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Addressing fashion’s record around sustainability

by Grace Howard

Fashion’s relationship with sustainability has always been fraught; links to inherently unglamourous garb, from baggy hemp trousers to sack-like dresses, are tricky to shake off. But since the Rena Plaza factory collapse made mainstream news in 2013, shining a light on the dark side of the fashion industry, many brands have made steps towards a greener, cleaner future. Transparency is key for brands in 2018, who need to listen to the growing concerns of their consumers, with ‘woke’ millennials and gen Xers demanding a clear view of the provenance of their purchases – “[They] demand more transparency and responsibility from corporations,” Francois-Henri Pinault, CEO of Kering, told the HuffPost last summer –  it’s time for brands to make their stand.

Creating Conscious Clothing

There’s no way to avoid the fact that fashion’s an inherently unethical industry with both human and environmental costs. There’s nothing as sure as change, though, and companies at all levels, from Stella McCartney to the H&M Group, are pushing for it. Everlane cites ‘exceptional quality, ethical factories and radical transparency’ as its core values, for example, and Reformation provides a ‘RefScale’ that gages the environmental impact of each of its products. Here in the UK, there’s Birdsong, a London-based brand whose tagline is ‘no sweatshops, no Photoshop.’ The company works with women’s groups and charities to produce its clothing and accessories, supporting the fair treatment of female garment workers.

One of fashion’s most popular creations, denim, is also beginning to take on a greener image. Denim production has long been given a bad rap by ethical fashion activists, coming under fire in particular for the dangerous sandblasting process that gives jeans the ‘worn’ look that many of us covet. Plus, denim’s become cheaper than ever in some high street stores – and you don’t need to be a genius to know there’s something dubious about picking up a pair of skinny jeans for £8. Some brands are now fighting against this, creating jeans that consumers don’t need to feel guilty about buying. London-based M.i.h Jeans uses denim produced in EU-based mills that adhere to the Better Cotton Initiative standards, and it works with denim washing companies that take steps to minimise water waste. Over in Amsterdam, G-Star Raw has just launched ‘the most sustainable jeans ever’, made from organic cotton and finished with a wash process that recycles 98% of any water used.

Borrow, Don’t Buy

Waste is rife in the fashion industry, both during the production process and afterwards, as fast fashion products tend to only be good for one season before being discarded. The concept of buying less, but buying better seems a sensible solution for reducing waste, but it’s an unrealistic goal for those craving the thrill of the new. Could borrowing, rather than buying, be a viable alternative?

Fashion rental services give consumers the option to sample the latest trends without fully committing to them. “85% of the current American closet is sitting there not utilised and then things end up in landfills. But our subscription customers have reported that they are shopping 68 percent less.” Jenn Hyman, CEO of Rent the Runway, told Fashionista.

…Or Get it Second-Hand

If the rise of London startup Depop – a resale app, popular with social influencers and teens, which has raised $20 million for a US-focused expansion that will see it opening bricks-and-mortar stores – proves anything, it’s that there’s no longer much stigma surrounding purchasing second-hand pieces, at least with a younger crowd. It seems that charity shops are beginning to shake off their associations with fusty fashion, too. Following a 33% sales growth over the 2017 Christmas period, which saw the charity take £16.9m in the two months leading up to Christmas, Oxfam has announced plans to double the size of its online operations.

E-commerce appears to have boosted the popularity of second-hand shopping, even in the hard-nosed luxury sector. Unlike generalist outlets like eBay, sites like Vestiaire Collective, The RealReal and Grailed, which specialise in designer goods, have the feel of full-priced online designer destinations, bolstered by attentive customer service, authentication procedures and smooth transaction processes. No bidding wars necessary.