tain­abil­ity re­port re­leased for the year 2017, H&M Group de­tailed sev­eral key mile­stones that it has achieved thus far. They in­clude re­duc­ing fac­tory emis­sions by 21 per­cent from the year be­fore, us­ing 100 per­cent re­cy­cled or other sus­tain­ably sourced ma­te­ri­als for 35 per­cent of its prod­ucts, and col­lect­ing 17,771 tonnes of tex­tiles for reuse and re­cy­cling.

Zara’s par­ent com­pany In­di­tex pulled out of the Dhaka Ap­parel Sum­mit af­ter mul­ti­ple on­go­ing re­ports of poor treat­ment of work­ers and labour is­sues in Bangladesh. The brand also launched a sus­tain­able col­lec­tion called Join Life. The col­lec­tion makes use of re­cy­cled fab­rics (ei­ther from Zara’s own pro­duc­tion scraps or cre­ated from re­cy­cled plas­tic bot­tles) to help re­duce the de­pen­dence on re­sources needed to cre­ate new fab­rics.

That’s all well and good. But when the vol­ume of pro­duc­tion is equiv­a­lent to the GDP of a small African coun­try, how sus­tain­able are th­ese brands re­ally?

While you pon­der on that, let’s not for­get that lux­ury fash­ion brands are not in the clear too. As ex­em­pli­fied by Ker­ing’s afore­men­tioned com­mit­ment, sus­tain­abil­ity is an in­dus­try­wide is­sue.

For lux­ury fash­ion brands, the prob­lem is not so much so­cioe­co­nomic or vol­ume. Fash­ion houses such as Louis Vuit­ton, Gucci and Her­mès are de­pen­dent on the skills of their ar­ti­sans, who are usu­ally groomed and trained in-house in the re­spec­tive coun­tries that they are based in. The com­plex­ity of the craft ap­plied holds as much value as the ma­te­rial that a lux­ury item is made from, when pric­ing an item. And be­cause ar­ti­sanal skills are of­ten in de­mand, there is great value in be­ing a skilled crafts­man. It’s the man­u­fac­tur­ing prac­tices that cause prob­lems. An­i­mal skins and furs are an eth­i­cal chal­lenge that lux­ury fash­ion has been fac­ing. The use of an­i­mal-de­rived ma­te­ri­als is so closely tied to the lux­ury busi­ness that the move to less harm­caus­ing sub­sti­tutes has been slow. It wasn’t un­til Oc­to­ber 2017, when Gucci an­nounced that it would stop the use of fur in its de­signs, that the fur con­ver­sa­tion sparked up again. Gucci’s chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer Marco Biz­zarri was even quoted as say­ing: “It’s not mod­ern… It’s a lit­tle bit out-dated.”

The Ital­ian fash­ion house is by no means an orig­i­na­tor in go­ing fur-free. Calvin Klein banned the use of fur in 1994, Ralph Lau­ren in 2006, renowned ac­tivist Vivi­enne West­wood did the same for her brand in 2007, and the en­tire Ar­mani house stopped us­ing fur from the au­tumn/win­ter 2016 col­lec­tions on­wards. The lat­est to join the move­ment is Burberry, with new creative di­rec­tor Ric­cardo Tisci lead­ing the charge.

It’s also im­por­tant to note that some of th­ese lux­ury fash­ion houses make con­sid­er­able amounts of profit from their fur prod­ucts. Gucci, for ex­am­ple, adopted a max­i­mal­ist fash­ion vo­cab­u­lary in 2015, which in­cluded the lux­u­ri­ous use of fur in ev­ery­thing from coats to shoes. Ar­mani too has ex­ten­sively used fur through­out all of its dif­fer­ent brands, com­ing up with di­verse treat­ments and ap­pli­ca­tions. The shift shows that brands are be­com­ing more

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