A lesson in sustainability – what fashion is all about

A lesson in sustainability – what fashion is all about
Image: @ceciliebahnsen

The issue of overproduction has been on top of the agenda in the fashion industry for a number of years. Regular fashion weeks of male and female collections take place twice a year, then there are the cruise, wedding and pre-fall specials, limited drops and exclusive capsules, which launch several times per season. It all adds up.

It is difficult to slow down and stick to mindful consumption at this pace. It is hard to resist a late night online shopping spree when you come across the everyday street style of Hollywood fashionistas and Instagram influencers, who try on new items from the latest collections every day.

But then came 2020, a powerful nudge towards conscious thinking. With all the challenges that the fashion industry faced as a result of the pandemic came a reassessment of this pace, calling for a more cost-effective and sustainable approach.

What is a carbon footprint in fashion
Image: @ceciliebahnsen

What is a carbon footprint and how to reduce it?

The question of sustainability in the fashion industry first received serious attention at the end of the 90s. It was then that Giorgio Armani became the first to present a collection made entirely of hemp fibres. Activist Kate Fletcher then continued to raise this question and the US Vogue contributed substantial research to the topic of slow fashion, inviting brands to reassess their values.

Almost every fashion house today is making their first steps towards sustainability. Some do so by releasing exclusive eco collections. Others go a step further and drastically change their approach to clothes production by moving to carbon neutral manufacturing. So, what does that mean exactly?

In short, when it comes to clothes production, it is important to reduce the release of harmful emissions into the atmosphere or to at least compensate for the CO2 it produces.

According to Stand.earth, the fashion industry’s impact on polluting our planet is on par with aviation. To solve this, it needs to optimise its production, reduce the use of shipping enterprises and start using renewable materials. In practice, this is a huge undertaking, which requires a reassessment of the entire philosophy of fashion at a substantial financial cost. No wonder any change here is a slow process, but it is happening.

Big names pave the way

London-based Post Carbon Lab have set a great example for carbon-neutral manufacturing. The start-up’s founders Dian-Jen Lin and Hannes Hulstaert have gone all in and created an actual breathing fabric. Their T-shirts, trousers and outerwear are covered with natural microorganisms, which live on the surface of their clothes and consumer CO2, hence purifying the air.

However, the process is far from automatic and the clothes themselves are temperamental: they cannot be stored in dark and poorly ventilated spaces. Well, it might be for the best. This is certainly not the kind of T-shirt that will get lost in the back of your wardrobe.

Gucci’s efforts headed by Marco Bizzari deserve a special shoutout. The Italian fashion house became one of the first to officially declare itself as a carbon neutral enterprise. As well as optimising its production, the brand joined ООН REDD+ initiatives which directly consume CO2. The brand now contributes to the rescue of tropical forests.

In addition, all of Gucci’s shows are now carbon neutral. They are monitored by experts who specialise in reducing harmful emissions. In 2020, the initiative was also joined by Burberry and Gabriela Hearst. The Italian brand Moncler has also made its contribution. All of its production sites in Italy and Romania now use 100% renewable electric energy. The figures speak for themselves. In the past three years, Moncler managed to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 30% and this is just the beginning.

A new approach to fashion collections
Image: @ceciliebahnsen

A new approach to fashion collections

The brands’ creative teams have also started using a more conscious approach to the way clothes are made. A designer’s main task is no longer to just diversify the range but to also make it last for many years to come. Yohji Yamamoto is one such designer. His aim is to create clothes which can be passed down through generations. The creative director of Y/Project Glenn Martens bet on convertible clothes that can pass both as office wear and cocktail party attire. The length of the sleeves on his coats can be adjusted daily and the length of his dresses can be tweaked en route to an event. The idea is to simplify the selection process as much as possible and, last but not least, make you consumer less.

Then there are the sustainably produced collections. It is incredibly costly to completely transfer to carbon neutral manufacturing and only use ecological materials, i.e. ones made of natural fibres and not harmful to the environment. This is why major fashion houses focus on limited ranges and capsules. This involves Prada’s ethical down jackets from their Linea Rossa range, created from recycled material. Another example is Cecilie Bahnsen’s dresses launched as part of their eco initiative and Salvatore Ferragamo’s accessories, which contain ecological wool, corn and hibiscus.

One of the key rules, which has long been dictated by fashion, is seasonality. However, it is difficult to stick to sustainability at this rate. This is why designers come up with effective solutions. For example, by evading the regular fashion show schedule and releasing their collections in their own time. The adherents of this way of working include Saint Laurent and Jacquemus. Meanwhile, others like Burberry, Kenzo and Marni follow suit by trying to reduce their carbon footprint and combining their male and female shows.

Sustainable fashion - what can we do?
Image: @ceciliebahnsen

What can we do?

This is a very topical question that we should all start paying attention to. There are the obvious measures of buying less, investing in clothes that last more than a season and opting for vintage retailers but there is more to it, so get your notebooks out.

1/ Double-check the label

When buying clothes made of eco fabrics you gain in a threefold way: by supporting the initiatives of conscious brands, by reducing carbon footprint and by making reasonable contributions to your wardrobe. But be vigilant. Some of the less rigorous manufacturers who use a small percentage of natural fibres like to position themselves as ecological. This is not necessarily the case, so do not be mislead by the word eco in a brand’s name. Always read the label on an item of clothing for the full list of materials.

If caring for the environment is your professional interest, consider online courses and programmes around slow fashion, which will help you understand the nuances of manufacturing. You can start by learning the basics on Coursera in just a couple of months or go a step further and gain an MA in Sustainable Fashion from the Glasgow Caledonian New York College.

2/ Look after your clothes

Just choosing clothes made of quality materials does not guarantee their longevity. Proper care is essential for prolonging the lifetime of your favourite coat or knitwear. Cashmere and wool items have to be washed by hand, using special powders and fabric softeners. Outerwear should be professionally cleaned. Keep creams and sprays which are suitable for each pair of shoes you own. Store out of season clothes away in a special case to help them retain its good looks.

3/ Support the cycle of clothes in nature

Make it a habit to regularly reassess your wardrobe. Firstly, it will help you cut down on shopping as you discover some long-forgotten items which are perfectly good to wear. Secondly, the clothes you no longer wear should not build up at the back of your wardrobe. If it is no longer usable, take it to your nearest recycling point. And if it is a matter of it not suiting your current style or shape, give it away to your friends or donate it to a charity shop.

The key rule is to prepare your unused wardrobe correctly. White T-shirts and tops should not have any yellow sweat stains, skirts and trousers should not have any worn out patches. Wash or dry clean any items of clothing before handing them over to anyone else.

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