With SS24 presentations now firmly under way, looking back at what we learned from Fashion Week’s Fall/Winter 23 season feels prescient. Whether Fashion itself feels that way – whether any of those lessons have been taken onboard by the industry at large, or given anything other than lip service – however, is another thing entirely.
The biannual, two-month-long party spans global capital cities, starting in New York and culminating in Paris. With tens of thousands of people in attendance, including thousands of journalists, every Fashion Week cycle is an opportunity to show the world what environmental sustainability in fashion looks like both in clothing design and also in event production. From coordination of transportation and public relations, to venue selection, set design, and catering – there are decisions made every day at Fashion Week events that have an environmental impact.
Is it a chance well-taken, though, or a missed opportunity?
For FW23, circularity had a place on some major runways including in Paris where Marine Serre’s men’s show was heralded for being “zero-waste.” Here, the designer presented a new collection of clothes made from found materials – promotional cotton tote bags, discarded leather, used denim – against a backdrop of towering piles of used and deadstock fabric from the brand’s warehouse, material that eventually will be incorporated into other collections. The opening show for London Fashion Week was a collaboration with the anti-poverty non-governmental organization Oxfam which runs hundreds of charity shops across the United Kingdom. The show presented models dressed exclusively in second-hand pieces curated from Oxfam’s warehouse.
For overall event production this season, Copenhagen Fashion Week took the sustainability spotlight, with FW23 marking the first full implementation of its sustainability requirements which were announced in 2020. These detailed policies apply quite strictly to every participating brand’s entire business model and to overall event production of the Fashion Week itself. The goals are to reduce waste and pollution and to increase positive social impact, then report the results and iterate.
No other major fashion week has taken such broad, deep, and transparent actions – at least, not yet – thereby positioning Copenhagen Fashion Week as a pioneer and a beta test for commitments such as reducing carbon emissions by changing local transportation offerings (electric shuttle bus service and other zero-emissions vehicles), eliminating merchandise entirely (such as t-shirts), and adjusting catering options (only vegetarian and vegan options).
Eliminating single-use plastic backstage was also made a priority, with a check for compliance and individualized feedback provided to each brand working toward future fees for disregarding the ban. And, looking to cover all aspects of the production, CPH also heavily encouraged set rentals with next season due to see a complete ban of single-use materials for staging.
It was, of course – and remains – a work in progress. Notably, the organizers already missed a 2022 target goal to reduce carbon emissions by 50%. Carbon offsets were purchased, though critics dismissed that move as an easy out to more responsible decisions. In response to this concern, Copenhagen Fashion Week’s Head of Sustainability, Gizem Arici is undefensive: “We agree! This is why our strategy in the future will move more and more towards decarbonisation with offsetting as the “last” option for non-avoidable emissions!” Furthermore, the organizers acknowledge that so long as they continue to welcome attendees who travel by plane, the carbon emissions goal is unachievable – travel is by far the most polluting element of the entire event.
For now, the priority is getting as many industry insiders as possible to come in person to see how this new approach works in practice. So the emissions target stands unfulfilled, looming over the proceedings.
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With 80,000 attendees each season, New York Fashion Week is by far the largest event of every fashion cycle. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) provides a growing library of resources through its online Sustainability Resource Hub and hosts a digital platform for runway shows. In 2020, the CFDA published “Sustainability by Design: A Playbook for Positive Change,” outlining specific, feasible ways to reduce waste across six key dimensions: content, samples, even production, venues, public relations, and transportation. It’s unclear to what extent this Playbook’s suggestions or the Resource Hub’s offerings have been taken up by individual brands, New York Fashion Week, or the CFDA itself.
Meanwhile, in London, The British Fashion Council (BFC) established the Institute for Positive Fashion as a research hub and convener of stakeholders to develop a circular fashion ecosystem in Britain and beyond. Its Blueprint for circularity provides a detailed rationale for why and how to reduce the volume of new clothing, maximize the useful life of what is produced, and improve textile recycling systems. For London Fashion Week, BFC sponsors BFC NEWGEN to showcase new talent. This prestigious award has an application process that now includes demonstrating sustainability in design and production, with standards inspired by Copenhagen’s requirements.
In Milan, the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana published a Manifesto for Sustainability in Italian Fashion that identifies sustainable practices for the entire supply chain. More recently, it published a roadmap for social sustainability addressing the issue of fair wages. And in September, 2022, the Camera debuted the Sustainable Fashion Awards in partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the preeminent philanthropic leader for a circular economy.
And in Paris, the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode established initiatives to reduce waste at Paris Fashion Week by providing a fleet of zero-emissions vehicles to transport guests; entering into a partnership to pilot circularity in built infrastructure (such as repurposing wood for structural elements in showrooms from season to season); and developing a digital “eco-tool” for each fashion house to use that guides and measures the impact of their event design-decisions.
The examples above are not exhaustive and leave many aspects unaddressed. Such as the role of couture labels which could, for example, leverage their creative freedom and spending power to take the lead in sourcing recycled and reusable materials for set design.
While youth will always push against the status quo, it is inadequate to hold up-and-coming designers accountable to sustainability standards that established brands are not also following. And while this article focuses on the environmental impacts of Fashion Week, sustainability is incomplete unless it addresses fair wages and other labor practices.
Copenhagen demonstrates how Fashion Week itself is an opportunity to encourage and support the adoption of sustainable practices. In order to encourage environmentally sustainable practices to become integrated across the fashion industry, sustainability has to be more than a marketing tool. It should be completely and permanently integrated such that it is front and center at every Fashion Week, every season, promoted by every host institution, for men’s and women’s and couture.
If Fashion Weeks coalesce around environmental actions in lockstep with ethical ones, particularly related to fair wages across the supply chain, then it increases the potential to move the entire fashion industry from being renowned for waste and exploitation to exemplary for creative circularity.
Now, let’s see where the next season takes us.
Text: Maddy Russell-Shapiro