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.

LFW: What Designers Really Think About Calls to Cancel Fashion Week

Originally published on Eco-Age.

As London Fashion Week draws to a close for another season, fashion tech innovator, writer and public speaker Brooke Roberts-Islam speaks to designers and Extinction Rebellion representatives about this week’s protests and how we can all play a part in building a more sustainable fashion industry.

On Day 1 of London Fashion Week, I was met with a row of police vans stationed outside the LFW show venue, parked up, in an ominous standby state as if predicting the worst might happen. With civil unrest predicted following Extinction Rebellion’s calls for a ‘boycott’ of LFW and of the British Fashion Council to acknowledge the climate crisis, the heightened security  signified that the escalating protests about the climate emergency we are now facing were being taken seriously.

Sara Arnold, founder of fashion rental business Higher Studio and member of Extinction Rebellion, now known as XR, explained that they are calling for one thing (with three parts). They want the government to tell the truth about the climate emergency; to act immediately to halt biodiversity loss; and to create a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice, to ensure that achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2025 (as deemed necessary by IPCC) is not beyond hope.

But is boycotting fashion week really the best way to halt the climate crisis? XR has, in fact, penned a letter to the British Fashion Council asking them to cancel London Fashion Week and convene the industry instead, to discuss solutions for halting fashion’s broken and polluting system. The term boycott has been mistakenly used, explained Arnold when I interviewed her on day 2 of LFW. Would it be possible for LFW to go ahead and then convene the industry, I asked? Do these things have to be mutually exclusive? Arnold’s view is that fashion week is a distraction from the truth about the urgent crisis we are in, and to overhaul the system business as usual needs to stop. “We need to have a radical solution, ” she said. But what about the independent designers whose products she rents via her subscription service, Higher Studio? “I feel deep empathy with designers wanting to make a living out of what they are doing,” she said. “But Higher Studio won’t save us.” 

sabinna_season_9

 

Image: Sabinna Season 9

Looking to designers for their opinion, I spoke to London-based Sabinna Rachimova, founder of womenswear label SABINNA, which she sells direct to consumer via pop-up stores and an e-commerce site. On the subject of boycotting London Fashion Week, she said: “I would love to see alternative solutions – London Fashion Week could be used as a platform to inform, educate and showcase the necessary changes that this industry is facing.” 

During a Positive Fashion panel discussion on the final day of London Fashion Week, Arizona Muse echoed Rachimova, saying: “fashion week could be harnessed for good (so that it) reflects a more humane approach.” It’s true that London Fashion Week has a hugely influential and powerful voice, which explains the importance of XR being part of the LFW narrative as the BFC ushers in a new era of Positive Fashion and seeks to be part of the sustainable solution and secure the industry’s future – in Brexit Britain, at least. 

00001-phoebe-english-ss20-ready-to-wear-credit-asia-werbel

 

Image: Phoebe English SS20 Ready to Wear, credit Asia Werbel.

Phoebe English also joined the Positive Fashion panel to explain why she stopped making collections for three seasons and discarded “eight years of (working with suppliers) – scrapping it all and starting from scratch.” English and several other designers, including Bethany Williams, who earlier this year won the Queen Elizabeth II Award for Design, have created a Whatsapp group to converse about the challenges and solutions they are facing as fashion designers and brand owners, and to rally around solving sustainability challenges. 

Bel Jacobs, representing XR, presented the stark truths from the IPCC and UN climate reports that we are “in the middle of the 6th mass extinction”. “We called for fashion week to be cancelled to use this as a platform to broadcast the climate emergency,” she said. “Everyone will stop and recognise (the emergency) if the BFC does that. It’s too late for incremental change.”  She dismissed the notion that the XR activation planned for the final day of fashion week entitled “RIP London Fashion Week” was “overly dramatic and alarmist”, again citing the IPCC and UN reports as evidence that the planned action is proportional, reiterating that XR are “calling for an end to the industry in its current incarnation.” 

roberta_einer_ss20_-_3

 

Image: Roberter Einer SS20

Designer Roberta Einer, who presented her collection in a London Fashion Week show, commented: “I feel incredibly privileged to be part of the LFW but understand that with that comes a lot of responsibility.” She explained that over the last couple of seasons her team has started to recycle silks for their embroideries, re-dye and reuse fabrics for sampling, and revaluate the mills they are sourcing their fabrics from. This echoes the words of English, who has assessed all aspects of her business and implemented the most sustainable options within her power. She admits there is still much to do, though. 

Tamsin Blanchard, the panel moderator, nailed the crux of the problem by reminding the London Fashion Week audience that “we can’t buy our way to sustainability.” She pointed to fast fashion as the main culprit for the lion’s share of waste and climate impact attributed to the fashion industry.  There was no representation from fast fashion brands at the panel discussion, but JD.com and Foot Locker are current sponsors of LFW, so there is undeniably a direct line of communication from high fashion to fast fashion.

martina_spetlova_2

 

Image: Martina Spetlova

In terms of the drivers behind the growth of the fashion industry and the huge volumes of fast fashion produced and consumed, Dr. Amy Twigger Holroyd, professor of School of Art and Design, Nottingham Trent University and core team member of the Union of Concerned Researchers of Fashion said we are: “stuck in a capitalist model of growth.” “Do fashion designers need to create things? No. When we recognise this, the scope for creativity is much broader,” she said. 

This conjures up thoughts of the work of digital fashion house The Fabricant, which created the world’s first blockchain registered digital couture, never to be made in physical form, and ‘fitted’ to the avatar of the owner – all for a princely sum approaching £8,000. While that may feel quite futuristic to some, there are immediately accessible solutions that could radically improve fashion’s climate impact, like the high street moving from sales to a rental business model. Tamsin Lejeune, CEO of Common Objective, highlighted rental as a potential solution that may offer immediate and widespread reductions in climate impact.

00002-phoebe-english-ss20-ready-to-wear-credit-asia-werbel

 

Image: Phoebe English SS20 Ready to Wear, credit Asia Werbel.

So if the lion’s share of the fashion industry’s environmental impact lies with fast fashion brands, what role can smaller, independent designers play in halting this climate crisis? Phoebe English contributed to the recent environmental audit committee recommendations, which were rejected in their entirety by the British government. “Parliament and government does not have systems in place to deal with this emergency – the change will only come from us, ” she said. “We need to change and we need to change right now.” 

London fashion week Positive Fashion exhibitor and designer Martina Spetlova told me that ”although LFW is making positive efforts to promote sustainability within the fashion industry, we still need to stand up with XR boycott fashion and provoke that change through media pressure and awareness. Coming from Eastern Europe I have witnessed the power of direct protest with Velvet revolution.” 

So it seems the overriding view of designers and activists at London Fashion Week is that the responsibility falls on all citizens (both those creating and consuming fashion) to demand change. However, protest alone will not effect the change required, and if the existing fast fashion business model and mode of selling remains unchanged, the unbridled use of resources and creation of waste will propel us toward climate devastation. In terms of rallying around solutions and urging recognition of the crisis, the singular, unified message from all parties is that action is required by each and every one of us, right now. I’m starting by reviewing the IPCC and UN reports referenced above. And I haven’t bought a single item of new clothing all year, which I intend to maintain indefinitely. What will you do?