UK: Sustainability And Fashion: The New Luxury?

Last Updated: 26 September 2019
Article by Graham Webster and Lesley Timms

Fashion week is no stranger to protest or controversial behaviour. From anti-fur movements to the #NoSizeFitsAll campaign, the opportunity to make a controversial statement is rarely missed. The SS 2020 shows in London this year were no exception.

While the exact motivations of brands and protestors may be different, one thing is for certain, the luxury fashion industry can no longer ignore its impact on the environment, or shifting consumer attitudes. But this is not a one sided story, thanks to brands such as Stella McCartney, Mara Hoffman and Rag & Bone, who have been blazing a trail on sustainability for years.

Fast fashion and its impact

Without the kind of action heralded by the efforts of certain luxury brands, the industry is set to account for a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. Fashion’s environmental footprint is one of the largest of any industry, second only to oil. The industry has been credited with 20% of global water waste and 10% of global carbon emissions with approximately 21 billion tons – 85% of textiles – sent to landfills every year,

With fashion powerhouses like Inditex (Zara, Pull&Bear, Massimo Dutti) topping ranks with gross profit in 2018 at €14.8bn, and online fast fashion brand Boohoo predicting a 45% growth forecast for the financial year it is obvious to see why philosophies of quick manufacturing at affordable prices is a hard habit to break in a for-profit environment. However, as reproduction of luxury brands is the core principle of fast fashion, by enacting sustainable practices the industry may begin to change from the top down.

It’s a protest, and the fashion industry is listening

London Fashion Week (LFW) 2019 opened its doors to the public last week to a riotous reception. The Extinction Rebellion, a socio-political movement compelling action on climate change, sought to shed light on the fashion industry’s unsustainable and harmful practices, through die-ins, marches and a funeral procession. However, given the list of designers showing this year, it seems they have been beaten to the punch.

LFW boasts luxury brands who have been working on this issue for some time. Christopher Kane first began championing sustainability by partnering with Eco-Age and Disney on a capsule collection featuring recycled cotton and upcycled rubber from a 2013 collection. Joining Kane in making ‘sustainability in fashion the norm’ was Erdem, who shows in London each year. Erdem has worked to create a collection in accordance with The Green Carpet Challenge by producing clothes using reused, surplus or sustainably certified materials.

However, the flagship of sustainable luxury is captained by Stella McCartney, having been publically promoting sustainable products since 2001 and championing sustainable fashion since her career began, most notably through the UN Sustainable Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action. This has influenced many in the industry, with signatories including Burberry, following their admission to burning unsold stock. Other signatories include H&M, Puma, Nike and Hugo Boss. McCartney’s most recent collaboration sees the production of vegan wellies launched by Hunter last week.

Sustainability should in fact go hand in hand with luxury brands. Oscar de la Renta aptly explained the link in that “sustainable fashion implies a commitment to the traditional techniques, and not just the art, of making clothes” . In this way, luxury brands stand to profit from creating sustainably. An example can be seen in how the war on plastic has influenced fashions in 2019. Reusable water bottles have been deemed ’2019’s answer to the It-bag’ , with Virgil Abloh launching Evian’s first refillable glass water bottle at New York Fashion Week 2019. This marks Evian’s commitment to become an entirely circular brand by 2025. Following suit are luxury brands such as Prada, Net-a-Porter and Selfridges, all launching reusable water bottles with the most expensive by Balenciaga, which retails at £600.

Research suggests that part of what drives consumers to purchase ethical options is ‘guilt’ and ‘social pressure’ . Luxury brands should therefore be aware of the power celebrity endorsements can yield. With some celebrities and influencers, such as Emma Watson, denouncing all non-sustainable garments, sustainability is becoming essential for advertising and therefore sales. Brands were seen to heed this advice at the 2019 Oscars, where Louis Vuitton and Christian Siriano were seen partnering with Suzy Amis Cameron’s Red Carpet Green Dress initiative to style Laura Harrier and Danielle Macdonald in sustainable silks and vegetable died fabrics.

What does this mean for luxury brands?

Sustainability and fashion's environmental impact on the world is inescapable. Luxury brands need to address this issue before it has a detrimental impact on their reputation. 88% of consumers are more likely to buy a product if they think, or know, it helps improve their environmental footprint, according to a Forbes 2018 survey.

Now is the time to review your policies and manufacturing procedures to guard against growing financial risks attached to not acting. For example, in February, MPs called for a 1p tax per item of clothing in the UK to tackle unsustainable fashion. With the threat of government intervention, the linear production model on which the fashion industry operates is no longer either environmentally or economically sensible.

There is a consensus amongst luxury brands that sustainability must become intrinsic to their businesses. In real terms, this means engaging with organisations such as Common Objective, to convey to consumers a grass roots commitment to sustainability. Just as shoppers look for animal welfare labels on food, the seal of approval as sustainably certified may begin to alter consumer behaviour. Startup brands such as Agraloop, which uses fibrous food-crop as its material, and Lone Design Club, whose tag line reads ‘the antidote to fast fashion’, are prime examples of fashion with sustainability at their core.

However, these startups began with knowledge of sustainability’s market forces. Established luxury brands may face a difficult battle in light of this relatively recent and high profile shift in the market – but this is a challenge some have relished. Chief fashion house Vivienne Westwood has begun to use sustainability as a primary marketing strategy, through their Ethical Fashion Initiative, to drive business recognising both its economic and reputational value. Another example is second hand sales brand The RealReal, a Stella McCartney initiative, which grew its revenue by 55% in 2018 to reach $207.4m, highlighting the market support for sustainability .

It is clear that the vast array of sustainability issues are being tackled from both ends of the market. Ultimately luxury brands are aspirational to a consumer, so it’s only fitting these brands are aspirational in their support of sustainability also.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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