Fashion Week, or Fashion Month rather, is unsustainable by nature. Think about it, the industry's most important people fly to multiple cities all over the world, leaving a sizeable carbon footprint. Countless cars drive influencers, journalists, stylists and buyers from event to event to help manage busy show schedules. There's the environmental impact of show production; the sets and props that are created then thrown away, the invitations and show notes that are discarded, as well as the huge amount of electricity used for lighting. All this for a show that lasts just a matter of minutes.
As expected, the sheer volume and scale of Fashion Month has a big impact on our planet. According to a report by Zero to Market, around 241,000 tons of CO2 (enough to power Times Square for 58 years), is emitted during the four weeks of the international shows. New York Fashion Week accounts for 37 per cent of that alone. These scary statistics raise the question - why are we still doing this?
It’s important to understand the history of the fashion show and why it’s such a big part of the industry’s culture today. In 1943, New York was the first city to begin organising shows seasonally through the direction of Eleanor Lambert, an American fashion publicist. It provided a platform for designers to show their collections in one space to press and buyers all over the world, long before the days of Instagram and Twitter.
Since then, Fashion Week has spread to multiple cities across the world and has showcased some of the most extravagant shows in history. Yet, as we find ourselves in the middle of a climate crisis, it feels somewhat outdated and irresponsible to continue hosting Fashion Week in the same way.
As designers and brands re-think their businesses to become more sustainable, it seems hypocritical not to do the same with the show format. Things need to change, but is there a better, greener alternative that really works?
Can Fashion Week really be sustainable?
“First of all, it starts with the event itself,” Evelyn Mora tells me, who founded Helsinki Fashion Week - the first recognised sustainable fashion week. “When you start producing a fashion show or week you need to make sure that the production partners are the right kind of companies. It would have been easy for us to partner with big businesses, but they’re inherently not sustainable.”
Mora says that creating a sustainable fashion week is easier than it seems. The ways to do so are twofold - first being mindful with production and secondly ensuring the designers who show their collections meet certain sustainability criteria.
“It’s possible to run your event more sustainably, but it’s more challenging,” she says, honestly. When Mora set out to launch Helsinki Fashion Week, she started by considering how eco-friendly the venue is. This means looking at how much water and energy is used and whether you can use renewable energy sources, like wind and solar.
Creating a greener show template is all about making small, yet fundamental changes. For example, Mora's decision to switch to a different kind of fixture on showers and taps at the Helsinki site saved 19 per cent of water.
“Every little detail has to be taken into consideration when it comes to waste, which is very much possible, but it takes a lot of time and effort,” explains Mora, adding that designers at Helsinki Fashion Week use only waste food in order to be completely vegan and sustainable. “We serve ingredients that were overproduced that season, like onions and potatoes. These are then creatively made into a six-course fine-dining meal for the press that we host.”
Practicalities aside, in order to create a sustainable runway schedule, the responsibility also rests on the designers themselves.
“Brands need to very clearly communicate without using fancy or confusing words how they are sustainable. Where do their fabrics where they come from? What they do with energy and dye?” says Mora, who worked with WWF to create a 25-point sustainable criteria list that prospective designers must meet to showcase their work at Helsinki.
“Many designers don’t do that, so I think the best way to move forward is to take care of your own footprint first. That’s why greenwashing is such a problem, as people make big statements about how our planet is dying, but to prove they mean what they say is a different thing,” Mora says.
Helsinki is setting a precedent for a greener fashion week - other cities have followed suit in implementing changes to reduce their environmental impact. In 2023, Copenhagen Fashion Week will launch its Sustainability Requirements - where brands must achieve a certain score to be eligible to show or present. Brands can earn points based on their design practices, working conditions and show production.
"This is the future of Fashion Week and it’s the only right way forward. We can’t not take action," says Cecilie Thorsmark, CEO of Copenhagen Fashion Week. "This will benefit everyone - those who see the show know that this presentation or catwalk has the stamp of approval. We will only offers a platform to brands that are frontrunners and pioneering in sustainability."
“We or anyone can’t save the world if we keep on consuming the same amount or emitting the same amount of carbon and greenhouse gases," says Thorsmark.
That said, the industry is listening now, more than ever. Sustainable designers are finally receiving critical acclaim - take Bethany Williams, who won the British Emerging Talent Menswear award at The Fashion Awards in December 2019. Her circular fashion model also saw her become the second winner of second recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Prize for Design. Activist groups like Extinction Rebellion are bringing the fast-fashion conversation to the mainstream, even hosting a fashion funeral during London Fashion Week in September 2019. Shoppers are being more mindful with how and what they buy - the idea of buying a cheap high street top to wear for a Friday night is becoming an increasingly unpopular notion.
More and more labels, from luxury to independent, are making greener choices, whether using recycled components or banning unsustainable materials, such as animal skins.
Last year, Mora worked with animal rights group Peta to ban leather on the Helsinki catwalks. “Any fashion event that strives for true sustainability must take animal-derived materials off the catwalk, otherwise, all it 'sustains' is cruelty to animals and environmental destruction. Using fur, leather, or wool is mean, not green,” says Peta director Elisa Allen.
This shift in attitude shows that the industry is sitting up and taking notice of its responsibility in the climate crisis. Stockholm cancelled its Fashion Week altogether in order to help the planet and, this season, New York Fashion Week held the industry’s first carbon-neutral fashion show, by Gabriela Hearst.
“I think Fashion Week as we know it needs to change," says Thorsmark. "We can’t go on with this never-ending cycle of producing more and consuming more and having to renew everything, like our entire wardrobe every half a year or so.”
“There’s something about the traditional way of staging a runway schedule that’s wrong and that’s why I think Fashion Week's future lies within developing with the industry."
It’s reasonable to expect more from the fashion world. As the Helsinki model demonstrates, it’s possible to both be sustainable and keep the tradition of Fashion Week. Any given show schedule should act as a prime opportunity to give eco-conscious brands a platform, which Helsinki does through its brand standards (Copenhagen also plans to do the same in the future). Now, more than ever, the industry needs to work collaboratively. "We believe brands need to come together and share their discoveries and experiences to help save our planet," says Cameron Saul, co-founder of Bottletop, a London-based a sustainable fashion brand.
A sense of accountability is sweeping over fashion, with brands, designers and the wider industry making changes to become more sustainable. Although the traditional fashion week format is mired with environmental concerns, it’s clear that it still has a place amidst our ever-conscious society - it just involves smarter, more evolved choices.
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