In a context where social pressure is put on luxury houses to find concrete solutions to achieve their sustainability goals, a number of textile manufacturers are already showing the way to their customers by initiating innovative and more sustainable fabrics. This is a crucial issue for the fashion industry, which is cited by the European Commission as having the fourth largest impact on the environment and climate change.
First and foremost, it is crucial to understand what criteria a material must meet in order to be called sustainable. The first requirement is that the material is produced in an eco-friendly manner, i.e. without excessive damage to the environment or animals, or is even recycled itself. Secondly, the processing of the material must not involve highly chemical techniques such as bleaching or dyeing with carcinogenic dyes. Finally, special attention is paid to the end-of-life prospects of the fabric: it must last for many years and be potentially recyclable or compostable without causing further damage to the environment.
In order to avoid falling into the trap of many brands’ greenwashing attempts, it is important to understand what products are really made of and to learn more about some very useful labels. Fairtrade certification guarantees that workers and producers receive fair prices and lead times. Cradle to Cradle is an eco-label that certifies eco-intelligent products with different levels ranging from Basic to Platinum depending on the performance in different areas such as eco-materials, social responsibility, water efficiency, renewable energy, and recycling. Finally, the International Oeko-Tex Association tests textiles for hazardous substances and guarantees certification for textiles that do not use harmful chemicals in their manufacturing process.
Many advances are being made regarding textiles whether coming from main luxury conglomerates or from their suppliers.
LVMH has invested in Nona Source, a platform that sells surplus fabrics from the luxury group’s House. For its part, Kering has set up a material innovation laboratory, which acts as a library for certified sustainable fabrics, which, for example, made it possible to use 90% sustainable material at the Balenciaga show in October 2020.
On the supplier side, the practices of innovative companies serve as lessons for large houses who are both customers and investors. The Italian pioneering company Orange Fiber, which uses citrus by-products to create sustainable fabrics, collaborated with Salavatore Ferragamo in 2017. MycoWorks, which creates leather from mushroom-based biomaterials, collaborated with Hermès on the creation of a new material called Sylvania. Chanel-backed Evolved By Nature makes biodegradable coatings used on items such as luxury handbags or sportswear.
There are many sustainable and eco-friendly materials, but here are three of the most commonly used today that you should know about.
First, there is organic hemp, a very versatile plant used for clothing, cosmetics and food products for its ability to be used in all seasons and its low maintenance: little water and no pesticides. Naturally environmentally friendly, organic hemp even returns nutrients to the soil.
In addition, there is Lyocell, a fabric made from wood pulp that has excellent properties including being anti-bacterial, odorless, and humidity-resistant. It is biodegradable and the water and chemicals used during its production can be recycled.
Finally, Econyl is a nylon fiber recycled from plastic and industrial waste such as fishing nets. It is an infinitely renewable material that consumes very little energy, although its washing does result in the release of micro plastics into the ocean.
Unfortunately, however, the materials most used today are among the least sustainable. This is particularly true of polyester, which consists of synthetic materials that are essentially plastic, but also of nylon, a silky thermoplastic that is often based on fossil fuels. In addition, we must not forget about acrylic, a material based on plastic nets, as well as cotton, which has a high consumption of water and pesticides. Lastly, it is worth mentioning the waste and real danger to the environment that are evening dresses adorned with sequins. Most of the time only worn once, sequined dresses are made of petroleum plastics and synthetic resins, materials that harm not only the natural ecosystems but also the workers responsible for sewing them by hand on the clothes.
Although companies are progressing towards adapting new technologies for manufacturing their designs, many are still using controversial ways regarding sustainability while doing so. Even the most acclaimed luxury brands are still using unsustainable ways of manufacturing their garments.
First and foremost, the issue starts with every stage of the manufacturing process taking place in different countries. Asia, more specifically China, has dominated the conversion of fiber to fabric and is the main location where brands ship their raw materials. This is followed by the newly assembled fabric being sent to other countries for sewing and dyeing, finally being shipped back to its original location for sale. This transportation chain causes high levels of carbon emissions to the environment. Fashion is second to oil as the world’s largest polluter. The industry is responsible for 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions as well as over 20% of global water pollution. The so-called “more natural” materials advertised by brands and used during production are in fact not cultivated naturally.
Cotton, for instance, is one of them due to its long growth duration. Various insecticides and other synthetic fertilizers are used to accelerate this process, making cotton’s carbon footprint exceedingly high. The growth of cotton also requires high volumes of water; about 20,000 liters are needed to produce just one kilogram of cotton. “Vegan leather” is another textile used by brands as a step towards sustainability but is commonly produced by using PVC and Polyurethane, which are plastic and petroleum based. While animals are not directly harmed during the process, the impacts of using these chemicals are still immensely hazardous. Polyester and nylon; two other commonly used textiles, are manufactured using fossil fuels. Nylon manufacture alone releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Other processes, such as bleaching and dying, use critical amounts of water and energy, and involve the release of dioxin-producing chlorine compounds. It is also important to remember that around 15% of these manufactured textiles end up discarded as waste due to cutouts of the clothing.
Recently, a new form of manufacturing garments was brought into the spotlight in Coperni’s spring/summer 2023 Paris fashion show. The model Bella Hadid was sprayed with various chemicals which solidified within minutes to become a dress. As in Coperni’s statement, “The technology consists of short fibers bound together with polymers and biopolymers, and greener solvents that deliver the fabric in liquid form, then evaporate when the spray reaches a surface”. Although it undoubtedly made history as one of the most iconic fashion moments, it has also raised controversy regarding the extent of how environmentally friendly the technology is. However “greener” these chemicals may be, the adaptation of this technology by all producers to manufacture their garments will lead to serious amounts of chemicals being released into the environment, inevitably having negative consequences. Although being highly applauded, questioning the side effects of advertising such technology is unavoidable. Nevertheless, there have also been exceptionally innovative practices by brands to integrate environmentally friendly ways into their processes, which makes one see the future of fashion from a more optimistic viewpoint.
Facing today’s alarming environmental concerns and customers’ increasingly conscientious demands, fashion industry corporations urgently need to adopt new strategies. Indeed, brands understand that consumers are attracted by sustainable products, making them willing to pay bigger amounts for such labels. LVMH and Kering, for example, have both announced sustainability programs to meet this goal, but questioning on the truth of their eco-friendly behavior has emerged: are they shifting the industry with progressive ethical standards or merely greenwashing clients? Namely, greenwashing is defined as “the phenomenon of socially and environmentally destructive corporations attempting to preserve and expand their markets by posing as friends of the environment” (CorpWatch).
Bernard Arnault (LVMH) and François-Henri Pinault (Kering) have announced upcoming Carbon Funds and Environmental Profit & Loss accounts, in order to meet their commitments to the issue: “the new frontier is the sustainability frontier”. However, reports from non-profit organizations reveal that those goals set by luxury brands may be merely superficial marketing claims. Crocodile harvesting in Vietnam for LVMH labels, the burning of stocks, and unethical labor adds on to those claims. Following the “Detox my Fashion” campaign aimed at reducing the pollution coming from fabric manufacturing, Greenpeace allegated that instead of transforming their practice methods, luxury brands including Dior, Dolce & Gabbana and Louis Vuitton were denying their responsibility in the cause. Additionally, WWF’s report on brands’ use of sustainable cotton ranked leader companies under the LVMH and Kering groups poorly. In fact, WWF’s “Sustainable Cotton Ranking ” accused LVMH of lack of transparency with regards to the quantity of sustainably sourced cotton used. The group’s commitment to the “Better Cotton Initiative ” (BCI) since 2017 shows that efforts made may not be sufficient to achieve goals set. On the other hand, Marie-Claire Devau’s appointment as Kering’s chief sustainability officer shows signs of a possibly positive future for the sustainability goals set by luxury leaders. As she says, “If you say you are doing something, it’s better, really, to do it.”
The UN’s warnings on the environmental concern for our planet therefore makes it necessary and urgent that luxury fashion companies not perceive sustainability as a marketing opportunity, but as a key in their development and risk management strategies.
Along with materials, another big component of the global environmental impact of fashion brands are fashion shows: each new collection needs to be displayed in an original and innovative manner each year, brands are constantly seeking for grander ideas, special effects and, most of all, venues.
Modern runways will require months of planning, which all culminate in just a few minutes where creative directors go all out, often disregarding the environmental impact of many elements involved. The issue of runway fashion’s impact was first brought up by a major fashion institution in 2019, when the Swedish Fashion Council initially put on hold and subsequently canceled Stockholm’s fashion week indefinitely after taking into notice many carelessly damaging shows of the years prior, the most popular of these being the gigantic rocket launch themed Chanel show from 2016, which included a launch sequence being simulated with carbon gasses.
The respect of natural venues has often been a large issue too, one incident that comes to mind when considering this was perpetrated by Yves Saint Laurent in 2019 when after being denied a permit for their original venue, the brand ignored fragile environmental regulations put in place by the city of Malibu to protect their local wildlife and hosted one of their shows on a beachside, building a runway all across the shoreline utilizing plastic materials which are deemed illegal by local authorities.
Even after the modern rise and awareness of the environmental crisis, brands still seem to not know any better, after countless campaigns focused on low impact clothing and corporate activism one would imagine that fashion brands would try considering more environment friendly options when it comes to their shows, but it turns out nothing has changed no matter the amounts of media pressure.
It should be expected at least from brands who have had incidents related to the matter in the past to be more careful, but once again, Yves Saint Laurent used a natural setting for their show, a Moroccan oasis, and converted it to their own runway, this time with a massive amount of concrete for a pool and temporary buildings with A/C along with all amenities one would expect outside of the desert being set up in the middle of nowhere. An incredible amount of workforce and machinery was employed for a show which ended up lasting 15 minutes, wasting tons of non-recyclable materials.
This kind of careless creative freedom that fashion brands have enjoyed for years has far too often allowed them to act without consideration, then make reparations if need be, which overall translates into a system built on good corporate intentions and ideals being stretched to match constantly increasing expectations focused on how spectacular a show is without looking at what’s behind its few minutes of glory.