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Op-Ed | The Climate Cost of Fashion Weeks Is Bigger Than it Seems

While fashion shows themselves account for a tiny fraction of the industry’s environmental impact, they sit at the very heart of the marketing machine that fuels planet-damaging overconsumption, argues Rachel Arthur.
Models walk the runway during the Givenchy Womenswear Spring/Summer 2024 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on September 28, 2023 in Paris, France.
Models walk the runway during Givenchy's Spring/Summer 2024 show in Paris last month. (Marc Piasecki/WireImage via Getty Images)
By
  • Rachel Arthur

Over the last week, the fashion industry has trickled back from Paris, the final and most opulent stop in the luxury industry’s bi-annual women’s fashion week circuit.

Hundreds of buyers, celebrities and influencers jetted in on gas-guzzling flights for a fleeting glimpse of new collections, carefully crafted for an obsolescence that means everyone will be willing to get back on a plane and do it all again in six months time.

To be sure, the emissions and waste directly associated with these marquee marketing moments are a drop in the ocean compared to the industry’s overall footprint. And over the years, brands and fashion councils have made efforts to drive down both.

But narrowly focusing on the direct impact of the shows misses the bigger picture: at the heart of fashion’s negative environmental and social impact is overproduction and overconsumption. And what do fashion weeks do if not fuel both those things?

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Take the recent roster of events in New York, London, Milan and Paris, not to mention the often more excessive cruise and pre-fall collections — every show sets in motion a marketing machine designed to drive the purchase of new products. It’s the trends these events inspire, the media value they deliver and ultimately the shopping all this encourages that fuels their environmental impact.

This is the so-called “brainprint” of fashion shows: the knock-on effect a runway outing has on consumption.

“If your footprint describes your operations, then your brainprint describes the way you get people to feel about things. It is your cultural imprint,” said Lucy Shea, group CEO of change agency, Futerra.

This is where luxury has a much bigger responsibility for environmental damage than it has historically owned up to; the millions spent on fashion shows not only drive sales of runway collections themselves, but encourage much broader consumption of adjacent and more accessible products from handbags to fragrances, as well as spurring demand for mass-market knock offs.

The advertising industry has recognised this dynamic. Purpose Disruptors, an organisation of former ad insiders aiming to catalyse the climate transition, has introduced the concept of Advertised Emissions, referring to measuring the uplift in sales generated by campaigns. It shows that advertising adds an extra 32 percent to the annual carbon footprint of every single person in the UK.

Perhaps what we need is an equivalent accounting process for fashion marketing. Let’s call it “trend emissions” — a way to measure the impact of the consumption driven by luxury’s image making.

This is important because fashion will only hit its sustainability targets by reducing the volume of products it sells. But luxury’s brainprint — from fashion shows to the editorial shoots, ad campaigns and influencer posts they help facilitate — is currently geared to incentivise the opposite, exhorting shoppers to buy into trends that change at lightning speed.

This is something the UN Environment Programme and UN Climate Change identified in its Sustainable Fashion Communication Playbook — a paper I authored. It’s a call to eradicate messages of overconsumption, including through traditional fashion shows, and instead redirect efforts towards sustainable consumption.

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That does not have to mean the death of fashion weeks — no more so than a sustainable fashion sector demands the end of fashion full stop. But both do require radical change.

Shows where millions are spent on momentary and extravagant displays of wealth (all in pursuit of recouping millions more in associated brand and media value) are out of touch at a time when we as an industry are helping to erode the planetary systems we depend upon for survival, and impacting millions of people largely in developing countries in the process.

This is at the heart of why Amy Powney, creative director of sustainability focused luxury label Mother of Pearl no longer hosts a fashion show. “At a time of climate collapse, it felt crass and unnecessary,” she said. Instead, we should be using such occasions to support and celebrate those demonstrating another way is possible.

Copenhagen Fashion Week is one example of an alternative approach: As of 2023, designers have to meet 18 specific sustainability requirements in order to be allowed to show. Among other things, they must not destroy unsold clothes from past collections, at least half of what is shown must be made from better materials and brands must commit to use their platforms to educate and inform customers about their sustainability practices. While there’s room for improvement, it’s a big statement to make compared to other major cities.

What we need now are those thinking bigger again about how to showcase new ways of engaging with fashion. After all, this isn’t the time for gradual change. What we need is to turbocharge transformation, developing new systems and business models — ones that don’t rely on simply selling more and more new stuff with little thought for the long-term impact on people, planet, and even profits. Rethinking fashion shows is a part of this.

Fashion itself has recognised the need for change. During the pandemic, calls grew from within the industry to reform fashion week’s relentless churn, which can be financially crippling for independent designers.

Instead of platforms to fuel an outdated, broken system, fashion weeks should be an opportunity to imagine a new one. Brands should use them to highlight solutions and elevate and drive aspiration around conscious consumption. There are already examples of this happening. In Paris this season, Stella McCartney complemented her runway show with a marketplace of lower-impact material innovations. In New York, designer Maria McManus held her audience after the show finished to walk through how each look was created with sustainability in mind.

Let us also celebrate those bringing circular solutions to the fore; those turning waste into a resource and encouraging consumers to fall in love with notions such as pre-loved and upcycled fashions. A Paris Fashion Week swap shop with all of the usual front row contenders participating would not only be a huge statement, but perhaps one of the greatest kinds of fashion shows today’s industry has ever seen.

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There’s a creative opportunity here to use the power of one’s brainprint and forge a new path. While creativity should not be constrained, it absolutely must be redirected.

Rachel Arthur is a consultant, writer and sustainable fashion advocacy lead at the UN Environment Programme.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

How to submit an Op-Ed: The Business of Fashion accepts opinion articles on a wide range of topics. The suggested length is 700-1000 words, but submissions of any length within reason will be considered. All submissions must be original and exclusive to BoF. Submissions may be sent to opinion@businessoffashion.com. Please include ‘Op-Ed’ in the subject line and be sure to substantiate all assertions. Given the volume of submissions we receive, we regret that we are unable to respond in the event that an article is not selected for publication.

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