You’ve probably read the stats already: the fashion industry is the world’s second greatest polluter after petroleum. While this much-repeated soundbite is in actual fact a little vague, and may or may not be based on hard science, there are certainly enough legitimate studies and reports consistently placing clothing production very high up on the list of world ecological evils.
From half a million tonnes of micro plastics invading our water supply each year and rivers running blue with chemical dyes, to the staggering 20% of global wastewater and 10% of global carbon emissions, the fashion industry makes a serious ecological impact.
But rather than just giving up in despair (and heading out for a much needed spot of retail therapy to compensate), we want action! And we want it now!
As trendsetting leaders in the fashion industry, luxury brands can influence global change. And with their premium pricing model, there is no excuse for any cost-cutting measures that increase profitability at the expense of our environment.
Here are 10 things luxury clothing brands can do to become more eco-friendly.
01 – Lose the Packaging
Boxes, bags, tags, labels: most of this stuff stays on the clothes just as long as it takes for them to make it into your home. Then they go straight in the trash. This is not a good use of resources.
Aside from using only recycled (and recyclable) materials, luxury brands concerned about the environment should simply be looking to reduce the use of these items to an absolute minimum.
And what about hangers? Buy a new suit and it’ll come with a fancy, heavily branded coat hanger. Sure, a few people might actually make use of these, but for how long?
Would it be too much to ask that an expensive purchase such as a suit come with a sustainably produced hanger that isn’t destined to become permanent landfill?
02 – Give Us Bigger Seam Margins
The inside seams of clothing contain various degrees of surplus fabric. Some manufacturers are very generous and leave a couple of inches extra margin here. While others are more miserly and try to reduce production costs by leaving only the absolute minimum.
This may at first appear like a strange detail to mention when considering sustainability. But imagine you put on a little weight, and now you’re starting to feel a little restricted in your favorite suit. It’s still great suit: almost looks like new. It’s just that, well, you’re bulging a little here and there. It’s not a good look.
Time to consign the suit to the great big closet in the sky?
Not if the designers have left a decent expanse of spare fabric in the seams it’s not: an alternations tailor will have you looking sharp again in no time. Thus extending the life of the suit by several years. That’s an eco-friendly product!
03 – Go Organic
Conventional cotton agriculture uses more scary insecticides than any other crop out there. In fact, despite using only 3% of the world’s arable land, it’s estimated that cotton production consumes nearly 25% of the world’s insecticides and 11% of the world’s pesticides.
These terrifying chemical compounds are causing severe ill-health to cotton farmers everywhere, from India to the United States. And as they are also slowly poisoning our lakes and rivers, ultimately they’ll get the rest of us too in the end via our contaminated food system. I don’t know about you, but this sounds like something I’d quite like to avoid.
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is an organization issuing accreditation to approved organic cotton textile producers. As consumers increasingly demand that their favorite fashion labels become more eco-friendly, for a luxury brand to survive long into the future it will need shift to using only GOTS certified fabric.
04 – Close the Loop
Unfortunately though, while chemical-free, even organic cotton requires an astonishing amount of water in order to grow. To make matters worse, cotton truly flourishes only in hot, arid regions.
Doesn’t like rain, but loves water? Clearly this is a recipe for disaster. The stark reality of which was brought into focus a few years ago when one of the world’s largest lakes, the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, almost completely dried up: due in large part to the local water supply being diverted to cotton agriculture.
Some organic cotton is grown using a closed-loop process; capturing, cleaning, and reusing rainwater. Some isn’t. We’d like to see luxury brands entirely shift to the former method.
05 – Transition to Alternative Materials
As nice as cotton is, there are actually several other natural fibers that are suitable for the manufacturing of luxury clothing. For example, hemp and linen are attractive and versatile materials that thankfully require relatively little in the way of water, need virtually no pesticides, and grow pretty much anywhere.
Technology is coming to our aid too: Spanish brand Piñatex offers a durable and convincing-looking alternative to leather made from leftover pineapple leaves.
And that’s not the only fruit getting in on the act either: an Italian venture called Orange Fiber uses the byproducts of Sicily’s citrus industry to create luxurious fabrics that are well-suited to the luxury fashion sector. The startup recently enlisted the support of the Ferragamo label, who created a capsule collection solely using Orange Fiber textiles.
And what about bamboo? Due to the fact that it grows at an astonishing rate, in dense clusters, and requires little water, bamboo is often pushed as an environmentally-friendly and entirely renewable alternative to other natural fabrics.
However, unlike cotton, linen, and hemp, most bamboo fabrics available on the market today are not made from the fibers of the bamboo plant, but instead pulped bamboo is chemically processed to make a cellulose fiber. Unfortunately this method comes with many of the environmental drawbacks associated with the manufacturing of synthetic fabrics.
Instead, better to go for Tencel, a proprietary lyocell fiber that is produced using renewably farmed eucalyptus trees by means of a non-toxic closed-loop process. However, the only drawback here is that Tencel doesn’t easily absorb dyes. So luxury brands need to pay particular attention to the coloring and finishing processes they use when working with this fabric if it is to remain environmentally friendly and not become harmful to the wearer.
Buttons too can be a worry. While mother of pearl has long been the material of choice for luxury menswear, concerns are increasingly being raised about the material’s sustainability. Organically grown corozo nut (also known as vegetable ivory) makes for a strong and beautiful eco-friendly alternative.
06 – Switch to GOTS-Approved Dyes
The dyes and finishes that give our clothes their vivid hues are generally also very environmentally damaging. While ancient natural dyeing methods using vegetables and other plants will produce amazing results – often surprisingly vibrant and color-fast ones too – the reality is that these traditional processes can be quite difficult to transpose to an industrial scale.
Thankfully GOTS also accredits dyestuffs according to strict eco-friendly criteria: to date, over 15,000 separate colourants and auxiliaries have been approved by the organization. This means that there’s no excuse for luxury fashion brands not ditching the nasty chemical dyeing processes most of them currently employ.
07 – Move to Clean, Renewable, Energy
The factories that make our clothes consume a lot of energy. Invariably this energy comes from non-renewable sources. Not only that, but the whole production process is responsible for churning out alarming levels of C02 and other frightening emissions.
The No Carbon Dioxide (NoC02) initiative seeks tackle climate change by helping businesses clean up their sources of energy and reduce greenhouse gasses, accrediting compliant factories with a NoC02 logo that assures producers that the business in question is fully carbon neutral. This way luxury brands can be in no doubt as to the green credentials of their suppliers. Assuming they bother to check.
08 – Hold The Incinerator
Burberry caused something of a scandal earlier this year when it admitted to destroying £28m ($35m) of merchandise. The company defended its actions saying that it was simply aiming to prevent the unsold stock from undermining brand image by ending up on the market at a discounted price.
For many within the industry though, the shock wasn’t so much that this practice goes on, but rather that Burberry made the gaffe of publicly confessing to what for a lot of people was effectively an open secret. Indeed, it’s believed that the practice of destroying stock is widespread across the luxury sector, it’s just that few other major brands will admit to it.
Quite what the solution is for luxury brands eager to retain their exclusivity remains unclear. But considering that much, if not all, of the Burberry products in question were likely manufactured in a manner that was already ecologically damaging as it is, to then go and destroy them in this manner will have done little to endear the brand to more eco-conscious customers.
09 – Reclaim and Recycle
The most obvious solution to Burberry’s problems would have been simply to reuse and recycle as much of the unsold stock as possible. Recycled textiles can be every bit as luxurious as those made of primary materials, and there are now numerous companies producing prestigious textiles from reclaimed fibers such as wool and cashmere.
Of course, many of the more high-tech fabrics used in luxury sportswear are made from synthetics, which can be quite difficult to recycle without a loss of quality. But a method has now been developed whereby microbes “eat” old polyester garments, breaking down the polymers so that they can be reused in new fabrics. This process is not only more ecologically friendly than producing yet more synthetic fibers from raw petroleum, but actually works out cheaper as well.
And it’s not only old fabrics that can be given a new lease of life: luxury, high-performance eco-textiles are now being developed using post-consumer waste such as PET bottles and other plastic debris dredged from the oceans.
However, as synthetic fabrics are responsible for shedding micro fibers into our rivers and oceans, ideally luxury brands will move away from using these fabrics entirely, in favor of high-tech textiles developed from natural materials.
10 – Make Better Products, Period
In theory, when you purchase a luxury fashion item, you are paying for superior quality workmanship and materials. In practice this is not always the case: sometimes you get what you pay for, others the high asking price is largely pumped back into marketing and promotion of the brand name, rather than spent on producing an exemplary product.
Yet one of the most ecologically sound moves a fashion brand can make is also among the most straightforward: simply producing high quality goods. Durable, long-lasting products are much more eco-friendly because they will not need to be replaced as quickly as inferior quality ones. And, as the amount of nasty pesticides, dyes, and natural resources consumed is likely to be the same for a poor-quality product as it is for a well-made one, clearly the longer-lasting item causes much less environmental damage in the long run.