Once bitter foes, sustainability and fashion are finally coming together as big brands realise that making a difference is also good for business. For decades, Stella McCartney was a lone voice in advocating fashion that helped preserve more than just your figure, but she now has illustrious company as sustainability becomes the year’s biggest trend.
In fact, there is barely a brand that hasn’t announced its commitment to the environment. Versace, Michael Kors, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Armani, and Gucci have all recently renounced fur, while Gucci is pushing it even further by banning PVC and introducing organic cotton, recycled polyester, and nylon made from recycled fishing nets. And that’s before we look at smaller fashion stars such as Reformation, the ultra-trendy Los Angeles brand that is built entirely on sustainable principles and only uses recycled fabrics.
Increasingly, these brands are announcing partnerships with businesses that have worked out how to make leather without cows, silk without worms, fur without animals, and fabrics from recycled waste. Salvatore Ferragamo has been selling scarves made of orange fibre and has just launched the Rainbow Future, the first shoe inspired by the principles of sustainability.
Stella McCartney, meanwhile, has gone one step further by producing two outfits made with spider-inspired silk. After studying spiders’ DNA and their webs, Bolt Threads, the company her brand has partnered with, developed similar proteins that are injected into yeast and sugar and then fermented. The resulting liquid silk is turned into a fibre through a wet-spinning process that creates strands that can be knitted into fabric.
Fashion is an industry built on creativity, which means it is very well placed to innovate—after all, luxury design is about reinvention and embracing new approaches. However, although high-end brands and environmental lobbies could be natural bedfellows, the former have until very recently been reluctant to proclaim their green credentials.
“Eco should never be a word that conjures up images of oatmeal-coloured garments lacking in any sort of luxury or beauty or detailing or desirability,” says Stella McCartney. “I don’t think that things have to look ugly because they’re organic; why can’t they be beautiful as well? You can’t ask a consumer to compromise. I don’t think you can say, ‘Here is this jacket that looks terrible but it’s organic, and here is a really beautiful jacket that’s cheaper but don’t buy it because it’s not organic.’ My job is to create beautiful luxurious things. I love that people come into the store and don’t even know that something is organic or in faux leather. That’s the biggest challenge, having people not notice.”
(Related: Ferragamo's Sandals of Sustainability)
Brands that don’t commit to a sustainable future look increasingly like they have missed the zeitgeist, or worse, like they don’t care or have something to hide. “Any sort of innovation is hard but it’s something you cannot ignore,” says Freya Williams, the CEO of sustainability agency Futerra. “Although it’s an Everest, it’s much easier now than it was for the pioneers. There are so many resources and non-profit partners you can collaborate with. I often say to clients, ‘Do you want to be setting the rules or playing catch-up?’ It’s really important to look at trends. If you don’t have a slice of the green products market, you’re not in the race.”
Among major conglomerates, Kering is currently leading the way. The French luxury house, which owns illustrious brands such as Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, and Balenciaga, surprised the world when it voluntarily surrendered itself to a series of ambitious sustainability targets in 2012.
Launched to reduce the group’s sizeable impact on the environment and covering areas such as carbon dioxide emissions and the waythe company sources gold, leather, and other animal skins, its sustainability programme was a bold new step for the fashion industry.
“It is all thanks to (CEO) François-Henri Pinault, who believes that we not only have an ethical responsibility to embed sustainability across our group but that it also just makes good business sense to do so,” says Marie-Claire Daveu, Kering’s chief sustainability officer. “Our targets were purposely ambitious. We set them to be challenging in order to help drive rapid change inside our company and across our supply chain. This is because we knew we couldn’t reach them without collaborating with our suppliers, our industry peers, NGOs, and governmental agencies. Although it takes time, this type of transparent collaboration is essential to catalyse change across our industry and beyond.”
Sustainability is now not only an ethical choice, it’s a fashionable one. But it is worth remembering that the unwavering commitment of brands to a green future is not about simple charity or good PR; it’s also about readying themselves for an uncertain future.
“In my view, companies that do not embed sustainability across all their business activities will not maintain success in years to come,” says Daveu. “Already, we are seeing the results of climate change, be it loss of biodiversity or the degradation of natural resources, and this will only increase. Business is dependent on these resources and we all must take action to become more resilient to address the inevitable. At Kering, we rely on access to high-quality raw materials, such as silk and cotton, which are already being impacted by climate change. The companies that think of these things now are the companies that will succeed in the future.”
In other words, go green or go home.
Cover photo: An image from a 2017 Stella McCartney ad campaign, which was shot at a landfill to raise awareness of such issues as single-use fashion.