The fashion industry was inching toward change. More than 90 brands signed onto the U.N. Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton chairman Bernard Arnault hired Stella McCartney as his sustainability adviser, upcycling had become more than just a novelty on the runway, even the Oscars red carpet made a show of trying to go more green.
But on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, when it’s taken us weeks of being quarantined in our homes for the air quality from Los Angeles to New Delhi to be the best it’s been in 40 years, clearly it wasn’t enough.
“Our planet was screaming at us, and we were trying to listen, but now the planet is showing us, you gotta stop and slow down, even me,” said Eileen Fisher, a pioneer in ethical fashion and the 2019 CFDA Positive Change award winner. “We’re all about sustainability, we are always working in eco-preferred materials and inching forward, and we still make too much stuff. We are caught in the cycle of monthly deliveries,” said the designer, who had to close 65 stores and furlough nearly her entire 1,100 person staff since the pandemic hit.
In the midst of trying to salvage their businesses, some of fashion’s most progressive designers are reexamining their part in the climate catastrophe, and what they can — and can’t — afford to do better with the mounting economic challenges of COVID-19, which has also exposed deep societal inequality, bringing into focus how much of a luxury sustainability is.
From a practical standpoint, certain goals have already been scaled back because of pandemic-related cost-cutting, and supply and demand concerns: Fisher has dropped a partnership with the Sierra Club; L.A.-based brand Reformation scrapped plans to open a resale store concept, and L.A.-based Christy Dawn has decreased the size of the plot of depleted soil it will be able to regenerate this year on a cotton farm in Erode, India.
But when you are talking about fashion’s enormous carbon footprint, most anything less could actually be more, a potential COVID-19 benefit.
Other designers say the pandemic has them leaning more into their goals. For resort, Nanushka designer Sandra Sandor is attempting to improve on her fall collection record of using 52 percent sustainable fabrics (organic cotton, GRS-certified post-consumer and recycled polyesters), provided she can source them. “We also had to back up ourselves with alternative fabric plan Bs because of the uncertainty around the network of our suppliers,” she said.
All agree this is an inflection point.
“This has created a real moment of emergency that forces everyone to make violent changes to be able to survive,” said French designer Marine Serre, who already had 50 percent upcycled garments in her last two collections. “Less garments, less shows, less travel, less logistics transport, less but better fabrics — less, less, less but better thinking on usefulness for our future. There is always fashion, but the question is, what is it going to be, and how do we need clothing, bags, jewelry, and accessories in the world to come?”
Fisher plans on “radically simplifying” her clothes, her company structure, and her retail strategy. She’s given up her Renew pop-in shops, for now, where shoppers can buy new clothing made from old, but is trying to stick to her 10-year, Horizon 2030 environmental goals, using recycled fibers, organic linen and regenerated wool. “Our goals remain intact, what changes is the pace,” she said, adding that she will likely pare down her supply chain to focus on certain pieces. “People say during this time they keep wearing the same things over and over because they are comfortable,” said Fisher. “I think we are going to find since we can’t go out shopping, we need a lot less and can live more simply.”
Her brand, which is a B Corp, may also look a lot different post-pandemic: less global, more local. “I keep picturing a lot of it coming back to our home office in Irvington, N.Y. It’s a village, we have two stores here — our Lab store carries first quality and recycled, then there’s our Renew store. We also have a Recycle Center and our Tiny Factory where we remake things. It’s a microcosm of the future of how a circular business could be local…” she said. “We struggle to make a lot of our main line here but to remake, resell and refurbish.…Maybe have one of these little village centers in each metropolitan center.…We could do tours and charge $25!”
Maria Cornejo agrees. “This just reinforces what I want to do — to refocus, to be smaller and less reliant on big stores,” she said. “Wholesale has always been tricky. We built up our infrastructure to deal with bigger orders, but the minute something happens, they fall out, and we’re left with something we can’t support.”
For LVMH-backed Gabriela Hearst, business has always been about fewer, better things — and controlled growth, which is why she decided not to wholesale her popular handbags, foregoing an opportunity to double her business a few years ago. “I have a belief you cannot grow luxury fast,” said the designer, who is pressing ahead with fall deliveries (at a later date) and producing a resort collection, moving toward her brand goal of using all nonvirgin materials. “For months we have been hunting and gathering high-end fabrications, and we have more than 60 percent of our resort fabrics, that gives us a good position.”
FEWER COLLECTIONS, SHOWS
For other progressive designers, the pandemic has meant hard choices, which will ultimately impact labor forces and supply chains. “We can’t keep feeding a beast we know will be the end of us,” said Mara Hoffman, who canceled production of her fall collection. “Nobody should be planning to get back to normal. If we want to see change…what do we promise as humanity we do not go back to?”
That may mean not showing a spring 2021 collection either, said the designer, whose priority is to figure out how to creatively repurpose and reoffer clothing in her existing inventory. “September represents the old, it’s sticking to the same schedule.”
“I really believe two collections a season, each of around 50 or 60 looks let’s say, is more than enough to spread around all the year, also for brands bigger than ours,” added Serre. “Stores can buy deeper, and the consumer gets less oversaturated and tired by newness all the time. What we can do is to have special collaborations and different selections, depending on where you sell them, instead of all the same everywhere, resulting in big stocks at the retailers.”
Heron Preston is also preparing for a new reality. “I would be satisfied with a smaller business,” said the designer, who helped elevate the cause of sustainability with his 2016 collaboration with the New York Sanitation Department. “Maybe we do one fashion show or collection a year. I’m currently doing two. Do we really need four or 13?
“We might see a dip in the short term, but it would really be more of a reset,” said Preston, who is using the break to focus on new directions for his brand, including in the health and wellness category. “I’m optimistic that what would come later, new experiences, services, products and business models, would equal a rise.”
NEW MODELS, MATERIALS
If there is a silver lining to the industry standstill besides cleaner air now, it’s that it could give rise later to new business models, more collaboration and a sense of individual responsibility when it comes to consuming fashion.
“There could be more of a shift to on-demand production, which is a way to mitigate risk, and obviously there is a huge waste-reduction and material-use benefit because you aren’t purchasing and selling excess,” said Saskia van Gendt, head of sustainability for San Francisco-based shoe brand Rothy’s, which uses on-demand production in its Guangzou, China factory for 3-D knit shoes made from recycled plastic bottles. “I could see more companies thinking about real-time production responding to consumer demand.”
For L.A. label Christy Dawn, started by model-turned-designer Christy Dawn Baskauskas in 2013 as a line of vintage-inspired dresses made from deadstock fabrics, the future is an evolution in materials, away from relying on the excess of the current fashion system and its philosophy of perpetual growth.
“If we keep aiming for sustainability, we are aiming to sustain this. We need to be thinking regeneratively, that’s our platform,” said Dawn’s cofounder and husband Aras Baskauskas, explaining that the brand’s new Farm to Closet regenerated cotton initiative is still going forward, although it will farm just 20 instead of 50 acres in Southern India this year, due to the pandemic.
“The basic principle of regenerative agriculture is that all the stakeholders benefit from the exchange, so if you look at farming, the stakeholders would be the soil, the biodiversity in the soil and on top of the soil, the quality of the water, the livelihoods of the farmers and the community at large.”
Still, not everyone can afford a $200 regenerated cotton dress, and fewer perhaps after COVID-19.
“When you think about sustainable fashion, you have to think about…attention to the basic needs of humanity,” added Hoffman, addressing the consumer side. “We are a culture of so much and people are struggling. People are going to come out of this with less money. The problem with the sustainable fashion movement is it has been a very exclusive movement; it hasn’t been accessible. You have people who are struggling to stay alive and can’t feed themselves. If anything is happening we are being exposed for what we are as a country, our people are hurting so bad and we are not caring for them.”
On this Earth Day, maybe more collective consciousness is the greatest hope.
“Often after periods of darkness come periods of extreme light,” said van Gendt. “One-tenth of the population came out and was active fifty years ago on the first Earth Day, which led to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.”
“We’re seeing the truly unsustainable practices of this industry; the inventory waste, the worker injustices when you cancel orders…all the ugliness,” added Kathleen Talbot, chief sustainability officer and vp operations at Reformation, which has put off implementing some new environmental and chemical assessments with manufacturing partners this year. “But we’re also seeing some of the most beautiful parts of humanity — the global sense of connection, realizing your actions make a difference not just for you and your household, but for the community and public good. Hopefully, those two lessons learned can inform what type of action we want to take as a global community before the next crisis.”
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