Why Climate Activism Was the Biggest Trend at London Fashion Week

Originally published on EcoAge

fashion week

Image: Talia Woodin

This season, London Fashion Week saw the climate crisis take centre stage both on and off the catwalk. Brooke Roberts-Islam looks at the initiatives shaking up the way the industry works, and exactly what these demands for action should entail. 

Following a packed month of climate change and sustainability summits in January spanning the World Economic Forum in Davos, The Future Fabrics Expo in London and the Study Hall Climate Positivity conference in New York, February showed little sign of retreat from the appeals to act against climate change. While New York fashion week rolled on with what looked like business as usual, London Fashion Week (LFW) was punctuated by activism, climate speeches, designers presenting clothing they had stolen or swapped or upcycled, and the, now seasonal, Extinction Rebellion climate protest. 

Ahead of LFW on 10th February, Extinction Rebellion (XR) delivered a letter endorsed by Caryn Franklin MBE, Livia Firth of Eco-Age and among others, the founder of London Fashion Week, Lynne Franks OBE, asking the British Fashion Council (BFC) to “cancel September 2020 fashion week” and “ immediately start work on an emergency action plan that aids stakeholders through change.” Extinction Rebellion has asked the BFC to respond before September 2020 with a commitment to this transformation. While their response is as yet unknown, that wasn’t to say that the climate message didn’t manage to dominate London Fashion Week nonetheless.

On day one, the mood was set by the ON|OFF catwalk show which commenced with a speech from fashion sustainability researchers Professor Kate Fletcher and Dr. Mathilda Tham. “Climate scientists tell us that we’ve only got 10 years to change how we live, and also how we dress,” they declared. “For many years we have been dressing like we are somehow separate from the earth; as if our fate is somehow not tied to the health of the planet that is our home. But it is, and we need to change.” They also proposed that ‘Growth Logic’ should be replaced by ‘Earth Logic;’ the name of a report and manifesto they have authored as a blueprint for rooting fashion in creativity, community, curiosity, courage, and care, instead of profit. 

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Images: ON|OFF

Fletcher and Tham’s speech was followed by a catwalk show entitled All Power to the Imagination. The clothes were strewn with anarchic slogans, stickers on the soles of second-hand sandals, stilettos held on with scotch tape and spewing ball gowns, painted as though they were decaying – all while models stomped down the runway to a remix of The Clash’s ‘London Calling.’ These looked like clothes for rebellion and the message felt more important than the medium (which was largely synthetic, not particularly commercial and was peddling the idea of shredding fashion rules). It felt like these designers were lashing out – and rightly so, given that they are inheriting a climate crisis and an industry painfully resistant to cleaning up its act. 

During a conversation after the show with Fletcher and Tham, I asked what the desired outcome of their Earth Logic manifesto is. They are pushing for a slowing down of the fashion industry and adoption of their ‘landscapes’ for redefining and reorganising it. The full manifesto calls for changes including less growth, local scaling and re-centering of the fashion industry. I questioned whether the manifesto would deliver widespread action in an industry that is largely based in Asia (China and Bangladesh, to be specific, given that these two countries manufacture most of the clothing sold globally). Aren’t scalable, technology-based solutions needed to solve the immense problem of waste and overproduction, I asked? 

Fletcher’s response was words of caution against looking to technology to solve our climate challenges. The Earth logic document states that “technology is good at reducing impacts associated with the production of material goods, but it has very real limits. Yet somehow a dream of a techno-fix still permeates society. The only solution is less stuff. There are no other options.” But won’t it take longer than a decade to convince people to buy less stuff? Fletcher thinks not, citing the smoking ban and suggesting that it sparked a swift change in public opinion and behaviour. She and Tham are touring the UK to disseminate Earth Logic and will be speaking at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in an effort to lobby all fashion industry stakeholders to adopt their radical re-think and re-organisation of the industry.

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Images: House of SheldonHall

Meanwhile, day two of London Fashion Week saw the launch of Extinction Rebellion’s XR Fashion Action protest effort. This season, the protests too had a creative slant, featuring talks, block printing on second-hand clothes and music outside of the BFC’s main show venue at 180 The Strand. Their actions were bolstered by respected academics and industry veterans, including Professor Dilys Williams FRSA of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion. “We ask all involved in fashion to place earth and equality first, to respond to XR demands and to recognise those designers and fashion practitioners who create prosperity in social, ecological, cultural and economic dimensions,” stated Williams.

There is no doubt that XR is shining a spotlight on fashion and demanding that business as usual ceases, but I can’t help but ask what will replace it? What happens next if XR’s 3 Demands Bill (their core aim) is passed? The industry still needs to be transformed, but how will that be done, and by whom? In previous interviews, Sara Arnold, a pivotal member of the XR Fashion Action team, has explained that their aim is to trigger the announcement of the climate crisis by parliament, catalysing a pause in the industry so that all stakeholders can plan for, and implement, a more sustainable form of the industry. However, I would contend that it is difficult to understand how this will be structured and actioned, in practical terms. 

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[Images: Talia Woodin]

Elsewhere during London Fashion Week, Anya Hindmarch replaced her usual catwalk show or presentation with the ‘I Am A Plastic Bag’ collection and filled up her London stores with plastic bottles to make a statement on waste. Phoebe English, an up and coming designer and advocate for slow, low-impact fashion, created her collection from the leftover fabric of twelve London-based fashion design studios, including Simone Rocha. How this works for the production of the collection post-show is not immediately evident, but the use of existing materials sent out an applaudable message.

Yet perhaps most notably of all, the main BFC showroom space at 180 The Strand that was once a vast trade show of brands presenting collections to buyers this year became a paired-back ‘Positive Fashion’ showcase. While still a commercial brand space, it was filled with labels claiming a facet of sustainability in their offering. What was also new this season was the prominent positioning of young emerging designers who are operating under sustainable business models that integrate swapping (Patrick McDowell), upcycling (Sophie Hird) and repurposed deadstock (Duran Lantink). Although not immediately scalable, they had the fashion week audience engaged and talking, both in-person and online via Instagram. Their endeavours served to show that the fashion crowd’s appetite for something new is not related to seasonal silhouettes and colour palettes, but the business model and consumption methods of fashion. 

With the global narrative around sustainability and climate change imperatives rising, it is difficult to imagine a fashion week without the growing sustainability narrative taking centre stage, powered by designers making a stand and activists demanding change. Business as usual looks less likely for the seasons ahead – All power to the Imagination indeed! 

Fashion Week Insiders Call For Sustainability Clarity, Citing Confusing Brand Marketing and “Green-Washing”

Fashion month has come to a close and this season, more than ever, the industry has been under pressure to address its environmental responsibility. There are some steps being taken, whether it is the launch of the British Fashion Council’s Positive Fashion Initiative in London or Dior‘s zero-waste, plastic-free, fully recyclable set and tree replanting scheme at their Paris show, but what does that mean on the ground? What do the people attending the shows, working in the industry, buying the products and living their day-to-day lives think and feel about the role of sustainability in fashion? We took to the streets at London Fashion Week (LFW) to find out.

To delve deeper, Techstyler gathered a crew to find out exactly what people know about sustainability in fashion and how they integrate it into their daily lives, if at all. Continuing from our pilot research project back in February, this season we partnered with The British School of Fashion to develop a questionnaire that would capture individuals’ attitudes towards sustainability in fashion, consumer behaviours and personal views on the topic. We then interviewed hundreds of attendees of LFW, both inside and outside the official venues, over the five days. 

Image: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

This season saw pressure groups including Extinction Rebellion (XR) and PETA protesting against the environmental and ethical impacts of fashion, culminating in a “funeral” march by XR featuring a coffin inscribed with “RIP LFW 1983-2019” sending a clear message to the BFC and wider industry. While these groups were protesting outside the official LFW venue of 180 The Strand, Techstyler and “parent” company BRIA were inside presenting solutions, seeking to understand the current climate and calling for change, amongst other innovators. There are solutions and designers doing “good”, some of which were showcased in the BFC’s Positive Fashion space including Patrick McDowell, RE;CODE and the global movement supporting the UN sustainable development goals #TOGETHERBAND; but there is also huge consumer confusion which needs to be addressed before we can expect widespread change in sustainable consumption. We wanted to find out what’s actually going on on the ground, and this starts with you (yes, you).

Patrick McDowell at LFW. Image: Techstyler

The study found that the overarching sentiment when it came to sustainability in fashion was a resounding, and slightly concerning, “I don’t know”. When asked “which brands do you see as the most sustainable”, one respondent replied, “Tricky question. How do you define sustainability?”, and that, ladies and gentlemen, sums it up in a neat bow. This commentary could probably end right there, but there’s a lot at stake here. If we are out on the streets fighting for our future, we should probably understand what we are fighting for and our roles in the battle beyond the placards.

Image: Techstyler

After combining this past month’s data with our research from February, it is evident that there is a lot of miscommunication and confusion, and, let’s not forget, that the respondents are not regular consumers on the high street; they are buyers, designers, stylists, journalists and fashion students. In other words, they are those at the forefront of the industry. The answers were incredibly varied, showing a large gap in knowledge, but ultimately a desire to do better. Many simply don’t know how because the messaging is highly confusing; brands can say what they want around sustainability as key terms like “organic” and “natural” aren’t even regulated, never mind the word “sustainability”, which, to be honest, is anyone’s guess at this point. One respondent even said that the term “sustainability” is itself off-putting.

“There is too much negativity arising around the term “sustainable” and a huge part of it comes from the misunderstandings created when communicating it.”

Questionnaire respondent
Image: Techstyler

Respondents were asked to list the brands they see as the most sustainable, at which many reeled off those who are shouting the loudest but are not necessarily backing up their efforts up with facts. When telling us which brands they are wearing, high street fast fashion was ever-present, despite the interviewees claims to be concerned about the issues involved with fast fashion manufacturing and consumption. H&M was one brand that regularly appeared on both the “most sustainable” and “least sustainable” brand lists, thanks to their Conscious Collection campaigns. Eight respondents who said they were wearing Zara at the time of the interview then went on to list it as a least sustainable brand, which is sufficiently revealing alone. Five out of the eight claimed that sustainability was important to them, so there is a clear disconnect here which needs to be addressed. Overall many simply didn’t know what to believe. “I think there is too much green-washing going on with brands and the marketing teams confuse the sustainability message. They make it harder for consumers to understand sustainability,” said one respondent. 

BFC’s Positive Fashion Panel. Image: Instagram

Alongside the confusion there was also positivity around the growth of the sustainability movement and a recognition of our individual responsibility, with one respondent saying “I think [sustainable fashion] has a potential to be huge in the future” and another recognising that, “it is so important to think of your wardrobe and how to make it last longer than a season.”

Many are calling for industry change: for designers to implement sustainable strategies, brands to be truthful and transparent, and fellow consumers to make the “right” choices.  And this sentiment has grown slightly since last season’s research, showing a steady change in attitudes in just a short time; short, but impactful, with the rise of Greta Thunberg and her Global Climate Strikes, XR mobilising groups across the world to call for action, and 150 brands signing up to the G7 fashion pact after a highly publicised 45th Summit in Biarritz. 

“Is there really a place for fashion week anymore? Seems out-dated and pretty distasteful given the current climate crisis… It seems like a parade of excess that isn’t needed”

Questionnaire Respondent
Image: Techstyler

In response to London Fashion Week being well and truly under the microscope this season, the British Fashion Council hosted a panel to discuss the climate crisis and fashion’s role in both causing and, hopefully, reversing it. Panellists including Bel Jacobs representing Extinction Rebellion, Tamsin Lejeune founder of Common Objective, Cameron Saul of Bottletop, and model and activist Arizona Muse were moderated by journalist Tamsin Blanchard on the final day of LFW to debate the best way forward. In an open and honest discussion, Bel Jacobs reiterated XR’s warning that we are “in the middle of the 6th mass extinction”, going on to say “we called for fashion week to be cancelled to use this as a platform to broadcast the climate emergency. Everyone will stop and recognise (the emergency) if the BFC does that. It’s too late for incremental change.” Arizona Muse proposed that “fashion week could be harnessed for good [so that it] reflects a more humane approach.” Fashion Week’s role in this change was agreed to be pivotal and the time is now.

Image: Techstyler

Reflecting on our time at LFW, there was a palpable air of eco-anxiety both inside and outside the venue. Although there was consumer confusion surrounding exactly how they can be part of the solution, there was an encouraging desire to understand and do more. The public are looking to brands and the wider industry for clear indicators and evidence of widespread change, with one saying, “The industry is on the right track [it] just needs to gather momentum”. Experts joining the discussion are calling for major change for the sake of our survival as a species, nevermind the survival of Fashion Week as we know it. Following this initial research, Techstyler and The British School of Fashion will be releasing more detailed reports in the coming months and replicating the study internationally in 2020. The need for change has never been so urgent, and to make these changes sustainable we must understand the issues at a grassroots level. There is still a long way to go, but change is in the air and how these changes manifest next fashion month will be key, as, this time, the world is watching. 

Image: Techstyler

We would like to thank the research crew for volunteering their time over the last two seasons. Keep an eye out for more results from our recent study, and news of the international research on Techstyler’s Instagram, Techstyler.fashion and by signing up to our newsletter.