Sustainability in fashion: A to Z

Sustainability in fashion: A to Z

We highlight some of the most significant developments in the ethical-fashion conversation.

When famously eco-minded fashion designer Stella McCartney takes on a new role as sustainability adviser to the head of the world’s largest luxury conglomerate (that’s LVMH), and some of the biggest labels – from Chanel to Coach – renounce the use of contentious animal-derived materials, it will be impossible to ignore the signs: High fashion entering a new era.

It has to. Sustainability has become more than just a buzzword. The State of Fashion 2019, a report by consultancy McKinsey & Company and fashion website The Business of Fashion, saw sustainability and transparency entering the list, for the first time in three years, of key strategic challenges cited by global fashion executives. Over the following pages, we highlight some of the most significant developments and trends dominating the ethical-fashion conversation.

Above-ground Diamonds

Man-made, grown, above-ground – whatever you call them, lab-created diamonds have been garnering plenty of interest in recent years. Typically, they are grown under high-tech conditions replicating the high heat and pressure in the earth’s crust that enable diamonds to form naturally. Unsurprisingly, the marketing for above- ground diamonds focuses on them as a conflict-free and cleaner (no mining required) product. Shining most brightly right now is Leonardo DiCaprio-backed Californian company Diamond Foundry, which is banking on style as much as sustainability. Last month, its travelling collaborative with multi-label retailer Dover Street Market hit the latter’s Singapore store, which featured sparkly creations by edgy jewellery designers such as Delfina Delettrez and Ana Khouri.


Unwrapping a beautifully packaged item always feels like a treat – even if you paid for it yourself on an e-commerce website. Getting packaging right can be tricky for luxury e-tailers, who need to maintain a high level of product presentation without further upping their carbon footprint (already significant, considering the long journey a package takes to get to its buyer, a trip that’s doubled if the item is returned). Consumers can help somewhat by selecting the minimal-packaging option some websites offer – at UK-based, this means you’ll receive your order in a smaller, recyclable brown box, rather than a large, glossy marbled-print box packed within an even larger brown box.

Cleaning Up

We’re seeing more brands carry out beach cleanups as part of their corporate social responsibility activities. Swiss luxe brand Bally, however, recently took things to the next level by sponsoring a team of Sherpa climbers who removed more than a tonne of trash between Mount Everest’s base camp (at 5,380m) and its 8,848m summit.


The numbers behind traditional denim production would give any eco-minded jeans-wearer the blues: Producing one pair of jeans can require about 4,000 litres of water, while the runo from the dyes and chemicals used in denim production can pollute the rivers around factories. High-end denim producers are greening their blues in various ways: G-Star, for instance, recently expanded its collection of pieces featuring the use of dyes derived from upcycled plant waste.


Green materials are big business right now, and one product that keeps popping up on our radar is Econyl. Made by Italian synthetic-fibre company Aquafil, it’s the brand name of regenerated nylon that is derived from nylon waste from landfills and oceans (such as discarded fishing nets). The material is used by numerous fashion brands such as Stella McCartney and MCM, although one of its most notable recent appearances is in Prada’s Re-Nylon collection – giving a forward-looking, eco-friendly twist to Prada’s signature silhouettes such as the backpack.

Fur and Exotic Skins

Fur and exotic skins have long played a significant role in luxury fashion, but the tides might just be changing: Brands such as Burberry and Versace have in recent years announced that they will no longer use animal fur, while Chanel became the biggest luxury brand to quit exotic skins last December. Adding another dimension to the debate, some conservationists have argued that banning exotic skins might actually have an adverse effect on wildlife populations and the indigenous communities that farm reptiles sustainably for commerce.


If your company or product is green, but no one has certified it, are you really green? Numerous third-party certifications now exist to back up companies’ claims of environmental and social responsibility. One such example is the Global Organic Textile Standard (Gots), which covers the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading and distribution of textiles.


Even though we are focusing on luxury players, no discussion of green fashion is complete without a mention of the fast-fashion brands, which have come under fire for (what many see as) encouraging throwaway consumption.

Following growing awareness and bad press about the working conditions in a few factories making its products, Swedish giant H&M has taken big steps to improve its supply chain, as well as image. In April, it began displaying information about the factories and suppliers behind each of the garments on its website – impressive for a behemoth with an annual revenue of more than $30 billion.


Once upon a time, Russian digital entrepreneur Miroslava Duma – she founded lifestyle website Buro 24/7 before leaving last year – was also a street-style star who was often photographed in the latest fashion. But today on her Instagram account, she is most often seen sporting sweatshirts by eco-friendly brands such as Pangaia, as she shares about the green fashion-related companies supported by her investment fund, Fashion Tech Lab. These companies range from clothing retailers to those creating non-animal alternatives to materials such as silk and leather.


Nothing takes the shine off a new sparkler faster than knowing that it could have come from a conflict zone or a mine with dreadful working conditions, which is why many gem companies have instituted ethical programmes. Since July last year, Chopard has used ethical gold for all its watches and jewellery. Aside from being involved in sustainable development projects in countries such as Botswana and South Africa, De Beers has in recent years experimented with using blockchain technology to improve the traceability of its diamonds.


Among the luxury fashion conglomerates, Kering is on a roll, and not just because it owns two of today’s hottest major labels, Gucci and Balenciaga. In January, Kering was named the world’s
second most sustainable company (the top spot was held by a Danish bioscience company) by the Corporate Knights Global 100 Index. The French conglomerate aims to reduce its environmental footprint by at least 40 per cent by 2025.

Local Labels

Support home-grown designers and the health of the planet at the same time. Semun Ho, CEO of the Textile and Fashion Federation (Taff), shares that two of her favourite local brands are Source Collections (quality basics) and Esse (smart-casual womenswear). Both brands use green fabrics such as Tencel by Taff’s partner company, Lenzing. Tencel is the brand name of lyocell, a fibre made from pre-consumer upcycled cotton scraps, and wood pulp from renewable sources.


Some clothing materials are clearly more unpopular with environmentalists than others – polyester, for one, is essentially a plastic and non-biodegradable. But natural does not always equal better. Even though we love cotton for its lightness and breathability, conventionally grown cotton requires a lot of water and pesticides, which explains why you might have noticed more designers turning to organic cotton of late.

No Washing

It’s an idea that takes some getting used to, especially in our climate, but there’s a growing number of brands offering clothing that needs next to no washing. (Doing laundry takes up a significant amount of water and energy.) One way makers have done this is by infusing clothing fibres with hydrophobic nanoparticles that repel moisture. Other companies take a different approach, using materials such as merino wool, which has natural moisture-wicking properties.


What do you do when you’ve been dressed by surf brand Quiksilver for more than 20 years and that contract comes to an end? If you’re 11-time world champion surfer Kelly Slater, you start your own brand, Outerknown, and imbue it with sustainable values. Aside from using earth-friendly materials such as Econyl and organic cotton, the four-year-old casualwear brand – which launched its women’s collection this year – works with partners with certified fair working conditions.

Plastic Bottles

Single-use plastic bottles are a big problem: A 2017 study by Euromonitor International found that around the world, a million plastic bottles are bought every minute. While it’s just the tip of the iceberg, more brands are putting recycled plastic bottles to good use. Recently, Tumi launched the second edition of its Recycled Capsule collection, comprising bags made from recycled nylon and recycled plastic bottles. Polo Ralph Lauren’s Earth Polo, a special take on its signature polo tee, is made from yarn derived from recycled plastic bottles and is dyed using a zero-water process.


Renting is the new black: New York-based designer clothing rental company Rent the Runway was recently valued at US$1 billion (S$1.39 billion). More women are renting designer outfits not just for special occasions, but for daily wear as well. And why not? As Jaelle Ang, CEO and co-founder of The Great Room co-working space – and fan of luxury resale site Vestiaire Collective, as well as local peer-to-peer fashion rental platform The Treasure Collective – says: “We already share houses via Airbnb, cars through Grab and workspaces through The Great Room; of course I’m sharing designer clothes as well.”


In articles on the environmental impact of fashion, it is not uncommonly stated that the fashion industry is the second most polluting, after oil. Sounds dire, but a New York Times investigative article last year found that there was no actual study to back this oft-repeated claim. There is no denying that clothing production can be highly resource-intensive and pollutive, but statistics should help to pinpoint problems, not just serve as scary sound bites.

Stella McCartney

If there was a poster girl for ethical fashion, it would be English fashion designer Stella McCartney. An eco-friendly designer long before it was cool to be one, she has eschewed the use of leather and fur since starting her eponymous label in 2001, and has gone further to create green alternatives to animal-derived or unsustainably produced materials. In July, fashion giant LVMH announced that it had acquired a 10 per cent stake in her brand, adding that McCartney would serve as a sustainability adviser to LVMH head Bernard Arnault.


The product-information sections of some online clothing retailers are getting lengthier. Alongside typical information such as measurements and fabric used, you might find information on the origins of said fabric, and on the factory that produced it. Increasingly savvy consumers are demanding transparency, and savvy companies would do well to provide it.


Vintage military parachutes, beefeater uniforms, and even kites: These are some of the deadstock (which refers to items that were unsold) materials that have been turned into edgy, streetwear- influenced clothing by hot British designer – and recently appointed Timberland creative director – Christopher Raeburn, who marks the 10th anniversary of his eponymous line this year.

Vegan Alternatives

Salvatore Ferragamo has used silk made from orange fibre, and Stella McCartney is experimenting with fungi-based leather – vegan alternatives to traditional animal-derived materials are a growing field in luxury fashion. Here at home, the Textile and Fashion Federation (Taff) aims to nurture “innovative fashion businesses to support the road towards sustainability”, says its CEO Semun Ho. Among the first cohort of Taff’s fashion incubator programme is Mycotech, a start-up from Indonesia that produces Mylea, a leather made from fungi mycelium (root structure).


Are clothing manufacturers’ environmental efforts slowing down before they have even really taken off? The Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2019 Update report – by the Global Fashion Agenda and Sustainable Apparel Coalition, in partnership with Boston Consulting Group – found that the fashion industry had improved its Pulse Index score by six points in 2017, but only by four points in 2018. The Pulse Index evaluates companies’ sustainability goals and implementation efforts.


The XXX logo symbolises Ermenegildo Zegna’s runway collection and most creative pieces. And now, it may also become synonymous with the house’s approach to responsible production. First introduced in the Fall/Winter 2019 collection, the hashtag #UseTheExisting sums up the house’s efforts to use more wool and technical fabrics created from pre-existing sources – such as wool remnants from Zegna’s suit production – and recycled materials such as yarn from plastic bottles.

Younger Generation

If they haven’t done so already, apparel-makers should make green values a pillar of their business. The 2019 State of Fashion report (by McKinsey & Company and The Business of Fashion) found that nine in 10 Generation Z consumers – the cohort after the millennials – ”believe that companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues”.


When it comes to numerical targets, higher is usually better. Unless you’re talking about carbon emissions or production waste, in which case the ideal answer is zero. Companies such as Kering and Hugo Boss have pledged to go carbon-neutral by 2050. One way some brands try to achieve this magic number is by offsetting their carbon footprint by contributing to carbon-reducing projects around the world.

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