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Can an Awards Show Solve Fashion's Sustainability Challenge?

Eco-Age and the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana will spotlight sustainability success stories as they co-host the inaugural Green Carpet Fashion Awards.
Eco-Age's Livia Firth with CNMI president Carlo Capasa | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Tamison O'Connor

MILAN, Italy — Second only to oil, fashion is one of the world's most polluting industries. Practically every stage in the life cycle of clothing has negative implications for our planet. And if the world's population rises to 8.5 billion people by 2030, as expected by the United Nations, overall apparel consumption will rise by 63 percent, from 62 million tonnes today to 102 million tonnes in 2030, significantly amplifying the scale of the problem, according to a recent report by the Boston Consulting Group and Global Fashion Agenda, a forum on fashion and sustainability.

Now, Livia Firth's sustainability consultancy Eco-Age and the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana (CNMI) have teamed up to co-host the Green Carpet Fashion Awards, a glitzy event which will showcase the "Made in Italy" supply chain, celebrate the Italian producers that champion ethical practices, and spotlight sustainability success stories before a crowd of celebrities and industry insiders at Milan's La Scala opera house on Sunday, the last day of Milan Fashion Week.

“We are aware that there are already many fashion awards, some of them even nod to sustainability. But what was missing at this level — by which we mean the global fashion stage — was something that celebrated provenance, sustainable innovation and the work that is being done in the supply chain to preserve sustainable production and innovate towards a lesser footprint,” explains Firth. “The red carpets are the biggest communication platform in the world,” continues Firth, who expects “all the biggest fashion houses” and “some of the best actors” at Sunday’s event.

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"Sustainability is one of the pillars of the CNMI's strategy and this event affirms this," adds Carlo Capasa, president of the CNMI. "CNMI is carrying forward massive communication, education and training initiatives across the entire industry to ensure that sustainability becomes an integral part of the world's perception of Italy and Italian fashion. This event and our work on sustainability are designed to raise awareness about the subject."

Some are sceptical. “Anything that highlights good practice in the fashion industry is a good thing. But I think the Green Carpet Fashion Awards or any similar initiative is not going to fix fashion’s sustainability problem,” says Tamsin Blanchard, a journalist and author of “Green is the New Black: How to Change the World with Style”. She believes that while raising awareness about these issues is important, real change needs to come from within the industry. “I think brands have to admit there’s a massive problem. I think too many brands are burying their head in the sand.”

Certainly, supply chain transparency remains a major issue. “There is absolutely no transparency in the luxury industry as to how much is really made in Italy, or perhaps made in Eastern Europe and finished in Italy. That’s a massive issue in the industry. Made in Italy is an example of best practice — it’s just that there isn’t much of it anymore,” says Orsola de Castro, co-founder and creative director of Fashion Revolution, a not-for-profit organisation founded in 2013 in response to Rana Plaza, the worst disaster in the history of the garment industry, which killed 1,134 people when a building in Bangladesh housing several garment factories collapsed.

While fast fashion giants are often branded the worst culprits, Fashion Revolution's Fashion Transparency Index actually exposes the luxury sector as the laggard when it comes to supply chain transparency. Of the 100 global fashion and apparel brands ranked in the index, 19 were high-end. Of these, 10 received a score of less than 10 percent, meaning the lack of public information about supply chain policies and social and environmental impacts makes it hard to hold perpetrators accountable for missteps and unethical practices. And while none of the brands surveyed scored over 49 percent (Adidas and Reebok came in joint first position), the top score achieved by a luxury brand was 29 percent. Chanel and Dior were awarded scores of 1 and 0 percent respectively; Italian brands Giorgio Armani, Prada and Miu Miu also fell towards the bottom of the heap with scores of 8 percent. "The luxury sector is currently less open," continues De Castro. "That's possibly due to the misconception that an expensive product is the fruit of a better supply chain."

What the Green Carpet Fashion Awards will do is celebrate the inherent sustainable aspect of the Made in Italy supply chain, bringing the ethical narratives of the Italian production base to a global audience. In addition, projects that have been ticking over during the months leading up to its La Scala event aim to help encourage supply chain transparency. One such element is the Green Carpet Challenge (GCC), which has seen a number of Italian fashion houses collaborate with Eco-Age and the CNMI to create bespoke red carpet looks for celebrities to wear to Sunday’s event; these creations must adhere to sustainable principles drawn up by Eco-Age, while exemplifying “Made in Italy”; the collaboration is indicative of the kind of work both organisations do day-to-day with clients.

Participants include names like Fendi, Giorgio Armani, Gucci, Prada, Valentino and Missoni, which created a bustier dress made entirely of a recyclable material for the occasion. "Thanks to Green Carpet Fashion Awards designers can challenge themselves to create something different than what they are used to, to leave their comfort zone," says creative director Angela Missoni. "It was fun and inspiring, trying to find a way to combine [the] Missoni DNA [with] the standards given by CNMI."

Brands have to admit there's a massive problem... too many are burying their head in the sand.

“If you think of the Academy Awards and how they have raised the profile of film making, they also bring disparate elements of the industry together in a very constructive format,” says Firth. “What we call the handprint of fashion is hugely important — once we start putting producers again on the front stage and make them work in partnership with designers, we will have achieved huge results.”

“I think there’s enormous value in this process,” says Lucy Siegle, journalist, sustainability writer and executive producer of “The True Cost” documentary. “[The Green Carpet Fashion Awards is] almost like the public face of the work that’s being done between CNMI and the luxury brands.”

The CNMI Green Talent Competition is another integral aspect of the GCFA project. For the past six months, up-and-coming Italian designers have been going head to head, competing for the Franca Sozzani GCC Award for Best Emerging Designer. The winner will be announced during the La Scala event, and will receive a year-long mentorship as well as the opportunity to present at Milan Fashion Week next season.

“Part of the education that we want to transmit [to young designers] is that sustainability must become one of the characteristics of the future of fashion, clothing and accessories,” says Capasa. Siegle, who met the shortlist of semi-finalists, emphasised how important these connections will prove to the next generation of industry talent. “They all said to me that through the process they had created these very strong links with the producers, with the suppliers, which they wouldn’t have had [otherwise],” she explains. “That’s hard for emerging designers to get that sort of contact with their supplier base; it was really fundamental to them.”

Ruth Chapman, co-founder and chairman of MatchesFashion.com, is one of the judges of the emerging designers competition, and believes the event's amplification will prove important to sparking discussions around the issue: “Something like the Green Carpet Fashion Awards [is going to get] a lot of attention because of the level of people involved, the celebrities that are involved, the level of designers involved.”

“It sends out a clear signal to the rest of the industry that [sustainability is] something worth supporting and celebrating in a glamorous, glossy way,” adds Blanchard. “I think it goes a long way to dispelling the crunchy face of sustainable fashion; it can be glamorous, which is obviously a brilliant thing.” This also has a knock on effect on consumer perceptions: “[Consumers] want excitement and [they] also want sexiness, and all those other things that are imbued in these products, especially in the luxury sector,” agrees Siegle. “You need initiatives like this to create that energy around the topic.”

Firth knows this is just one part of a much bigger puzzle and that change takes time. “Rome was not built in a day, dear.”

Editor's Note: This article was revised on 25 September, 2017. A previous version of this article misstated that no brands surveyed in Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index scored over 46 percent. This is incorrect. The top score was 49 percent. 

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