Most of the conversation about sustainability and clothing, quite rightfully, focuses on fast fashion brands. While they’re no doubt the devil incarnate of sustainability, a question posed by The New York Times’ How Fashion Is Meeting the Moment talk got me thinking: just how guilty is the world of luxury fashion?
Designer brands such as Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton market themselves on the image of “long-term value”. Their bags and shoes are iconic, and in many cases go up in value as they become vintage pieces. With reports that a Chanel handbag can increase by as much as 70% in six years, and may even be a better investment than a house, a lot of their reputation centres around the idea of being timeless classics.
Unsurprisingly, when the question about sustainability was posed by New York Times Fashion Director Vanessa Friedman, the designers were quick to cling to this argument for defence. Virgil Abloh, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tory Burch and Antoine Arnault all stressed that because their pieces are seen as investments, people buy less.
I’m not convinced.
As much as designer brands want us to focus on their key, classic pieces, the reality is that they all put out clothing collections multiple times a year, each with their own grand shows that cost them millions - and cost the planet even more.
Many of the items we see paraded down the catwalk, just as with fast fashion, are really intended for no more than one season. They might be good quality, they might last longer than that, but they’re still trend pieces. The reality of the fashion industry is that it relies on the concept of clothes going out of style to survive.
But there are some designers trying to change that. Virgil Abloh, Chief Creative Director and founder of Off-White, and Men's Artistic Director at Louis Vuitton, explained that the concept of switching out your whole wardrobe for every season is obsolete. The idea persists, however, that once something is ‘last-season’ it is devalued, and Abloh is seeking to combat that by only holding one show a year.
Gucci is another company shunning the traditional time-stamping of fashion. They announced in May that they would be going “seasonless”, holding a mere two shows a year in comparison to their usual five.
Is this really something to be praised? Holding five shows a year, and releasing a new collection for each of them, is clearly unnecessary and excessive. When you’re putting out clothes that often, as many luxury fashion companies do, the idea that their pieces remain timeless and classic just doesn’t stand up.
As with anything, you have to look past the marketing waffle and analyse the company’s actions objectively. Gucci is a brand that is particularly well-known for garish, trendy pieces. As much as they want you to believe they’re tackling climate change, the reality is that spending £600 on a velvet Gucci fanny pack is doing nothing to save the planet.
Marketing is the tactical defence tool of choice for most fashion companies. Many assume that when you’re spending more on a product, that means they’re spending more on paying their workers. Unfortunately that’s not how it works: Prada, LVMH and Hermes are all guilty of using forced labour. The supply chains and sustainability policies of most brands - fast fashion or luxury - are purposely shrouded in secrecy, the truth only revealed through scandal.
To their credit, some companies are more transparent with their policies. In March, Chanel launched a set of sustainability goals for their brand, named Mission 1.5, in reference to the Paris Climate Agreement. Their targets include reducing emissions by 50% by 2030 and using all renewable electricity by 2025.
Chanel also joined 150 other brands in signing the Fashion Pact in April last year, which commits labels to reducing fashion’s negative impact on the planet. Other signatories included Hermès, Prada, Giorgio Armani, Burberry and Ralph Lauren, just to name a few, but one noticeably absent company was LVMH.
In the New York Times’ talk Antoine Arnault, LVMH’s Head of Communications, was keen to stress the financial importance of reducing their emissions, highlighting that they own many wine and spirit brands, such as Dom Pérignon and Moët & Chandon. He explained that if temperatures rise by two or three degrees, in 20 to 30 years they won't be able to produce champagne anymore.
Louis Vuitton was one of the first companies I looked at for this article, for precisely this reason. While they have been awarded the Butterfly Mark, “a third-party accreditation” which recognises luxury fashion brands for their “measurable impact and commitment to sustainability”, I noticed that their ‘environmental commitment’ statement mysteriously disappeared from their website this week. The page, which I had bookmarked, previously read that their products are “designed to be sustainable”, but now appears with a message reading “Error 404: page not found”.
Unfortunately, for whatever reason this may have been taken down or moved, this typifies the fashion industry’s attitude towards sustainability. Their policies are purposely shrouded in secrecy, and while marketing teams insist that companies are sustainable because their products are made for longevity, the reality is that luxury fashion brands need to be far more active in order to do their part to tackle climate change.