As Extinction Rebellion calls for the event's cancellation, we asked a series of fashion insiders, sustainability experts, and forward-thinking designers what the alternative could be
Let’s not sugarcoat this: we're in the midst of a climate emergency. The UK sweltered recently in its hottest day ever, and ‘climate refugees’ worldwide are being displaced while battling severe famines and droughts. All industries are complicit in this crisis, but few more so than fashion. Statistics claiming it's the world's second dirtiest industry have been debunked, but that's hardly the point. From water pollution caused by chemical dyes to the endless cycle of new clothes destined for landfill, the industry needs to change drastically, and soon – as climate scientists estimate we only have 11 years to basically stop the apocalypse.
To paraphrase The Devil Wears Prada’s ice queen Miranda Priestly, fashion is everywhere, though; it employs millions, inspires millions more and literally keeps entire economies afloat (Bangladesh's economy is 85% garment workers). Can things really change?
According to Extinction Rebellion, we no longer have a choice. “The fashion industry is predicted to grow by 63% by 2030, and currently it emits around 10% of greenhouse gases,” XR representative Sara Arnold explained to Dazed. “Catastrophe is already upon us... we are out of time for incremental change to save us from extinction.” As such, the activists’ belief is that the next London Fashion Week should be used as a declaration of emergency, and that ‘business as usual’ should stop immediately. In fact, the Swedish Fashion Council has already listened – cancelling the upcoming Stockholm Fashion Week to pursue more sustainable options.
“To paraphrase The Devil Wears Prada’s ice queen Miranda Priestly, fashion is everywhere; it employs millions, inspires millions more and literally keeps entire economies afloat. Can things really change?”
Of course, we can all make beneficial changes to our fashion habits: buy vintage and second-hand, mend clothes, embrace the ethos of less is more. But can the fashion week system really be overhauled? With more and more young, emerging London designers driving a message of sustainability and creating collections in a conscious way, does the answer really lie in cancelling it completely? People will continue to create, trends will continue to be born, and fast fashion retailers like boohoo.com and Pretty Little Thing will likely be just as quick to keep up with them.
From the amount of materials and power used (and wasted) when it comes to show production, to the amount of flights needed to transport thousands of editors, buyers, influencers, and models around the world season after season, what cannot be denied is that cancelling fashion week as a whole and looking for an alternative means through which to demonstrate creativity would certainly help to alleviate the massive impact the event has on the planet.
But what are could those alternatives be? We reached out to a series of fashion insiders, sustainability experts, and forward-thinking designers to find out.
SARA ARNOLD, EXTINCTION REBELLION
“We have a wealth of clothing already made, so instead of engaging in mindless consumption, we’re asking citizens to reframe how they treat, cherish and value their existing clothes. Learn to make and mend; swap or hire what you need; shop second-hand and vintage. We also need to use our energy to demand systemic change within government. It’s about doing what’s necessary, not what’s achievable within current systems.
“The Tate recently held People’s Assemblies for culture workers with the aim of finding a way forward. If the fashion industry convenes, it should agree not to show new clothes. It should use its influence to tell the truth, declare emergency, decide what action looks like and act immediately. We’re asking for a total revision of what ‘fashion’ means; we’re asking consumers to boycott and rebel against a system which is killing us and the natural world. We don’t think this is the end of fashion, though – more an opportunity to creatively transform it into something regenerative for society and nature.”
JENNIE ROSÉN, SWEDISH FASHION COUNCIL CEO
“Sweden’s fashion industry has been a leading force in sustainability, primarily presenting sustainably-minded brands. But by cancelling fashion week, the SFC has laid the foundations of a new platform which highlights sustainable development and innovation, shares expertise and creates an innovation centre to develop new solutions. Creativity and design inspiration are as key to this new platform as sustainable innovation, new business models or textile development, but it steps ahead of the traditional fashion week system. This new format will drive change, and lay out a vision for the future of the fashion industry.”
CAROLINE RUSH, BRITISH FASHION COUNCIL CEO
“We continually look at how London can lead the way our industry addresses change, whether through e-commerce and digital communications or helping British businesses prepare for economic and societal challenges. That includes addressing how our industry can adapt to change in the climate emergency. London Fashion Week engages designers, industry and consumers; it gives the UK a strong narrative and a position as a leader in design. It can be a powerful platform to address issues.
“This September, we will showcase businesses that exemplify Positive Fashion at our LFW showrooms so they have a platform to show that business can be done differently. I believe LFW as a platform can communicate to both the industry and the general public that not all businesses are equal. Those that support a better future are the ones that should be supported; they should be able to encourage more to adapt better business practices of positive change.”
BETHANY WILLIAMS, DESIGNER
“It’s difficult to suggest an alternative to fashion week, because it’s there to make sure that everyone is in the same place to see the work and the BFC has been hugely supportive to me as a young designer. It’s also important to build relationships with clients, because ultimately I have to sell clothes to be able to give back. Especially because I work with recycled textiles, it’s crucial for people to see them up-close – you can’t do that with a picture.
“I’m also part of Fashion Revolution and its Open Studio initiative, which is incredible because it demystifies fashion and gives real insight into the slow processes behind making these clothes. I also don’t think there should be pressure for designers to show every season, but again it really is difficult to suggest a viable fashion week alternative; at the end of the day, I do have to sell garments.”
“We have a brilliant fashion week alternative – Fashion Open Studio! It’s a week packed with initiatives celebrating the people and processes behind fashion and accessories collections, which promotes industry transparency through simple, authentic narratives that resonate with consumers and creatives alike.
“The aim is to shine a light on emerging talent and established trailblazers who are finding innovative ways of producing fashion which are mindful of people, the planet and its resources. While the rest of the industry is focussed on the end product, we offer an inclusive platform which celebrates the cultural and commercial value of the whole creative process – and which hopes to provoke discussion around how fashion is made.”
“We’re asking for a total revision of what ‘fashion’ means; we’re asking consumers to boycott and rebel against a system which is killing us and the natural world. We don’t think this is the end of fashion, though – more an opportunity to creatively transform it into something regenerative for society and nature” – Sara Arnold, Extinction Rebellion
ELSA ELLIES, CEO OF ONEBYME (DIY FASHION LABEL)
“It’s natural to want to eradicate something we’re told is bad for us, and I do believe we should all make responsible daily choices – in a world where natural resources are depleting, we all have to preserve what’s left. But we have to ask: will eradicating fashion week change consumer habits, or stop clothes going to landfill? A total shutdown would impact economies, jobs, and livelihoods, affecting families and devastating other industries, so it’s not about saying ‘cancel fashion week’ – we have to think this through.
“What if we approached fashion week differently by putting change-making designers at the forefront rather than slapping in a ‘sustainable’ section? We’ve had support from remarkable organisations, but the BFC hasn’t approached us to create something magical. Maybe the problem is that the industry is ‘closed’; it’s only looking through one lens. Still, something has to change and fashion has to widen its perspective. That’s why we created ONELAB, which empowers special needs children and adults through fashion entrepreneurship – it’s a more holistic approach which acknowledges that fashion has to take time, think and build a strategy that makes sense.”
JOHN SAUVEN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF GREENPEACE UK
“Fast fashion is a bit like single-use plastic. It’s a conveyor belt taking millions of new clothes through design, production, use and then swiftly into the bin. What’s worse, the belt is now moving faster and the heap of wasted clothes at the end of it is getting ever higher. One rubbish truck of textiles gets landfilled or burned every second. And less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing is recycled into new garments at the end of its life. Ready-to-wear has become ready-to-waste.
“This needs to change, and that needs to start at the drawing board where new clothes are designed. We need garments that are easier to mend, reuse and resell. We need to reduce the water, chemicals and fossil fuels that go into making them. We need big fashion brands to stop incinerating millions of perfectly good, unsold clothes. And we need the industry to send a different message: not ‘buy more, use less’, but ‘buy much less, use much more’. When it comes to the planet’s resources, we need to start cutting our coat according to our cloth.”