Amid consumer concerns about ‘dirty secrets’, high-end designers are tackling environmental issues

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Sustainability has woven its way into the mainstream cultural agenda, and fashion retailers large and small are racing to prove their green credentials and combat the climate crisis.

At the higher end of the market, usually fueled by excessive consumerism, designers are keen to make sustainable fashion synonymous with luxury.

And it makes sound business sense: in 2015, a sustainability report published by Nielsen found that 66 percent of consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally-friendly clothing.

Designer Stella McCartney insists that sustainability can be sexy, beautiful and fashionable.

“You can’t sacrifice your style for sustainability.  I don’t think that it’s a viable option for the world in which we live in today.  People want beautiful, luxurious, desirable clothing, they want to feel fashionable, they want to feel great in what they’re wearing, and at the same time, they want to save the planet,” says the 48-year-old designer.

“But it’s really important to me that you shouldn’t notice that what I do is more ethical than other houses.  You should just love it and want it and then… the desirability means it comes into your life, and it means that other businesses have to change.”

It’s a message McCartney has been trying to get across for more than a decade, and her SS2020 collection was her most sustainable ever, with organic cotton, recycled polyester, sustainable viscose and traceable wool.

Dame Vivienne Westwood is also passionate about preventing climate change.

“I’m trying to make my company a model for things that people really like to buy, that make them look wonderful.  This is one reason why I continue to do my work instead of close down, because of course we have to do something about our carbon footprint and if I tell people buy less, chose well, make it last.  Save! Don’t have a big carbon footprint.  Buy few clothes!” she says.

Her husband and design partner Andrea Kronthaler agrees.  “I think we overproduce on every level.  You know, even the luxury side end of clothing is is doing too much, I think.”

Wes Gordon, Creative Director at Carolina Herrera, also says consumers should take a less-is-more approach, and his goal is to design clothes that make them smile.

“One of the most important aspects to sustainability is the idea of quality over quantity, is buying smarter and better, but buying less.  And that’s very much what we’re about at Herrara.  We’re about beautifully making, with the finest craftsmen and the finest fabrics, a dress that you will have and feel great in not just for one day, but for decades.  That’s really the key.  It’s about how we consume and what we consume,” says the 32-year-old Chicago native.

Designer Kean Etro believes sustainability is key to his collections, using materials like hemp.  He also focuses on natural fibers, vegetable dyes and local production to shape a collection.

But there are other environmental issues to address.

Even those brands who have heavily used fur in the past are now avoiding it.  Burberry, Gucci and Versace are among the high-end houses now opting for faux fur, and many others – including Chanel and Victoria Beckham – will no longer use exotic animal skins.

“High end brands can be problematic in their own way.  There’s been lots of calling out of those brands about burning stock, for instance,” says Laura Antonia Jordan, Fashion News and Features Director at British Grazia.

Upmarket brand Burberry stated in its annual report (2017-18) that it destroyed £28.6m (around $37m) of clothes and accessories that year to prevent the products being sold cheaply, thus protecting the brand.

The policy is widespread in the industry, and environmental non-governmental organization Greenpeace described it as the “dirty secret” of fashion.

A consumer backlash followed media reports about the policy, and Burberry announced it would stop burning stock immediately in September 2018.  The practice was becoming increasingly damaging to the company, Britain’s largest luxury label by sales.

“Burberry is stopping the practice of destroying unsaleable products with immediate effect.  This builds on our responsibility agenda to 2022, and is supported by our new strategy which is helping to tackle the cause of waste,” the company’s corporate arm stated on Twitter in September 2018.

“The heat was on for them,” says Kaley Roshitsh, Sustainability Reporter at fashion trade journal WWD.  “They were completely chastised by their consumer group, and that’s a great example of the consumer really striking back and saying, ‘You can’t get away with this anymore.'”

The case prompted calls for further scrutiny of fashion houses from organizations like Fashion Revolution, a global movement calling for greater transparency, sustainability and ethics in the fashion industry.

There is the odd dissenting voice in the rush to talk up designers’ green credentials.  LaQuan Smith is one such example, telling the Associated Press that sustainability is not his primary concern.

“I’m just going to be fully transparent: it’s really not,” said Smith, when asked if the issue was on his radar.

He said he wants to build a luxury household brand.  “That does mean utilizing those sorts of leathers and, you know, sometimes fur.  You know, this is on the rise of being an American glamorous brand, so I am not afraid of being able to say that, you know, those are some of the luxury fabrics that I enjoy using and so does my consumers,” he added.

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