Are Fashion Shows Worth The Impact On The Environment?
Written by Carmen Bellot
During the recently finished London Fashion Week, 40 shows took place as part of the official calendar – and that’s with the fourth day cancelled in respect of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral – all of which required hours of set-building, lighting rehearsals and transport of resources and models. All of these factors, as well as the pack-down process, have and still do, contribute to environmental damage that only perpetuates fashion as being the second most polluting industry after oil and gas. This, alongside the 241,000 tCO2e released per year through the travel by RTW buyers and press (although not included in this statistic) during fashion week, shows that if the industry cares about its environmental impact, then making fashion week’s more eco-conscious is vital.
As with the rest of the sector, there aren’t any global regulations on how sustainable a fashion show should be. Copenhagen Fashion Week has led the charge, developing in 2020 18 minimum sustainability standards that brand’s must meet to officially be on schedule – spanning from the brand’s production ethos to how they produce their shows. Around the same time, the British Fashion Council launched the Institute for Positive Fashion (IPF) to create a new industry standard for accountability. Within this organisation, The Circular Fashion Ecosystem Project (CFE) is the inaugural project that is set to enact meaningful change through three stages. “Climate change, resource depletion and the destruction of the natural environment present existential crises requiring fundamental shifts in both how the economy functions and how society acts,” explains Caroline Rush, CEO of The British Fashion Council. “The IPF are currently working on a number of long term projects which involve considerable research and cross-industry investment. These initiatives will inevitably be reflected in the shows, clothing, organisations, and venues surrounding future fashion weeks.” While there’s no current official regulations regarding sustainable show production during LFW, the BFC does have its own protocols for the BFC NEWGEN showspace, including banning plastic water bottles on site and where possible, hiring or reusing rather than buying or building to reduce the impact of the event.
“Creativity is vital. Though no one form of creative expression is more vital than efforts to ensure our collective wellbeing globally.”
Louise Nindi, a producer and founder of Little Giant Production, has over 10 years experience producing shows at LFW. She notes; “The most damaging part of show production is waste and transport. In terms of waste this is partly plastic bottles/packaging, which people are generally more mindful of now, or single use set constructions, which is where it becomes a little trickier. The nature of a fashion show is that it sets the tone for something seasonal, so it’s rare that past that six month period the set will be relevant to the brand – and storage is expensive! If from conception the producer and set designer can be mindful of materials and also build in a way that it can be broken down and repurposed after, it’s still possible to produce something great, however it does have to be something you actively keep speaking about through production. If it’s not a priority to you [or the brand] personally, it can be difficult. Often it is more time, effort and money to repurpose something so niche.” It’s one of the reasons, along with making the creative industry more diverse, why she started her own company. “I will take my recycling home to rinse it out and properly sort, yet I would watch bins and bins worth of single use materials being thrown away after every event,” she says. “It wasn’t adding up and it wasn’t making me happy.”
If the production of fashion shows aren’t moving quickly enough to be a sustainable event, is it still acceptable for them to happen IRL? The climate crisis is unignorable, as shown by the wildfires that spread across Europe and the extreme flooding in Pakistan, though some would argue that shows and presentations are vital in showing a brand’s collection and its message. Sustainability strategy director, Kellie Dalton questions the contradiction of that statement. “Vital is a strong word. Creativity is vital. Though no one form of creative expression is more vital than efforts to ensure our collective wellbeing globally.” She continues to note that the pressure to create ‘that viral moment’ is part of the problem. “The significance of fashion shows as a brand moment have been swept away in a sea of never ending content. Brands need to go faster, bigger, bolder and more exclusive with shows now. Given the state of the world, it’s quite jarring that a necessary way to communicate a designer vision is one at odds with sustainability and its focus on care, community, inclusivity and restoration. Alec Leach does a great job of covering this duality in his new book The World is On Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes.” It’s clear a drastic change needs to be done. “It is a very contradictory time for fashion. On one hand, we are doubling down on the need to thrive economically, finding creative ways to sell more products, and on the other, we’re clinging to ways of working that are at odds with our own survival,” Kellie explains. “A much more fundamental mindset shift beyond ad hoc changes to fashion shows is needed by key industry players.”
A solution that became popular during multiple lockdowns was to make fashion shows digital, but that also comes with its problems. “We did a completely digital show in 2020; everything from the environment to the clothes existed digitally only, and when we carbon tracked the show the footprint was nearly as high as a physical version,” shares Patrick McDowell, a eco-conscious fashion designer and the sustainability design director of Pinko. “It’s important that we remember digital fashion and experiences use energy too, and although they aren’t as draining on certain natural resources, we still have to be sustainable about how we use the digital space.” It seems that the discussion shouldn’t be about whether brands should be deciding on digital or physical, but it’s the system that needs to be analysed and changed to ensure authentic, positive action. Kellie adds. “What’s exciting to me is that fashion shows are ripe for disruption. Grassroots innovators such as Fashion Open Studio and Not Another International are coming up with fresh approaches to showcasing fashion creativity. They want to take the emphasis off the surface-only end-product showcases and switch to a celebration of the people, processes and landscapes behind fashion products. I’m hopeful that this way of appreciating the collective creativity it takes to bring a product to life will start to work its way into the mainstream.” And ultimately, the industry is celebrated for its innovative thinking, which Patrick believes is what should be at the heart of fashion week. “For me, fashion weeks should be idea hubs; exploring new and exciting concepts that change the game of fashion design and its experience,” he shares. “For my February 2020 collection, I presented a Swap Shop at London Fashion Week. It started with pieces donated by BFC designers and members, and it evolved and changed throughout the week as guests swapped pieces in and out. We even had a crystal station courtesy of Swarovski to bling up yours or others preloved pieces. For me it’s all about ideas, and using the week as a way to try them out and prove the concept can work.” And as 61% of fashion week participants reported feeling some guilt about the toll the whole event, and their involvement in it, takes on the environment, it seems everyone involved in the process should be working together to change the outdated system.