The birth of the couture industry can be traced back to 1850 in Paris, where top designers held fashion shows for their most prized clients1. From there, it took centre-stage and evolved into four big Fashion weeks: Paris, Milan, London and New York. Today, it has taken over the world, with Tokyo, Berlin, Madrid, Australia and India Fashion Weeks cementing their place on the world fashion stage2. Fashion Week began as a means for retailers to buy and incorporate the latest collections into their retail marketing, but they have progressed into ‘in season shows’, catering to fast fashion retailers, who ‘see now, buy now’ and replicate runway designs into retail stores. Now, pop ups, capsule collections and one-off shows have completely changed the rules.
Fast fashion has become synonymous with instant gratification. This refers to designs that move rapidly from the runways to store shelves. Take brands like H&M, Zara and Primark. It is all about speed and agility – bringing the trend to the shop floor as rapidly as possible, sometimes even before the originals hit stores. With rapid design and supply chain systems in place, the pace at which the newest styles get to shop shelves is almost real-time! This means that essentially, we have moved from the biannual seasonality that defined the fashion industry to that of fast fashion brands that may have as many as 52 weekly ‘micro-seasons’ per year. Luxury brands, while slow to change got caught up in the multiple seasons madness too and increased the number of collections each year. Sadly, this comes at a humungous cost to people and the environment.
Too much is being produced too often, leading to waste, environmental degradation and poor working conditions in factories and sweatshops.
The fashion industry is the second largest polluter of the environment, coming in just after the oil industry . Since 2000 Global fashion production has doubled. But the number of times we wear each item has dropped by a third leading to huge amounts of clothes reaching landfills. Most of the fashion industry today, focuses on speed and low cost in order to deliver frequent new collections inspired by catwalk looks or celebrity styles. But it is particularly bad for the environment as pressure to reduce cost and the time it takes to get a product from design to shop floor means that environmental corners are more likely to be cut. Criticisms of fast fashion include its negative environmental impact, water pollution, the use of toxic chemicals and increasing levels of textile waste. The fashion industry also impacts biodiversity in a big way as many raw materials in clothes, shoes, bags and jewellery come from animals and plants.
Climate change and sustainability risks have shined a spotlight on unsustainable consumption, of which the fashion industry is a big part. The consumer mindset, is changing too as there is a slow but discernible shift towards socially conscious shoppers the world over.
A growing number of designers and brands are answering the call to become more sustainable. Synonymous with extravagant lifestyles of the rich and famous Gucci is abandoning the traditional fashion calendar. Gucci wants to make its offerings timeless and do away with seasonal collections. To begin with, they have reduced the number of yearly fashion shows Gucci stages from five to two. The brand has also launched a new sustainability focused collection made of recycled materials. The – Off The Grid collection launched in 2020 May uses only recycled, organic, and sustainably sourced materials. A large part of the collection is designed using Econyl—a regenerated nylon made from abandoned fishing nets and gear left salvaged from the oceans—which the brand first began to use in 2016. The company also makes sure that all its fashion shows are carbon neutral. Beyond the implementation of sustainable raw materials, the brand has also incorporated low-impact alternatives to sourcing, manufacturing and distribution to reduce carbon emissions, as part of its annual carbon-neutral commitment.
Several other brands are also looking to follow suit. But, will fewer fashion seasons and sustainability targets that extend well into 2050 transform the fashion industry from a highly damaging one, into a force for good? The question we need to be asking is, is the change fast enough? Fashion sustainability needs scale and like every other transformative change, this is unlikely to be easy. To understand the scale of the problem and the steps needed to solve it, an analysis of the fashion house Kering, the owns Gucci is needed.
The French Luxury Group, Kering manages the development of a series of renowned houses in fashion, in leather goods, jewelry and watches. Gucci, Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Brioni, Boucheron, Pomellato, Dodo, Qeelin, Ulysse Nardin, Girard-Perregaux, and Kering Eyewear are just some of the brands they own. The sustainability report of Kering reveals a strategy that is looking at transforming the entire supply chain, right from material sourcing to post-consumer waste.
Firstly, the sustainability strategy rests on three pillars of caring for the planet, collaborating with people and creating new business models. Secondly, Kering has created an Environmental Profit and Loss (EP&L) accounting system to measure, monetize and manage environmental impacts in operations and across the entire supply chain3. The data collated and standards are all open source and can be downloaded by anyone4. This twofold approach of sound intent with ongoing measurement is possibly what sets Kering part from many others who simply highlight intent.
As per their analysis Kering found that raw material production had the largest impact across the board. The Kering sustainability strategy therefore emphasizes transformation of the supply chain to achieve sustainability. It says, “Beyond our own advancements inside the group, we believe ambitious targets must be set to address the supply chains where we generate the majority of our impacts (over 90%). This is the same for all of Luxury and fashion. Scope 1 and 2 of the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol are not near enough given the intensifying climate crisis. We need bold leadership that also takes full responsibility for all the impacts upstream in Scope 3 as well. With this in mind, the Kering sustainability strategy starts there- where we source our raw materials – right through to the manufacturing and production of our goods.” The company also announced that it is collecting data in order to extend the EP&L methodology to account for a circular, full life-cycle for products. Currently, it covers raw materials through distribution and retail; the data collection will add consumer use and product end-of-life.
By following this path, Gucci is demonstrating that the fashion industry is changing, but what about the consumers? How will customers react to these changes? Research shows that while more and more people are embracing the concept of ‘sustainable fashion” much more needs to be done, because moving people away from the consumption treadmill needs not just consumer awareness, it needs sustained action at scale from everyone.