How London Fashion Week can set the stage for a sector-wide sustainability revolution

The catwalk shows for London Fashion Week may be over, but with the event's annual festival set to begin on Thursday (20 September), critical eyes will focus on the environmental and ethical impacts of fast fashion. Here, edie explores four ways that the show can champion sustainable alternatives.

This week saw more than 5,000 people gather in the capital for the 68th iteration of London Fashion Week (LFW), where 80 designers showcased the concepts they see as the future of style. While innovative design has always been among the most-admired traits among brands to showcase their wares at the event, this year’s shows increasingly focused on sustainability, diversity and brand ethics.

This shift in theme is hardly surprising. Given the rise of groups such as Fashion Revolution and initiatives such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative, concerns around fast fashion and cradle-to-grave business models are now seeping into the conscience of fashion brands.

The scale of the problem is clear; the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that the global fashion industry currently loses $460bn due to the underutilisation of clothes, as well as $100bn from clothing that could be used but is lost to landfill and incineration, each year. Similarly, the World Wear Project estimates that the average household generates more than 35kg of waste clothing annually, with 85% being sent to landfill.

Concerns surrounding the resource intensity of producing clothing also continue to persist. WRAP estimates that the average household will generate the carbon equivalent of driving a petrol car for 6,000 miles through purchasing and cleaning new clothes every year.

Aside from the fashion industry’s environmental footprint, campaigners continue to raise the alarm about ethical issues such as the use of fur, modern slavery in textile supply chains and human rights breaches in clothing manufacturing plants.

With this in mind, edie explores four ways in which LFW can showcase the possibility of a sector-wide sustainability revolution.

Kick-starting a resource revolution

The British Fashion Council (BFC) made headlines earlier this month when it announced that LFW 2018 would be one of the first major fashion events to ban the use of animal fur, after a survey of every designer to attend revealed that the majority were removing fur from their products.

“The BFC survey results reflect a cultural change based on ideals and choices made by designer businesses, international brands as well as consumer sentiment but also encouraged by the stance of multi-brand stores who are moving away from selling fur,” the council reiterated in a statement. 

Off the back of the fur ban, Friends of the Earth has called for plastics to be banned at the 2019 event after its own research found that clothes washing in the UK generates around 4,000 tonnes of plastic microfibre pollution every year.

The campaign group believes that this figure is so high because around two-thirds of clothing purchased nationwide annually is made with a synthetic plastic of some description – polyester, acrylic and polyamide being the most common materials.

Some of the designers to have showcased at this year’s event have already made moves to remove plastic from their products. Vin + Omi, for example, showcased dresses made from a flax and parsley-based fabric called Flaxley, alongside hybrid metal fabrics made from cans collected by homeless people on a support programme in Birmingham.  

As innovations such as fabric made from recycled cow dung and shoes made with discarded chewing gum continue to emerge, we could soon come to see circular products as the height of fashion.

Creating demand for second-hand products

The value of unused clothing in wardrobes worldwide has been estimated at around £30bn and, with social media influencers and high-street brands changing their look every few months to keep up with fast fashion trends, the outlook for extending the life cycle of clothing doesn’t look particularly promising at first glance. 

Indeed, Reebok estimates the world has now reached a point where 20 billion pairs of shoes are produced annually, with the majority comprising of at least one hard-to-recycle rubber component.

Nonetheless, the industry has made strong progress in recent times to create demand for second-hand apparel. VF Corporation, for example, recently introduced a thriving take-back scheme for older garments. Called “Renewed” and operated through the company’s The North Face brand, the scheme acts as an online hub to sell refurbished products that are sourced from returned, damaged or defective apparel.

Similarly, more and more vintage stores selling refurbished garments are appearing across London, with Shoreditch-based Beyond Retro having recently launched a range of upcycled products made from “unfashionable” or end-of-life items.

Big-name retailers are also making moves to drive consumer appetite for recycled garments, with H&M’s charitable arm, the H&M Foundation, having this summer launched a hydrothermal textile recycling plant. The Foundation’s recycling method involves using heat, water and a blend of biodegradable chemicals to separate cotton and polyester from mixed fabrics. Once the fibres are separated, they can be sorted for reuse in new garments, including jeans.

Brands are already beginning to reap the rewards of these closed-loop approaches. VF Corporation’s sustainability and senior director Anna Maria Rugarli, for example, recently told edie that such business models were attracting new customers and building brand loyalty while championing the importance of sustainability.

While LFW is yet to host a show dedicated to promoting second-hand or upcycled garments, this year’s agenda did feature an event revealing how brands such as Studio Pia, We-Resonate and Bourgeois Boheme are building the business case for ‘slow’ fashion.

Focusing on purpose rather than products

By 2025, three-quarters of the UK’s working population will be millennials that want to buy from companies that have a purpose beyond their products and operations. Indeed, recent research from communications agency FleishmanHillard Fishburn (FHF) revealed that 93% of the millennial generation want to buy from companies that have purpose, sustainability and environmental stewardship built into their ethos. 

With this in mind, the likes of Patagonia, VF Corporation and even Nike have moved to become “brands taking stands” by engaging in brand activism, with the latter reporting a 31% increase in sales after launching an advertising campaign starring #TakeAKnee founder Colin Kaepernick.

Elsewhere, Chromat caused a stir at New York Fashion week by using its show to advocate for body positivity and social inclusivity. The brand only used models of colour during the show, including a number of women with disabilities, and notably used a plus-size model to showcase a T-Shirt with a print that read “sample size”.

Although none of these brands were represented at LFW, the event did play host to Stella McCartney – a brand famed for its work to champion animal rights, sweatshop-free fashion and forest protection. In an unusual move for a luxury fashion house, the company has never used leather or fur in its ranges, showcasing vegan alternatives instead.

Stella McCartney’s most recent brand activism came in the form of a new London store, which was fitted with cutting-edge air filter technology in a bid to highlight the city’s air pollution problem.

Looking to the future, the possibility of an LFW show featuring brands with an ethical purpose beyond their products certainly seems a possibility.

Creating transparent supply chains

The fashion industry has been at the centre of high-profile supply chain CSR scandals in recent times; from Zara and ASOS linked to sourcing viscose from factories which dumped toxic waste in rivers, to the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,000 people.

Moreover, modern slavery in fashion supply chains has long been a concern for the industry, with one BBC expose recently revealing that Syrian refugees earning as little as £1 per hour were working in third-party suppliers in Turkey, linked to a number of high-profile fashion retailers.

But in the wake of these scandals, a number of collaborative initiatives aimed at driving transparency to ensure truly sustainable and ethical supply chains have emerged, as consumers begin to ask #WhoMadeMyClothes?  

More than 180 corporates have now pledged to champion human rights in garment factories through the Bangladesh Accord, for example, while start-up A Transparent Company has launched a blockchain platform to help retailers track their products from source to shop. Elsewhere, Fashion Revolution has launched a fashion transparency index to help customers choose brands which champion disclosure.

The industry has also reached a point where brands are beginning to disclose their negative supply chain impacts beyond compliance, even when doing so puts their reputation at risk. Burberry, for instance, was at the centre of a media storm after voluntarily revealing that it burned more than £28m worth of unsold stock over the past 12 months.

Since the revelation in its annual update in July, the brand has pledged to stop destroying products deemed unsaleable – a practice which is reportedly common in the industry amid fears of counterfeiting. Burberry hopes the decision will build on its headline CSR goal to “revalue waste”. Shortly after announcing the move, Burberry was listed in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index as a leader in the ‘Textiles, Apparel & Luxury Goods’ sector for a fourth consecutive year.

However, the long shadows of past CSR scandals continue to hang over the industry. With M&S estimating that up to 71% of corporates in the sector have modern slavery in their supply chains, the onus is now on business to drive truly ethical and sustainable supply chains. Amid rising consumer pressures for transparency and with best practice in terms of disclosure evolving rapidly, brands that do not monitor their supply chains closely enough risk falling out of vogue.

For now, green is not yet the new black. But with more purpose-driven brands attempting to retain customer loyalty through actions rather than slogans, the fashion industry is on the cusp of a revolution that aligns with global needs to reduce resource consumption, battle inequalities and move away from an obsession with ownership over experience.  

Sarah George

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