NEW YORK, United States — Over the past ten years, the eco-fashion movement has been gathering steam. Following the lead of pioneering brands like Stella McCartney and NOIR, which were founded on the basis of ethical principles near the turn of the millennium, there are now entire fashion exhibitions, forums and blogs all focused on so-called sustainable fashion.
Ethical fashion is also high on the agenda of the major luxury goods groups. In April 2009, having already partnered with Stella McCartney to launch her eponymous label, PPR announced its support of HOME, an environmental call-to-action by filmmaker Yann Arthus-Bertrand. François-Henri Pinault, chairman and chief executive officer, said at the time that PPR’s support aimed to use “images and commentary to make us understand that each of us has a responsibility towards the planet, and that we can each act in our own way.”
A month earlier, Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive of LVMH, told investors at the luxury group’s annual shareholders meeting in Paris of his plan to take a 49 percent stake in Edun, the sustainable clothing label founded by Bono and Ali Hewson. “LVMH shares the vision and ethical values of Edun, a pioneer in ethical apparel, and its founders,” he said later. “LVMH is committed to advancing both the social and environmental aspects of sustainable development, which plays an intrinsic role in the development of our brands.”
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE GREEN
In the food industry, we have witnessed the rise of certifications like “organic” and “fair trade” and their widespread adoption by affluent consumers. But what exactly do words like “sustainable,” “eco,” “ethical,” and “green” mean in a fashion context?
Earlier this year, in an insightful piece for the Financial Times, Vanessa Friedman identified a complete lack of consensus within the industry: “Having spent two days in Copenhagen immersed in the concept, having thought about it over the weeks since then, and having canvassed a wide variety of fashion figures, I can honestly answer … no one knows,” she wrote.
Ms. Friedman was in Copenhagen to attend a sustainable fashion conference which coincided with the UN climate change conference and spoke to a number of leading industry figures like Gucci’s Frida Giannini, Oscar de la Renta and Dries van Noten, a perfect focus group, you would think. Yet each of them had a different response to her question: “How would you define sustainable fashion?” Some emphasized a commitment to traditional techniques, others pointed to locally sourced materials, while still others mentioned the importance of reducing carbon footprint.
Industry-observing bloggers don’t fare much better in providing a cohesive answer. On the blog which accompanies sustainable fashion initiative The Uniform Project, co-founder Eliza Starbuck (who has since parted ways with the project to start her own line) wrote an especially thorough post which tried to clear up the confusion.
In the post, Ms. Starbuck distinguished between “heirloom sustainability” — the school that basically says nothing is more sustainable than a high-end designer item, say an Hermès belt, that is passed on for generations — and what could be dubbed “artisanal sustainability,” which is defined by handmade production and a low carbon footprint, the sartorial equivalent of the locavore movement among foodies.
In the end, however, Starbuck concludes that “there is still no ‘sustain-a-standard’ yardstick” that will cover all bases. After all, what are we sustaining? The environment? Traditions? Labourers? Change the parameters and the definition of sustainable fashion changes dramatically.
Commenting on the issue for this article, Christian Kemp-Griffin, chief mission officer at Edun, agreed that there is no single, definitive answer to what is ultimately a very complex question and that the best companies can do is strive for ethical progress and accountability, not ethical perfection.
Summing up Edun’s credo, he explained: “Ethical companies make thoughtful decisions and sell product thinking about the people who make the clothes — wages, human rights, health and safety — and the planet — energy use, biodiversity, organic — which boils the definition of sustainable, ethical clothes down to: product that benefits people and the planet.”
But rather than looking for a single formula, perhaps what is most important is that ethical and sustainable fashion brands are clear on what they are promising. As long as brands stay true to this commitment, they uphold the ethical values that are most important to them and their consumers. The more transparency brands can offer in their sourcing, manufacturing, and design processes, the more consumers can judge for themselves whether the promises being made are really being fulfilled.
In high-fashion, Stella McCartney is, without a doubt, the brand most closely associated with a commitment to the environment. The label’s famously vegetarian, farm-raised founder and designer very openly made planet-friendly practices a foundation of her company right from the start. Part of what makes her proposition so compelling is that her firm stance against cruelty to animals lies at the heart of everything her company stands for.
But is it 100% ethical, in the broadest sense of the definition? Probably not. Does this matter to her fans and customers? Probably not. What’s most important to them is that they know what she is promising and what they are getting when they buy a Stella McCartney product.
DOES SUSTAINABILITY SELL?
Definitions and good intentions aside, fashion is a business built on desirability — people buy fashion because they covet what it looks like and represents. So an equally interesting question is whether “Made Ethically” has the same effect as “Made in Italy.” In other words, is sustainability a positive differentiator in the eyes of fickle and demanding fashion consumers?
Stella McCartney became known as a chic designer label that’s convincingly green, not as a green designer label that is convincingly chic. Speaking to The Business of Fashion, McCartney was clear about her priorities: “Obviously, I don’t use any animals which has a huge impact on the planet. But my first job is to make desirable, luxurious, beautiful clothing for women to want to buy. Then I ask myself: can I do this in a more environmental way without sacrificing design? If I can, then there is no reason not to. I think that women buy my product because they like how it looks, feels, fits and being sustainable is an added extra bonus.”
This emphasis on desirability and design may come as no surprise from a graduate of London fashion college Central St. Martins. But interestingly Ali Hewson, who founded Edun primarily as a means to do good, sees it no differently. She told BoF: “In the fashion business desirability is sustainability! This point has taught us over the years that we must produce quality clothes. Fit must be right, design details correct.”
Julie Gilhart, influential fashion director at Barneys New York, and an early proponent of sustainable fashion, sums it up bluntly: “Consumers respond to good design. Design and desirability must come first.” When deciding whether to spend on fashion, the consumer looks, above all, for good design. Ecological or ethical considerations are still very much secondary.
To illustrate the point, Gilhart recounts an empirical lesson: “At Barneys, when we explicitly labeled Stella McCartney’s organic line with the word ‘organic’ its perceived value actually went down in the eyes of the consumer, even though it was actually more expensive to produce.”
There’s little doubt that environmental awareness amongst fashion consumers is rising and that greater transparency will become important for more and more brands. But in fashion, sustainability cannot drive sales without desirability.
Indeed, the brands that will resonate most with increasingly aware, but ever-demanding consumers will be the ones who integrate sustainable principles into their operations without making “being green” their defining principle.
Suleman Anaya is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion