PARIS — An organic cotton Claudie Pierlot sweater, washed out denim Pepe Jeans without chemicals, ecological nylon Stella McCartney windproof jackets. This past autumn, the capital's landmark Galeries Lafayette department store organized "Go for Good," where more than 400 brands (Carven, Patagonia, Louis Vuitton, Le Coq Sportif…) offered products that "don't claim perfection in all aspects, but which constitute significant advances to making the fashion industry more sustainable," says Guillaume Houze, communication chief for the Parisian store.
This project is meant to raise awareness among customers, and to put fashion on the right side of the issue. "The industry has become aware of the state of the planet, of the cost of the raw materials, and of the environmental mess," Houze said.
Long overdue, the apparel industry's awareness of environmental issues has finally reached a tipping point. "Up until the middle of the last decade, issues which concerned the sector were rather social, on the exploitation of workers," says Nathalie Alley, professor at the French Institute of Fashion. But prompted in part by the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, the industry started to look at the state of the planet and where its materials and production processes fit in.
Clearly, fashion has not given up on capitalism or globalization or economic growth, but there appears to be a shared commitment to "establish a more eco efficient business model."
Young employees are much more aware of these issues.
This change in attitude is due to several factors. Firstly, designer fears of scandal, multiplied by the power of social media. The deadly collapse in 2013 of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, which housed manufacturing workshops of "Primark" and Mango, among others, has symbolized the excesses of fast fashion, the clothing manufacturing at low prices in deplorable outsourcing conditions.
This year, Chanel is facing accusations of cutting down oaks and poplars in the northern French province of Perche to arrange the scene of a ten minute parade. Meanwhile Burberry has suffered the wrath of social media for burning some 31 million euros of unsold items in one year.
The arrival of a new generation in the creative studios also has an impact: "Our young employees are much more aware of these issues", says Sylvie Bénard, Director of LVMH Environment Department. One widely circulated report says that fashion is the second worst polluting industry the world, right behind oil.
That affirmation is disputed by data from the Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report, an annual publication of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit and the audit firm BCG: agriculture, tourism and transport are bound to affect pollution to a larger extent. Still, that being said, in 2015, for example, the textile industry accounted for about 1.7 trillion tons of CO2 emissions,used 79 billion cubic meters of water and produced 92 million tons of solid waste.
Display at Galeries Lafayette's "Go for Good" - Photo: Galeries Lafayette
In order for each label to measure its own expenditure, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition was founded in 2011. With more than 200 members (LVMH, Kering, Adidas, Levi's, Espirit, Asos, et al), this organization scores each company's performance through its Higg Index. "Before this tool, everyone reported on their own terms," says Jason Kibbey, the CEO of the entity based in San Francisco. "Today, we have clear, comparable results, which is useful for the client, the designer label and intermediaries. Each year, our members reduce their carbon footprint: having a scale encourages them to do so."
Once observed, "new practices must come from the top, otherwise it does not work," says Marie-Claire Daveu, Director of Sustainable Development at Kering. The American group PVH Corp., (owner of Calvin Klein) has established a three-year partnership for all of its brands with the NGO World Wildlife Fund. "This will help us to limit our water usage at all levels: in the supply chain, in the distribution and internally," says Dana Perlman, Senior Vice President.
In Paris, Kering, as well as its main competitor LVMH, adopted similar methods. Both have created their own environmental impact measuring tool, and have appointed in each company an environmental specialist manager. They have also set to achieve goals: At LVMH 70 % of the cotton must be organic by 2025; greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 50% by 2025 at Kering. "We are also counting on research, in partnership with start-ups," says Marie-Claire Daveu. "We are trying to manufacture genuine leather in the laboratory, substances from fungi, or to learn how to dye a fabric with micro-organisms."
People know that zero pollution does not exist.
Sylvie Bénard, at LVMH, notes that in the fashion industry, the major limitation continues to be the relationship with time. "We are obsessed with speed. It is sometimes difficult to make a designer understand that he must change habits in terms of raw material or be patient for a merchandise arriving by boat and not by plane," she said.
For Sébastien Kopp, co-founder of Veja, a brand which sells off 600,000 pairs of shoes per year, in organic cotton and rubber, being transparent to the consumer is key. "People know that zero pollution does not exist, but they are right to demand knowing manufacturing conditions," he said. On its site, the brand describes its production process and even publishes its cost estimate.
Another trend: upcycling. Making new clothes from scraps has been adopted by H&M, which just inaugurated on these bases its clothing line Afound, by Cheap Monday, which launches a special collection on October 1st by young talents such as Kevin Germanier and Marine Serre. "I get scarves or shirts in warehouses," says the 26-year-old French designer. "With my team, we sort them, clean them, check that there are no holes… Each one is unique and, often, there is a need to find a technical solution when the boss isn't satisfied with them."
Half civic battle, half sales pitch, some designer labels now are betting their brand on ecological responsibility, including Stella McCartney, Rombaut, Christopher Raeburn and Reformation. Even in the fashion schools, "students all say they are "sustainable," says a designer in his 20s committed to the cause. "But when you look into it, you see that often it's a lot of hot air, they purely make it a marketing strategy."
And consumers? One of the next challenges will be to encourage them to save water by washing their clothes less often. "We're considering raising awareness about it, but it is a delicate issue. Going directly to the customer can lead to being very quickly accused of "greenwashing."