For the past 50 years that we have commemorated Earth Day, the sustainability movement has had a profound impact on the world of luxury fashion. Thanks to consumer demand for more eco-conscious production practices, the birth of many industry watchdog organizations, and brands’ own sustainable initiatives, the industry has taken a collective step in the right direction. And it was a necessary one.
According to a report published earlier this month in the journal Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, fashion is the second-largest industrial polluter in the world after aviation. The report identifies water use, chemical pollution, CO2 emissions, and textile waste as the main culprits for fashion’s detrimental impact on the environment (for that the report points the finger at fast fashion). Thankfully, luxury brands are investing more and more resources into finding sustainable solutions to producing, distributing, and recycling their products.
Some have been looking more closely into 3D printing as a way to not just create one-of-a-kind pieces (such as those by Iris van Herpen) but also to reduce fabric waste by using 3D printing to create sample pieces, for example. And while the method still presents challenges when it comes to mass production—most notably the creation of flexible and comfortable textiles appropriate to wear for longer periods of time—researchers are hard at work trying to improve the process. In the meantime, companies such as Stella McCarthy are leading the way to a more sustainable future. The vegetarian brand teamed up with Italian denim manufacturer Candiani on a capsule collection made from biodegradable denim made by using plant-based yarns that are free of any micro-plastics.
And speaking of plastic, the consumption of which is unfortunately still on the rise, a lot of companies are making clothes and accessories out of recycled plastic bottles and discarded fishing nets. Gucci, for example, was a pioneer among luxury brands in using Econyl, a type of nylon yarn derived from fishing nets, for its menswear ready-to-wear collections. It has also started incorporating in its fabrics a yarn made entirely from post-consumer bottles using a mechanical, not chemical process that makes the fiber even more eco-friendly.
Another popular way to reduce waste from fabric production is adopting practices that don’t include using a lot of water. Denim, for example, is the worst offender in this category because a single pair of jeans can require up to 2,000 gallons of water to make. But some denim brands like Meghan Markle’s favorite Outland Denim or the Swedish Nudie, for example, are using more energy- and water-efficient ways to produce denim. And others, such as the LA-based Re/Done are upcycling vintage pairs of jeans into new ones and, in this way, reducing the amount of denim that ends up in landfills.
The sustainability movement has also made luxury fashion reevaluate its use of leather. In the past few years, more and more big companies such as Prada, Chanel, Burberry, Versace, and Armani have vowed to use vegan leather and fur. Last year, for the first time, Kering, the parent company of Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, and Balenciaga among others, added Animal Welfare Standards for luxury fashion to its sustainability program that includes detailed requirements for the treatment of animals across its supply chain.
In other good news, LVMH reached its 2020 sustainability goals early and committed to new ones such as full traceability of the origins of all of its animal leathers and furs as well as the creation of a scientific committee dedicated to multidisciplinary research. The company also plans to invest 10 million euros in preserving the Amazon’s biodiversity and ecoregions.
Luxury retailers are also starting to embrace the circular economy which is now worth about $25 billion and expected to double in the next five years. Nordstrom announced earlier this year the launch of its See You Tomorrow, a resale collection that features returned or damaged apparel and accessories by high-end brands that have been cleaned, repaired, and prepared for resale.
And other retailers, such as Net-a-Porter have launched platforms where their customers can shop a curated selection of products by an ever-growing number of sustainable beauty and fashion brands.
Thanks to all of these measures the term “sustainable luxury fashion” is no longer an oxymoron. But only time will tell how successful all of these initiatives are. It is crucial though that companies continue to reevaluate their production practices and expand their sustainable programs with the utmost sense of urgency.