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Fashion industry changes might help save the planet

The catwalk world of glamor and luxury hides a business that thrives on wasteful consumerism, but climate change is prompting a rethink

By Edward Helmore  /  The Observer

Illustration: Lance Liu

Last month, an influx of slender women to midtown Manhattan signaled the onset of fashion week, the two-yearly round of catwalk shows. After passing on to London, Milan and Paris, the prevailing sensibility coheres into an agreed style.

Only this season, the final one of the decade, that sensibility might be about to evaporate. A summer of fire in the high Arctic and the Amazon was capped by something to celebrate: the arrival in New York Harbor of 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg after she crossed the Atlantic on an emissions-free yacht.

Her first duty, she said, was to join a climate protest ahead of the UN climate action summit this month.

“We need to stand together and take action because otherwise it might be too late,” Thunberg said.

“It is insane that a 16-year-old would have to cross the Atlantic to take a stand,” she said. “The climate and ecological crisis is a global crisis and the biggest humanity has ever faced.”

If anyone is in the mood to buy personal luxury goods, it would be surprising. Fashion, which has avoided environmental scrutiny, is faced with increasing consumer and regulatory pressure to improve its profile in a globalized market that is now said to generate US$1.5 trillion annually.

Selling the dream of fashion and luxury while reassuring customers that it can be done without further damaging the planet is a tightrope walk.

Over the past month, that tension between consumption and the climate crisis has reached the international stage.

Under the guidance of French President Emmanuel Macron at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, 32 fashion companies signed a “fashion pact” to emphasize sustainability in the industry. They included some of the largest luxury brands in the market — Chanel, Ralph Lauren and Prada — as well as “fast fashion” producers, including H&M Group and Zara. Fast fashion retailers have come under fire from environmental campaigners for encouraging a market that sees about 300,000 tonnes of clothes dumped in UK landfills each year.

“We are taking our responsibility through collective action and common objectives,” said Francois-Henri Pinault, chairman and chief executive officer of Kering, the French luxury-goods conglomerate that owns Balenciaga, Gucci, Alexander McQueen and Saint Laurent among others.

However, the so-called pact is notably short of firm goals to reduce planet-heating emissions.

According to a UN study, the fashion industry is responsible for about 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, 20 percent of all wastewater and consumes more energy than the airline and shipping industries combined.

The figures are disputed, but the message is clear: Fashion is a major polluter and in an industry that depends on human desire for the new, questions hang over it like a dead weight.

Few believe that the French fashion houses would act if it were not for growing consumer pressure. Kering has been publishing an “environmental profit and loss” statement for its products since 2015; rival LVMH, the owner of Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, as well as a stake in Stella McCartney — the label famous for banishing fur and leather — has yet to follow suit.


However, others have joined the rush to publish updated public sustainability reports.

“The fashion industry was behind the curve on this and it’s playing catch-up to the way people feel,” said Tim Blanks, a leading analyst at Business of Fashion. “Fashion brands are being held to account and developing an awareness and sense of consequence that it has been truly oblivious to.”

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