Sustainability has emerged as a key theme shaping the fashion industry. As consumers become more and more sustainably conscious, they are demanding the same principles take hold at their favourite brands. You have probably noticed the sharp increase in sustainably focused products, or even whole collections embracing the movement - from high-street retailers to high-end designers - the world of fashion is evolving, and companies are starting to implement new ways to communicate their views and show they are tackling the high environmental and social cost of fashion:

Setting up the Sustainability Agenda: High-street giant Inditex (Zara’s parent company) has committed to the goal to produce 100% of their garments from only sustainable fabrics by 2025

Curation of Conscious Pieces: Farfetch has collaborated with Good On You to curate designers and brands which have implemented different sustainability initiatives in their products ‘Positively Farfetch: The Conscious Edit’ 

Runway Show x Climate Change: The latest Balenciaga runway show in Paris for AW2020 was themed around the Apocalypse- the catwalk was both flooded with water and fiery visual effects to highlight the threat of climate change and rising sea levels.

These are just a few examples of numerous sustainable fashion initiatives happening right now, but they also pose a question...

A History of Fashion & why has sustainability suddenly become a top priority?

Preindustrial Era: 1600-1860 - when ALL clothes were high-value products

Fashion was only available to the upper classes due to the fact the raw materials and fabrics themselves were valuable, the production processes very time-intensive. In these times, the quality of an individual’s fabric was their identity, far more than their own style. Only the aristocracy could afford beautiful fabrics like velvet, lace and embroidery. In contrast, the ‘Common Folk’ had limited sets of clothes which lasted the majority of their lives. Clothes were repeatedly repaired to extend wear, and women altered their best dresses to reflect changes in fashion.

1600-1860 fashion

Early Industrialisation: 1820s - the emergence of factory-made textiles

It wasn't until the 1820’s that factories began producing textiles mechanically. A result of numerous industrial inventions in the prior years, the fashion industry in the 1820’s began to see the benefits of scale and more modern production techniques. This meant increased supply and reduced prices, which enabled more people to buy clothing and dress well. All garments were still made by hand until the invention of the sewing machine in 1846.

1820s fashion

Industrialisation: 1860-1960- the development of retail

Perhaps some of the most formative years for European fashion, during this time period Paris was established as a fashion capital and destination for custom-made women’s. London’s Saville Row was similarly on the rise and setting trends for bespoke and high quality mens tailoring (reputations which still persist to this day). Meanwhile, the rising middle class started following fashion as a hobby. Magazines started providing paper patterns, local dressmakers opened up businesses, and most importantly, department stores became a thing (it's no coincidence Selfridges opened in 1909 and Galleries Lafayette in 1912).

This era also saw the first days of the mass-market fashion industry, with products being batch produced in different styles and sizes. New ready-made clothes were distributed through department stores, particularly for menswear and childrenswear, as womenswear continued to be made to order until the first quarter of the 20th century.  

1860-1960 fashion

Postmodern times: 1960s to 21st Century- fast-fashion is born and so too is the overconsumption

Production of fashion items began moving to the developing Caribbean and Asian countries. The birth of fast-fashion. Low labour costs started to drastically reduce the price of apparel, down to the point where the average middle-class family could buy clothes than they would ever need. This era will be remembered for several key events:

fast fashion and overconsumption

2013 Rana Plaza Disaster & The Beginning of Fashion Revolution

Producing cheap fast-fashion fashion pieces has a hidden cost, labour abuse in factories and unsafe working conditions. In Dhaka Bangladesh, on 24th April 2013, the Rana Plaza clothing factory collapsed, killing 1,134 people in less than 90 seconds. This unfortunate event led to the creation of the Fashion Revolution- an NGO (and movement) for a fairer and safer fashion industry, targeting the social aspect of sustainability - People. 

Rana Plaza Pacific Press/Getty Images

2017 Ellen McArthur Foundation releases Report ‘Make Fashion Circular

In May 2017, Make Fashion Circular was launched at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. The initiative brings together leaders from across the fashion industry and aims to stimulate collaboration to create a new textiles economy, aligned with the principles of the circular economy. Some of the most thought-provoking and concerning figures from this report include:

  • 20% of global wastewater (water left after fabric dyeing and treatment) is produced by the fashion industry

  • Between 2000-2015, the sales of fashion pieces have doubled, however, clothes are being used 36% less compared to 15 years ago

  • 73% of clothes are either landfilled (thrown away with rubbish) or burned & less than 1% is recycled into new clothing

Make Fashion Circular

2020 Extinction Rebellion blocks roads aiming to cancel London Fashion Week

The environmental movement group explained that they wish to “challenge the industry to stop the cycle of overproduction and overconsumption that threatens those that least contributed to it”, saying that it is urging the fashion industry to use its “power of persuasion to tackle the climate and ecological crisis in a meaningful and just way”.

Extinction Rebellion Protest

So what is ‘Sustainable Fashion’?

It's far from a silly question, and there are many different answers floating around. We think there are a few aspects that need to be considered when discussing Sustainable Fashion.

In 1987, the United Nations defined sustainability as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In other words, sustainability is a way of doing business that sustains current and future lifestyles. This means, if done sustainably, current fashion production will do no harm to future generations. Unfortunately, we are far from a fully sustainable industry, and as the world population continues its rapid growth (and demands more clothing), we will face ever more challenges. 

The Triple Bottom Line is a framework to help businesses become more sustainable, by measuring their financial, social and environmental performance. The biggest challenge is balancing all three aspects (3Ps): People, Planet and Profit. Fashion Revolution for example targets the first P, People, via fair working conditions, safe working environment, fair wages. In contrast, the Ellen McArthur Foundation is focused on the second P, Planet, with a push to drive sustainable environmental practices. Ideally, companies should focus on all 3 aspects...

Beyond looking at Social Good or Environmental Impact, Animal Welfare is another important aspect to consider and include in the sustainable development discussion. This includes responsible leather, fur, wool sourcing or zero-use of animal-based materials. Veganism is gaining popularity globally and starting to have positive impacts within the fashion industry. Take a look at the Gucci fur-free policy that took place starting in SS2018 - this is one of the multiple announcements made in the last few years which focus on animal welfare. 

Gucci F/W 20 RTW Runway

Taking this all into consideration, we believe Environmental Impact (Planet), Social Good (People) & Animal Welfare are the three main pillars to measure sustainability in fashion. We are strong advocates for sustainable businesses and brands and have already outlined our own sustainability pledge (LINK) to donate 1% of all our sales to sustainable causes. We have also developed 10 Sustainable Badges which we will use to label all our brands and help readers and customers navigate this field a little better… But more of that is to come in Part 2 of this series so please stay tuned!

by Svetlana Buiko