Has fashion gone green - or is it still a wolf in sheep's clothing?

| 15th November 2017
Re.ne(w) by René Garza is founded on the concept that resource sustainability is the responsibility of every individual - being conscious of both our actions and their impact.
Re.ne(w) by René Garza is founded on the concept that resource sustainability is the responsibility of every individual - being conscious of both our actions and their impact.
The annual British Fashion Awards are due to take place on 4 December this year at the Royal Albert Hall. The British Fashion Council, Vivienne Westwood and London Mayor Sadiq Khan launched SWITCH to encourage the British fashion industry to go green. But has it had any effect? WENDYROSIE SCOTT investigates.
Somewhat ironically, fashion frequently takes inspiration from 'nature'.

 

As we take to winter-wear alongside using more energy at home, we approach the annual British Fashi on Awards at the Royal Albert Hall. The British Fashion Council (BFC) along with designer Vivienne Westwood and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has recently launched the SWITCH campaign.

 

This is an attempt to reach out to UK fashion brands and businesses to "commit to switch" to a green energy supplier by 2020. 

The target of 2020 follows from the Paris Agreement (within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) whose goal it is to prevent what scientists regard as dangerous and irreversible levels of weather system shifts. Yet there is always scope for more positive green input.

London Fashion Week (LFW) ended on its usual positive high, post annual pomp and ceremony, parties and people, plus fabulous collections. However, the hoped for eco element was less evident.

Ecological design

Admittedly, fashion is a complex area in a challenging economy. The industry, it could be said, appears to 'have had its own way' for years. Designers are also under pressure to create collections for catwalk and shop-floor with few resources. Further, financially strapped designers and students are, for example, gifted furs from furriers. Whilst none of this is new, there are signs, albeit slowly, some things are changing for the better.

Green, sustainable, ecological, ethical, cruelty free - and the several other descriptors which umbrella this gargantuan area - are each subjects in themselves, often overlapping.

With a focus on fur free and eco(logically) friendly fashion, put succinctly-conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources, meant this would be a challenging task to explore.

It's several tentacles wind into an ocean of actual and metaphorical hazards, contradictions, pollutants versus cruelty free, financial versus human/environmental cost, concept versus conscious materials, ultimately setting sail into a quagmire which in part, may be why sectors of the industry and several designers appear to have stagnated when it comes to sustainability. It is 'the elephant in the room,' not many are willing to address. Or perhaps can. Though some are

Whilst the elephant appears to be the glamour sets 'go to' species to save, 'Elephantasia' is all about Fashion For Conservation,(FFC), an organisation whose considered holistic approach, aims to protect the elephant and environment, alongside using ecological design and fur free fashion.

Beautifully beaded

Consciously drawing in a range of international designers, its team adroitly use their creativity, connections and skills in the industry to engage brands with their ethos and events. Up-cycling materials such as tablecloths and kimonos, and championing cruelty free products including pineapple leather.

Designers are dedicated to the collection and sustainable reuse of fashion, textiles, and accessories. Pertinent given that, according to the Departmern for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the UK purchases over two million tonnes of clothing yearly, discards a million and with half going to landfill.

And 90 percent of clothing in British shops is imported, so our activities have significant overseas footprint, particularly in India, China and other developing countries.

Unsurprisingly, emphasis for green designers is therefore upon local design. British designer Deborah Milner's work has long term, pioneered sustainability, whilst encapsulating the fashionable with the ethical.

Her collection 'Regenerating the Reef', collaborated with the legendary Cousteau Foundation (with Celine) creating accompanying ocean themed jewellery, alongside Milner's designs such as an anemone inspired dress intricately and beautifully beaded and 'Tea Coral' dress which uses natural dyes derived from plants or tea.

Plumage-like

Her work incorporates recycled and cruelty free materials, for instance the silk is reeled from empty cocoons when the silk-worms have finished transforming into moths and escaped the cocoon. But hers is a rare and accountable approach to source and workers and reflected in its price point as Couture.

The planet has resource restraints and 'natural' materials such as cotton (with its own pollutants) will likely be costly in the future. At the same time, buyers in the industry supply chains will often opt for the least expensive materials.

Sustainability is a niche market and having progressed from the dippy hippy image, or merely worthy cause, still needs to go beyond 'green-wash'.

Fashion Scout platforms established and new creatives as part of LFW and hosted Indian designers Rocky Star and N&S Gaia, each of whose collections incorporate recycled and pollutant free fabrics without compromising on style.

With celebrity clients, the 'Rocky Star' theme can be in keeping with the natural world, presenting peacock prints and recycled denim plumage-like long-tailed dresses.

Economic uncertainty

Somewhat ironically, fashion frequently takes inspiration from 'nature' - so surely its pertinent to 'pay back' or at least better consider environmental impact?

As Ava Holmes, one of Elephantasias founders states: "Hundreds of endangered and threatened species listed under the UN Red-list are poached daily for their rare skins, fancy feathers, and exotic furs.

"Who are we to decide that we deserve to wear their feathers, leathers and furs more than they do? To put our impact in perspective, fashion is partially responsible for the fact that nearly a quarter of all mammals, a third of all amphibians and a half of all reptiles are approaching, or are already, extinct today."

Nevertheless, eco fashion is an anathema in the industry and though here to stay, its ethos subjects it to being undermined, with designers and industry not always receptive to scrutiny.

There is political and economic uncertainty. But often during times of hardship fashion thrives. This means that cheaper, throwaway 'fast fashion' is far from finished. However, in an age of growing independent ethical businesses, there are hopeful signs. Research suggests that 48 percent of female young Millennials are interested in retailers using more eco-friendly fabrics (Mintel, 2017).

Fur farming

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) takes a vegan stance and so excludes products such as wool and leather, citing several studies showing these products are polluting and cruel.

PETA campaigned live at LFW and called on the BFC to ban fur. It commissioned a poll of the designers featured during LFW which revealed 86 percent did not use fur in their 2016 collections.

The BFC states that: "The BFC does not dictate what designers can or cannot design and has no control over their creative process. We encourage designers to ensure that if they choose to work with fur, they work with reputable organisations that supply ethically sourced fur."

There is now some evidence that several supposedly ethical fur farms in Europe and North America being are in fact a 'law unto themselves', with animals suffering in wholly unacceptable conditions.

Fur farming has been banned for 20 years in the UK. PETA wrote to the BFC's chief executive in 2016 and yet to receive a reply. 

Recycling technology

As a global platform, LFW could make a stand and ban fur altogether as PETA suggest. Ultimately the reality of fur is possibly too great for the wider industry to contemplate or care about. But as an animal loving nation, campaigning and consciously, individually choosing not to wear fur could become the norm. Including 'vintage'.

Clare Lissaman from the Ethical Fashion Forum points to findings from the Faunalytics (2012) study on the environmental impact of fur. "Compared with textiles, (mink) fur has a higher impact on 17 of the 18 environmental themes, including climate change, eutrophication and toxic emissions".

However, Lissaman notes alternatives such as fake fur, made from oil and synthetics, also have a high environmental impact and don't bio-degrade even when they can be recycled.

Technically, and in the future, fake fur could be made from recycled yarn, particularly given oil's epic impact of not dissolving in water, forming sludge which suffocates fish, prevents marine birds flying and blocks light from photosynthetic aquatic plants.

Fortunately, fashion schools and the BFC are encouraging students to develop methods to consider the environment and Lissaman points further to established sustainable companies like Worn Again, who are developing recycling technology, closely watched by brands. 

Provocative, unapologetic

Realistically, designers and the (wider) fashion industry are likely to attain only certain elements of this ethos and ecological concerns. Athough ethical brands, such as Green & Blacks, sponsoring LFW is a positive, factors such as profit, cost, consumer demand, leather being regarded as a by-product and the very premise of Fashion Week, would make a wholly eco, cruelty free or sustainable faschion event impossible.

And it would require an overhaul of the industry, which is in fact a behemoth of related industries. The UK's £66 billion fashion industry accounts for six percent of UK's market (Fashion United, 2017).

LFW is attended by an influential and international audience including media, buyers, bloggers, forecasters and celebrity influencers, and therefore has the means to communicate to a worldwide audience, including through social media.

The UK is known for being edgy and for its ceaseless exploration, delivering experimental street fashion and encouraging a 'British' style and creative force that is unmistakably London. Provocative, unapologetic and cutting edge.

The BFC have future plans to support sustainability. This is an incredible opportunity for the industry to work together - with greater partnerships between diverse bodies which today are possibly regarded more as agitator than ally.

Surely this is part of Fashion Week - paradoxical and on a platform which speaks its mind to many whilst not solely serving the few. The industry has much to celebrate. It platforms a huge array of talent from the UK and beyond. With such a thriving, innovative industry we have consciously considered opportunities to make bigger and bolder pledges for a future of better, braver and more diverse deeds and dialogue.

 

This Author


Wendyrosie Scott is an anthropologist/journalist focusing on fashion, festivals and creative communities - looking at lifestyle trends and the natural world, as positive partnerships.

 

 

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