It wasn’t so long ago that the word “sustainability” rarely—if ever—rolled off the lips of the fashion industry’s biggest trendsetters. But in 2021, it is nearly impossible to have an in-the-know conversation about fashion without mention of that once-evaded word. Despite the industry’s complicated history with the planet, there are a fast-growing number of brands who have now risen to the challenge of protecting its future. While united in this movement, their approaches to sustainability are just as diverse as their designs. From reducing waste and creating circular systems to recycling and inventing new materials, we are in a critical time in fashion’s history defined by sustainable experimentation, creative expression, and impact-driven evolution.
Judging from runways past and present, fashion designers have been thinking about the state of Mother Earth for quite some time. Dior’s spring-summer 2020 collection serves as one example of how this appreciation for nature manifests on the industry’s main stage. Inspired by Christian Dior’s sister, Catherine, who tended to the Dior family gardens, current creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri memorialized botanical species in a living catalogue of styles featuring plant motif embroideries, prints, and appliqués. The intricate handiwork that went into creating such exquisite looks no doubt reflected the long hours Catherine put in to caring for the environment around her.
But what does it really mean to care for our environment today? This is a question that Chiuri labored over for this collection at a level beyond just the clothes. In collaboration with Paris-based environmental design collective Coloco, a runway resembling an inclusive garden made of trees from around the world was constructed. It took two weeks to bring to life by an on-site team of approximately 100 people per day. After the show, wooden planks that were used for the façade and bleachers, brackets, and other fabrics were all recuperated by the association La Réserve des Arts to be repurposed. Meanwhile, the 170 trees that stood tall in the center of the catwalk were replanted in three different locations around Paris. In all, the show evoked existential questions about coexistence and biodiversity—and what to do with what is left in our wake—that reflect the fashion industry’s growing anxiety about the state of our planet.
A runway’s ability to shine a spotlight on these pressing issues has always been one of fashion’s greatest superpowers. But behind the scenes of thought-provoking shows, many brands and conglomerates have put pen to paper and are taking action. Kering, the parent company to Gucci, Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, and many others, initially made a public move into sustainability 25 years ago after establishing a team dedicated to sustainability efforts and its first Code of Ethics to which all their brands now adhere. In the years that followed, they became one of the first and largest apparel and accessories companies to be transparent about their research and activities—a massive shift in attitude considering fashion has traditionally been a closed door, tight-lipped industry.
Transparency and information sharing has been key to the success of their impact. In 2011, Kering published a game-changing Environmental Profit & Loss Account (EP&L) tool that allowed brands to better understand the impact that their own sustainable changes could have on the planet and on society. They have since set standards for raw materials, manufacturing processes, and animal welfare, committed to publishing progress reports on their sustainability efforts every three years, launched a biodiversity strategy, and formally brought on actress and eco-activist Emma Watson to their board of directors and as chair of sustainability committee.
Gucci, one of Kering’s brands, has followed this example. Last year, the fashion house made a move away from linear thinking and introduced circular design for Gucci Off the Grid, an accessories and ready-to-wear mini collection made from regenerated, recycled, organic, and sustainably sourced materials. Having joined the Lion’s Share Fund last year, they also now contribute .5% of their media spend every time an animal is featured in one of their advertisements. With animals appearing in approximately 20% of all ads, this effort deservedly gives back to the true stars of many of the industry’s campaigns.
Although connected by Kering’s mission and set standards, each of their brands continue to find their own part in sustainability. Bottega Veneta has chosen their popular accessories as a canvas to explore eco-friendly efforts. Last year they launched a line of handbags made from 100% recycled FSC-certified cardboard paper. A departure from their typical woven designs, these bags—called “Kraft Paper”—currently retail for $1,150 to $2,100. They also released a puddle boot made from a biodegradable polymer that went viral on Instagram last year and is currently selling for $650. Luxury, as it were, is clearly alive and well, even in the absence of so much waste.
Over in another one of the industry’s royal maisons, artistic directors and their teams at Louis Vuitton have gotten in the habit of challenging design processes of the past. With a 2025 goal to approach all products sustainably, including using 100% responsibly sourced materials, they are thinking about conscious design all around. Every product gets approached by a designed-to-last mentality, a mentality that is supported by repair centers around the world that service more than half a million bags each year. Ninety seven percent of all their runway and event sets are recycled or reused. And, having made a practice of using existing materials rather than always manufacturing new ones, they launched Be Mindful, an ongoing collection of accessories made from scraps left over from their silk scarves.
Virgil Abloh hit hard with recycling, making “Upcycling Ideology” the centerpiece of his latest Louis Vuitton menswear show. His collection notes read, “No season is an old season. In a fast-paced and fleeting time, repetition equals documentation: gestures made and lessons learned.”
To reuse from the past, Abloh incorporated 25 looks made from recycled material and another 25 looks pulled straight from the previous collection. He also introduced an upcycled LV Trainer made from disassembled original 2019 LV trainer parts, a new sustainable staple for the brand. This forward thinking about reinterpreting ‘new’ might just be a welcomed new norm, for both designers who face burnout due to creative output overload, and consumers who are often left feeling overwhelmed by the Instagram moment shelf life that clothes now have.
Fortunately, reusing and recycling materials is a new standard that many of these iconic brands have adopted. Over in Vaudreuil, France, every Hermès fragrance since its first Eau d’Hermès has been skillfully crafted. However, not every mix makes it out the door in a perfectly bottled and ready-to-be-sold package. There are approximately 800 tons of residue each year, and the brand works with a number of repurposing partners such as Cèdre to either recycle the leftovers or incinerate it to produce energy. Across the brand, they have also committed to repurposing all leather scraps into smaller objects, such as card holders, so that no leather goes unused.
In addition to recycling and upcycling, a focus on new materials has emerged as of late. Prada, known for its recognizable use of nylon, launched a capsule bag collection in 2019 featuring an alternative material, Re-Nylon. Created through a process of recycling and purifying plastic collected from oceans, fishing nets, landfills, and textile fiber waste, it can be endlessly regenerated without any loss of quality. The brand has since expanded the use of Re-Nylon to their ready-to-wear, footwear, and accessories for both men and women.
As new materials get introduced, others get eliminated completely. Stella McCartney, much heralded for her ongoing sustainable efforts since she launched her namesake brand in 2001, was removing harmful material from her supply chain from day one. Some of these milestones include no leather or fur since 2001, no PVC (the most environmentally damaging of all plastics) since 2010, and no virgin cashmere since 2016. To make sense of all their efforts, Stella McCartney released an A to Z Manifesto that alphabetically articulates how the brand sources materials, produces clothing, and thinks about sustainability overall. Z, for example, is for zero waste that goes into the Gabriela dress, which is made from repurposed printed stock from nine past ready-to-wear collections.
The impact sustainability has on our planet reaches beyond just nature. It also reinforces ethical practices while boosting local economies. Maison de Mode, the sustainable luxury e-commerce site and consulting company, looks at sustainability holistically in this way.
“We define sustainability as anything that has a social, economic, or environmental impact greater than the aesthetic value of the product or brand,” said cofounder Hassan Pierre who points to Studio189 as a great example of a brand focusing on the economic side of sustainability.
A label started by Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah in 2013, Studio189 uses traditional artisan techniques that have a global appeal while profoundly impacting a local community in West Africa. “They focus on creating a new form of economy in the small villages of Ghana, creating new opportunities for those in the local region,” said Pierre. Putting the human at the center of sustainability expands our understanding of our interconnectedness and how a company’s practices can support communities around the world.
Anita Dongre, a well-known designer out of India, supports circular sustainability by keeping an open door policy for those looking for work that care about the planet. She has made it her mission to never turn away someone in need of employment; in doing so, she has created a circular system that gives back to communities while promoting eco-friendly practices from point of manufacturing all the way down to deciding what kind of lighting to use in her office. Since she began, she has grown a cult following of prolific women all eager to support her brand, including Beyoncé, Kate Middleton, Hillary Clinton, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas.
This sort of full-circle thinking can be difficult for brands that were established in the past. AnotherTomorrow was launched just one year ago in January 2020 and looks at every part of the supply chain and beyond. In addition to the meticulous attention they pay to the way they make clothes and their transparent reporting, the brand is exploring add-on services to products like care and repair, styling services, and size exchange programs that ensure that the life of a product reaches its maximum potential.
“Women’s bodies change all the time,” said founder Vanessa Barboni Hallik. “We are looking at migrating to a flexible closet approach where everything you own actually serves you and everything you don’t need right then can find a new home.” Hallik is laser focused on slowing down the rate of consumption and production while rethinking the fashion business model altogether.
For brands that are trying to make sustainable changes, innovation is providing solutions at an increasing rate. Karen Harvey, consultant to some of fashion’s biggest names (Adidas, Calvin Klein, etc.) and founder of Fashion Tech Forum, a platform that hosts conversations imperative to fashion’s future, has seen firsthand the opportunities that technology has brought the industry.
“For the past several years, there have been numerous advances in technology that can impact every part of the supply chain,” Harvey said pointing to 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and new innovative treatments for denim that have significantly reduced the waste in the dyeing and manufacturing process. “In the wake of massive disruption to our industry, these technologies are being embraced at a rapid pace. Brands that are open to change and prioritizing these commitments are the ones that will be sustainable as companies in the future.”
One of the fashion houses Harvey commended for adopting new practices is Ralph Lauren, a brand that has made commitments across their entire supply chain and set realistic goals that are being transparently tracked in annual reports.
Thankfully, cutting-edge technology companies are coming to the rescue by collaborating with designers looking for sustainable solutions. Zellerfeld, a 3D printing company out of Germany, has been able to reduce waste and push footwear innovation forward with their partners. Last year at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit—one of the world’s leading fashion events focused on sustainability— they released a shoe concept with designer Heron Preston that broke the boundaries for sustainable thinking in footwear. Some of the sustainable elements of 3D printed footwear include reducing waste in prototyping, perfecting fit to ensure use, making only made-to-order pieces, and ultimately allowing the buyer to return the garment at the end of its life to be remade into a new one.
To really get a crystal ball look into the future, attention must be paid to the next generation of creatives. Joshua Mudgett is a designer, machine learning engineer, and fashion technologist based out of New York. Some of his projects include a leather alternative made by cloning progenitor bovine cells; a silicone substitute created through genetically modified okra plants and jellyfish DNA; and a first-of-its-kind predictive artificial intelligence system that designs garments in 3D and 2D with ready-to-sew patterns. If his work is an indicator of the future of fashion, we are on a very intelligent, sustainable path indeed.
If fashion is a reflection of the time we are in, then we are in a time of great reckoning. As parent companies, creative directors, and consumers alike demand change, a ripple effect has caught on. Although there is still much to learn and do, the groundswell of these sustainable efforts are changing the value systems of today to ensure a healthier, sustained tomorrow.