An internet search for “Anna Wintour” and “subway” generates images of a late-Aughts PR stunt and various theories speculating whether the Vogue head has ever braved the subway. But amid sustainability’s ongoing reign, public transportation — along with other eco-bragging rights — could very well set apart the fashion leaders from the followers this New York Fashion Week.
“I try to attend as many shows as possible each season to see not only the new collections of our CFDA members but also the creativity that all of New York fashion has to offer during the exciting fashion week seasons,” Steven Kolb, chief executive officer of the Council of Fashion Designers of America told WWD. “From an attendee point of view, I highly recommend using public transportation — I often hop on the subway to get [from] show to show — or taking a Citi Bike, ride-share or teaming up with your colleagues who are headed to the same destination. But, of course, I walk a lot, too, when I have time.”
In conversation on the CFDA’s sustainability aims this spring 2023 show season, Kolb referenced the 2020 study that the CFDA conducted with Boston Consulting Group to measure the impact of NYFW. The study, which Kolb called a “playbook” for sustainability, found anywhere from 40,000 to 80,000 tons of CO2 emissions are generated during NYFW. Transportation — along with physical event production, energy use, gifting and invites — add up.
This season, too, Kolb said transportation (air and ground travel) and physical event production rack up a hefty percentage of NYFW’s carbon dioxide emissions and overall energy use. Though ride-share services like Uber or Lyft (which owns Citi Bike) may be greening their impacts, a 2021 study from Carnegie Mellon University found that ride-share apps generate about 60 percent more of an environmental impact than personal cars due to a factor called “deadheading” where drivers scour the road alone waiting for rides. (A Lyft spokesperson said the company is always looking for ways to partner and highlighted its next-gen e-bikes, subsidized business bike plans and Lyft Pass as encouraging outlets for fashion show-goers).
Given the partnerships that exist between New York City’s Department of Sanitation and designers in the off-calendar “ReFashion Week,” it’s not out of the question for the Metropolitan Transit Authority to team with the event to offer swipes or taps for the sake of the environment. And amid the deepening climate crisis where celebrities are shamed for exceeding allotted water budgets or for private jet use, fashion is still just getting started with its pressure-tactics.
Until then, the onus remains on the brands.
“As a first step, brands can work to measure and track their energy expenditures alongside waste and set attainable energy reduction targets and commit to working with production teams to meet those reduction goals,” Kolb continued. “Just a few examples that can contribute to significant CO2 reductions include LED or outdoor/natural lighting which can net up to 90 percent energy savings; consolidation of transportation related to show as well as sample production logistics and opting for digital invites and look books.”
Some aspects are easier to measure than others, like the tally of digital shows. Though CFDA’s digital market week platform Runway 360 boasts a number of digital shows, spring 2023 shows mark a slight dip from spring 2022 with regard to digital offerings. Perhaps on par with a more lax attitude toward the pandemic, just 10 percent of shows are digital this season compared to 23 percent last year.
Financial sustainability also weighs more heavily on small-to-midsize designers. For this reason, the organization enacted its CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund nearly 20 years ago to aid designers. The CFDA also counts open-access resource hubs, like its sustainability guide and materials index, on Cfda.com.
Downsizing may be the move this season, however.
“Many brands who are presenting in-person shows are choosing to host in smaller static exhibitions, by appointment, or in combination with virtual presentations,” Kolb said. “While carbon offsets and buybacks are widely used to compensate, they should not be viewed as a replacement to a sound reduction strategy. To reduce waste responsibly, avoiding single-use plastics, using biodegradable, reclaimed or repurposed set materials, and arranging to recycle or donate props to reuse centers are key first steps.”
Some sustainable designers, like Angel Chang, are turning back the clock on the rapid-set fashion system.
Chang’s upcoming “Weaving the Future with Indigenous Textiles” womenswear presentation Thursday traces her unique design philosophy. The all-natural, electricity-free collection is made locally by ethnic minority Miao and Dong fabric artisans in the Guizhou Province in rural China.
“For my collection, I follow a zero-carbon design approach that I created for myself. My zero-carbon design philosophy follows three core tenets: no electricity, all-natural, locally made,” Chang said. “By following these rules, the collection is made without plastics, synthetic chemicals or fossil fuels. It’s made hyper-vertically in one location using in-season raw materials and creating local jobs in rural communities. Each piece is 100-percent handmade seed-to-button, starting from the native-seed cotton that we grow in the ground to the hand-spinning, hand-weaving, dyeing and sewing.”
By leaning into thousand-year-old techniques of clothing construction, Chang has made amends with today’s industry norms.
“For me, I feel it’s easy to be part of the fashion system because that’s where I received my training,” she said. “I know what the industry can and cannot do and the levers to push it forward. For being more sustainable, my advice would be to reconnect with nature and learn how clothing was made before the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago. Clothing has historically been made in a sustainable way, and we can revive these traditional practices that are healthier for ourselves and the planet.”