Download the app now: Google Playstore

Inside The Luxury Fashion Industry’s Big Sustainability Push

One glorious September afternoon, along the banks of the Seine, designer Gabriela Hearst held her first in-person show for Chloé. For it, she made the collection and presentation – spring/summer 2022 – as sustainable and inclusive as possible. How so? Guests were seated on cushions made of Chloé fabric remnants, atop benches of stacked bricks, constructed by Les Bâtisseuses, a network that trains women refugees.

The clothes were conceived to be environmentally friendly, too. As Hearst believes “luxury fashion has become overly industrialised,” she introduced the Chloé Craft initiative: products handcrafted by independent artisans, such as the multicoloured sleeveless dress in recycled hand-crocheted cashmere, or the white cashmere poncho with hand-painted blue stripes. Chloé’s staples, such as its signature tote bag, Nama sneakers and all of its denim, incorporated recycled and lower-impact materials. 

The soles of Chloé’s new footwear line, Lou, were made with Ocean Sole, a social enterprise that upcycles flip-flops found on Kenya’s beaches. Overall, Chloé increased its use of lower-impact materials to 58 per cent versus 40 per cent for autumn/winter 2021. As for social impact – because Chloé believes, rightly, that sustainability and social justice go hand-in-hand – catering leftovers were donated to Linkee, a Paris-based NGO that distributes food to those in need. Most democratic of all was how passers-by could watch the show from the bridge above.

Luxury fashion has long been set in its ways when it comes to business. And why not? The system worked well for brands and consumers alike. But with climate change bearing down hard, and the industry’s goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 – as well as meet consumer demand for greener practices – the industry is reshaping its methods, from field to form, dirt to dress. Many brands have already made changes, such as incorporating LEDs in stores and using recycled materials for shopping bags. But there are other reforms being enacted throughout the industry, setting it on a course that will be more ethical, responsible and clean.

For example, designers are using deadstock, as leftover fabric is known – so much so that in April 2021, French luxury group LVMH launched Nona Source, the first online resale platform of deadstock materials, collected from the group’s houses. Now designers can purchase remnants from the ateliers of Dior, Givenchy, Louis Vuitton and others at a fraction of the original cost. Meanwhile, studio teams are sourcing hi-tech or recycled fabrics. Prada is using Econyl, a recycled nylon made from abandoned fishing nets, throughout its collections, and plans to eliminate virgin nylon from its supply chain this year. Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen has fashion recycled polyester – known as poly faille – into dresses. Emporio Armani folded recycled materials and regenerated leather fibre into its collections, and its eyewear has lenses partly made of bio-based material.

Last spring, Stella McCartney unveiled a prototype corset and trousers in Mylo, a lab-grown leather-like material made of mycelium – the root structure of mushrooms – developed by Bolt Threads in Silicon Valley. This spring, she is introducing the Frayme Mylo, a new handbag made out of the same material. She debuted it during her spring/summer 2022 show in Paris in October – the first mycelium to be presented on a runway. “It has no less durability or desirability than animal-skin leather,” she explains. For now, Frayme Mylo will be available as a limited edition, but, she promises, there is more to come. “I’m hoping it’s the future of fashion, and that in five years, it will be absolutely the norm,” she adds.

Hermès, too, is about to launch a mycelium handbag: a limited edition of the Victoria, made with biotech company MycoWorks out of a material they call Sylvania. The company plans to scale Sylvania’s use throughout its product range. “The purpose is not to replace leather,” but to add to Hermès’ variety of materials, explains the company’s sustainability chief Olivier Fournier. “It’s a question of agility, and evolving with the world and situations we face today.” On the beauty side, there are new approaches to packaging, too, which has long been wasteful. For Hermès’s new beauty line, it has refillable lipstick, and while its signature orange boxes have long been made of recycled paper, the brand aims to ensure that all of its packaging is a hundred per cent recyclable or reusable by 2025.

For companies that own their factories, new outposts are being conceived as sustainable from the get-go. Last September, Hermès inaugurated an environmentally friendly leather workshop in Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, on the outskirts of Bordeaux. Set on five-and-a-half hectares, the wood and concrete building was designed by green-minded architect Patrick Arotcharen to be as environmentally respectful as possible. Along with LED lighting, it has cisterns to collect rainwater for the gardens where the company planted a hundred trees, and solar panels, which supply more than 40 per cent of the workshop’s electricity. The building’s bay windows face north, bathing ateliers with diffused natural, non-heating light.

Beyond the modifications of existing practices, some brands are rethinking how they do business – most notably Chloé, the 70-year-old French luxury ready-to-wear company owned by Richemont. Chief executive Riccardo Bellini was hired by the brand in 2019 “to make it shine again,” he tells me. Shortly after, Covid-19 and lockdowns hit, slowing everything down, allowing Bellini to ponder such existential questions as, “Why are we here as individuals? Why does this company exist?” he says. He concluded that “growing the bottom line is not efficient or related to why any of these fashion companies were founded”. Most Popular

What was needed was “a reframing of the entire economic growth model and the relationship between company and society. We wanted to instil purpose into the company at every level.” He chose four areas to address: “People, sourcing, communities and planet,” because “social responsibility is as important as environmental responsibility”. 

He set up a sustainability board that includes two external advisers, social entrepreneur Amanda Nguyen, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, and sustainable development consultant Elisabeth Laville, founder and CEO of Utopies. And he sought out a new creative director – someone with “a different view on how to interpret the values and embrace this very purpose”. He found that in Gabriela Hearst, the New York-based designer who launched her brand in 2015 with those similar principles. She joined Chloé in December 2020.

In October, Chloé became the first luxury fashion company to receive B-Corp Certification – a standard of social and environmental performance for for-profit companies. It ensures that the company is “injecting purpose in everything we do,” Bellini says. Chloé is also a founding member of the taskforce within the Sustainable Markets Initiative, a global coalition launched by Prince Charles at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2020, to work towards a sustainable future. 

Chaired by Federico Marchetti, founder of the Yoox Net-a-Porter Group, the Fashion Taskforce is made up of representatives from dozens of brands, retailers, e-tailers and tech companies. The goal is to pull together the many projects that already exist, and set concrete goals to align the industry. “As the world adapts to the ongoing challenges of a global pandemic and extreme climate change, fashion, among so many other industries, must avoid falling back into old habits,” Marchetti tells me. “The future is already clear: survival of the fittest will mean survival of the greenest.”

While all of these changes are important, it is the investment in Mother Nature that may have the most lasting effect. LVMH has joined Unesco within the Man and Biosphere programme to create “Act for Biodiversity”, an initiative that includes a five-year, €5m contract to combat deforestation in the Amazon. “It allows us to challenge the status quo and have a positive, long-term impact beyond our own supply chain,” says Antoine Arnault, LVMH group image and environment. Chanel is helping to restore more than 22,000 hectares of rainforest in Sumatra, Indonesia, which is threatened by logging, and is supporting the conservation of 300,000 hectares of rainforest in Peru, recognised by Unesco as a biosphere reserve.

In early 2021, Kering joined with Conservation International, an environmental NGO in the US, to launch the Regenerative Fund for Nature, a €5m fund to award grants to farmers who produce cotton, wool, cashmere and leather for fashion. Last September, Kering unveiled the first seven projects (out of 73 proposals) to receive funding. Among them are The Good Growth Company, which works with cashmere producers in Mongolia; the Organic Cotton Accelerator in India; and Solidaridad, which promotes sustainable management of grazing lands in Argentina.

All of these good works are in response to a “deep-dive analysis of fashion’s footprint on biodiversity,” Helen Crowley, head of sustainable sourcing and nature initiatives at Kering, explains. “Where is the pollution? Land-use change? Is there a rare frog? Are they cutting down all the forests? We can’t be wishy-washy. We have to protect and restore nature, support transitions, commit to systems and materials, really create resilience. It’s exciting,” she says, her eyes lighting up on the Zoom screen. “We are at the cusp – we have to be! – of a transformative change.”

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *