Essentials of style
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