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Burberry sustainability in fashion 2018
Photography Thurstan Redding, via @burberry

2018 was the year fashion started to get serious about sustainability

There’s a long way to go, but this year it felt like things within the industry finally started shifting

In not-so-distant times gone by, revealing the dress some had just complimented you on to be a cheap high street find was not only a pretty solid basis for impromptu bonding, but also a prerequisite for proving your #relatable social status. The inference being, ‘yeah don’t worry, I’m skint too’. But in 2018, instead of coos of admiration, you’re more than likely to be asked a pointed question about whether you’ve seen The True Cost or not.

According to Lyst’s Year in Fashion report, throughout 2018 there was a 47 per cent increase in sustainable keyword searches such as ‘vegan leather’ and ‘organic cotton’, while posts on Instagram tagged #sustainablefashion now top out at 2.8 million. But when did we all transform from fast fashion addicts into planet-friendly, conscious consumers?

The first part of the answer lies with David Attenborough, which, admittedly, is not usually a name cited in fashion round-ups. Barely recovered from our collective New Year’s Eve hangover, millions of us spent the first evening of the year watching scenes of lifeless whale calves, turtles entangled in plastic sacks, and litter-strewn oceans in the final episode of Blue Planet II. #FuckPlastic tweets started to infiltrate the timeline, as the plastic straw became the physical incarnation of our need for tangible change, and refusing one was deemed a Facebook status-worthy occurrence (despite the fact they only represent 0.03 percent of the world’s plastic waste by mass).

As the wider population suddenly realised that we might just be fucking up the only viable home for human life, the fashion industry – spuriously claimed to be the second most polluting industry after oil – was never far from people’s sights. Kicking off the year of heightened awareness was the Gvasalia brothers’ Harrods window installation, which featured a mountain of clothes provided by willing donors: the result of which served as a comment on the industry’s waste problem.

“The basic thing of economics is the supply meeting demand. If you go to a shop and you see something on sale, it means it’s been overproduced,” explained Demna Gvasalia in an interview with Vogue. “For brands to become more sustainable today, they need to do one simple thing: have their supply meet their demand. It’s like throwing away food in a world full of hunger.”

“I don’t want to contribute to the huge amount of pollution that’s taking over the world” – Marine Serre

Happening to coincide with the installation was Matty Bovan’s first stand-alone show. Known for his slow fashion approach, Bovan eschews mass production and holds tight to his predilection for the handmade. His AW18 collection was met with widespread acclaim, putting the possibility of an alternative way of doing things on the main stage.

In July, Burberry extended the conversation around sustainability beyond the edges of the fashion world when its unsavoury habit of burning unsold stock was exposed. It was revealed that the brand had destroyed clothes, accessories, and perfume to the value of £28.6m over the previous year, bringing the total over five years to more than £90m. Reactions were split – outrage from the majority and an exasperated ‘of course’ from those who already knew about one of fashion’s worst kept secrets. Nevertheless, the scandal ignited debate about the industry’s wasteful practices and cast the issue under a microscope.

Fashion followers at large found themselves newly tuned in to the industry’s impact, but with little idea of what sustainable fashion looked like outside of the tired tropes of hemp and tie-dye. Luckily, there were plenty of designers ready to step in and alter existing perceptions.

Central Saint Martins graduate Kevin Germanier challenged perceptions with an 80s disco dreamscape of a collection. Upcycled jeans and bodysuits embellished with iridescent beads – rescued from being buried in a hole in Hong Kong – reframed sustainability through a glamorous lens.

Continuing the trend of putting ethics and style on the same rung, LVMH Prize-winning designer Marine Serre managed to pull off a covert sustainable takeover; her distinctive crescent moon motif peppering endless fashion week street style shots. “I don’t want to contribute to the huge amount of pollution that’s taking over the world,” she told Dazed earlier this year, nodding to the sustainably sourced fabrics that underpin her collections and her penchant for reclaimed materials – 26 of the 35 looks in her AW18 show were made from upcycled vintage scarves.

And the streak continued. London label Mother of Pearl upped their sustainable credentials with its transparent No Frills line, crossing laidback silhouettes with the characteristically frivolous detailing; G-Star Raw launched the world’s most sustainable denimPatrick McDowell deployed repurposed materials throughout his collection, which caught the attention of M.I.A.; and Richard Malone crafted his decadent SS19 offering from a slew of ecologically sound fabrics.

As with any contemporary movement, sustainability found its legs online. The @slowfashionmemes Instagram account, started in January, recast the issue in a relatable, sardonic light, while Twitter served as a hotbed for exchange of shocking stats and quickly shifting opinions.

The Environmental Audit Committee’s investigation into fast fashion put an official stamp on things but it’s the leap in awareness that’s really changed the game. Played out so publically and formed against a backdrop of easy to access information, the movement for sustainability has reached a point of no return. We’ve seen the effects, we know there are alternatives and now we all expect better.