The race to claim the most sustainable credentials by fashion and luxury’s big guns is on. But to what extent is it more than words?

There has never been a better time for fashion and luxury companies to display their sustainable credentials than the present. Indeed, sustainability was the key topic on everyone’s lips during the spring/summer 2020 shows where climate change and carbon neutrality trended on the catwalks.

While the subject was bound to be referenced, never before has it been so prominent in what appears to be a race between luxury’s behemoths to get ahead on sustainability.

In April, Francois-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of luxury giant Kering, stated in his plans to shareholders that he intended for his group to lead the way in luxury. By August, Pinault was presenting a fashion pact, initiated by French President Emmanuel Macron, to world leaders at the 45th G7 summit in Biarritz. As of last week, it has been signed by 56 global fashion companies.

“The G7 fashion pact is going exactly the right way by joining forces on sustainability,” said Antonio Achille, senior partner, global head of luxury at McKinsey & Company. “As in the car industry, where the quality of its emissions is a challenge for the whole industry, it’s very positive.”

Although Bernard Arnault, chairman and CEO of LVMH, Kering’s biggest rival, didn’t sign up; he inferred that his group’s sustainability actions already spoke for themselves; the group celebrated the 25th anniversary of its environment department in 2017.

LVMH stated in its 2018 annual report it is investing the same amount in the protection of natural resources as it is in perpetuating artisanal techniques. And Gabriela Hearst, an LVMH brand, put out the first ever carbon neutral show in New York in September; before a Kering brand, Gucci, followed suit in Milan.

However, Arnault’s masterstroke was buying a minority stake in Stella McCartney’s brand and appointing her as sustainability advisor to LVMH’s chairman and chief executive and executive committee members. McCartney declared her Paris show in September to be her “most sustainable ever”, presenting guests with a timeline of the innovations in sustainable fashion over the past 19 years, and the night before her show she hosted a roundtable discussion on sustainability.

But what impact have these pledges had so far on the fashion and the luxury industry?

Its opened up the conversation for one thing. Consumers are asking questions about where a product is from, who made it and how; companies are focusing on how to balance growth while at the same time reducing their impact on the environment. “Raising the standard of sustainability takes investment in the value chain, definitely it increases costs. Either that needs to be passed on to the final consumer or to be absorbed by the brand,” said Achille.

Will the conversation about promises and pacts result in more industry regulations though? “Regulations are useful when they are self-imposed,” he said. “Setting one’s own limits in terms of production, product etc. Pioneering the concept, rather than responding, this is different from what is happening in other sectors. What’s important is anticipating a trend.”

But its no passing trend for some designers who have been focusing on environmental sustainability for years.

Today’s luxury consumer is clued up, switched on to social media and digital savvy; aware of the sometimes ugly truth of subpar labour conditions or environmental pollution behind a beautiful product. “The younger generation making a stand is amplifying sustainability’s relevance,” said Achille. “They are very digitally aware.”

Indeed, sustainability is at the forefront of some of the younger designers’ minds at London Fashion Week.

Phoebe English’s WhatsApp group Fashion on Earth swaps natty recycling tips with her peers; she called her presentation: “Attempts at Sustainability Solutions.” Menswear designer, Bethany Williams, who models her business on social awareness, is said to start each collection with a charity in mind; whose members inspire the clothes, and the location dictates the materials.

33 Poets. Photo: Courtesy.

Strong sustainability signals also radiated from fashion weeks outside the big four fashion capitals. Designer Rebecca Paterson’s label, 33Poets, is based in Perth, Western Australia. Paterson has a formidable national and international reputation for her postmodern design work, and has been reinventing fabrics and constructed garments for over 25 years: upcycling denim, woollen coats and lingerie, boiling and over-dyeing them. For the past five years she has been re-purposing 1940s and 1950s vintage kimonos, soon to be shown in Jakarta.

But is the word sustainable an over-used, too-broad term?

Some brands don’t want their business to be known as a ‘sustainable brand’ because of this.

“There are different ways to define sustainability. It is a positive word but the consumer becomes nervous when it becomes an abused term; when claims are not backed up by action,” said Achille.

Paterson prefers to use the term slow fashion “it holds more romance,” she said. “More time for looking and appreciating the artistry in couture; or the work of the Rabari in Gujarat, the Shibori work of the artisans in Japan and the Bandhani in India.” All of which she has been practising in her work for more than 20 years. Her collections are not trend-driven: “Personally “I want to slow the whole thing down; look and care about the artistry in textiles and beauty of the things that we wear.  And now it seems as if that has become a trend in itself which of course I’m quite happy about.”

Yannick Aellen, who founded Mode Suisse in Zurich, 2010; a platform that connects the Swiss fashion scene and supports its designers internationally, most recently at New York Fashion Week, said: “In general, its a good thing that sustainability has become a such a big commercial trend, on a marketing level. But there are people who really care about sustainability - they sense it when it is fake so it has to be natural.”

Since 2017, Mode Suisse has teamed up with the Austrian Fashion Association and Berlin Showroom to create the DACH Showroom at Paris Fashion Week. “People do ask questions [about sustainability] and they want to know,” said Aellen. “I see for example our biggest seller at the moment at DACH is Julia Heuer and she is definitely in the mood of the time - very much back to that level where its very small quantities where she knows all her clients - its not a big corporate and crazy ready-to-wear. And I feel that is very much where fashion is going.”

Yvonne Reichmuth’s accessories brand, YVY, is a major success story with Hollywood and music superstars in LA: Janet Jackson, Monica Bellucci, Christina Aguillera among many others. She sources vegetable-tanned leather from Italy, crafting the pieces in her Zurich Studio.

“With today’s access to information, consumers know how to educate themselves, want to know who’s behind the brand and what they stand for. Being conscious of your decisions, when it comes to fashion, is a trend we should encourage,” said Reichmuth. “Swiss customers like to invest in quality pieces that last and appreciate craftsmanship; they’re not so trend-oriented, which is a very sustainable way of life. For me, LA is a city of extremes and there’s definitely a huge trend around living consciously; awareness is a key word and companies like Reformation and Everlane are great examples of success.”

Recycling innovations suggest its not a passing trend for fast fashion either.

In an exciting development, H&M Foundation, a non-profit privately-funded by the founders of fast fashion giant H&M Group, is developing a breakthrough invention – a hydrothermal recycling system that can separate fibre blends. The green machine has had much interest from brands and manufacturers across markets and is on track to commence operations in 2020. “There is no single silver bullet like with recycling standardised food grade PET bottles,” said Erik Bang, innovation lead at the H&M Foundation.

No-one can be in any doubt of the complications and challenges for the entire industry. But is it for the fashion and luxury’s big guns to lead the way? “It’s an issue for the fashion industry as a whole,” acknowledged Achille. “But who better than luxury? The longer cycle of luxury items versus fast fashion’s shorter lifetime; walking the talk is easier for the luxury player.”

Cover image: Stella McCartney Autumn/Winter 2019. Photo: Courtesy.


About the author

Alexandra Kohut-Cole

Fashion and Luxury Journalist

Alexandra Kohut-Cole is an international fashion and luxury journalist and editor. She has contributed to the International New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, Modern Weekly, the Business of Fashion among many others, and is a previous deputy editor of Harpers Bazaar Singapore. She has lived and worked in London, Australia, Switzerland, Asia and the Middle East and is currently based in Zurich and London.