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CO2, Fall 2019! Fashion Weeks' Steep Environmental Cost

Climate change activists have condemned the outsized environmental impact of the razzle dazzle events, with Stockholm going so far as to cancel its Fashion Week.

Extinction Rebellion protesters in London
Extinction Rebellion protesters in London
Valentin Pérez

PARIS — What if we just ended it? It's a legitimate question after what happened in Stockholm, which made the surprising decision this past July to cancel its Fashion Week.

"We cannot be content to keep telling ourselves that we're aware of the issues while continuing in the same system," explains Jennie Rosen, CEO of the Swedish Fashion Council. "By canceling Stockholm Fashion Week, we wanted to respond to climate activists who have been warning us for years, and respond to the radical changes called for by Generation Z."

Should the rest of the world follow suit? Is it time to be done with fashion weeks, these marathon gatherings in places like New York, London, Milan and Paris, where fashion industry professionals congregate to see dozens of shows in a row?

Guests fly into these cities by plane, and then taxi to different venues every hour. Fashion shows are sewn with stages and decorations whose use is ecologically dubious. The events consume high amounts of electricity and water, and produce a fair share of waste, all for the sake of shows that only last, on average, seven to 12 minutes each.

During the recent London Fashion Week (Sept. 13 to 17), activists raised signs, sang songs, and staged simulated die-ins. "We have to declare a state of emergency," said Bel Jacobs, coordinator of the international "Extinction Rebellion" movement, the #boycottfashion group that wants to do away entirely with London's Fashion Week.

Models on backstage during Paris Fashion Week 2020 — Photo: FashionPPS via ZUMA Wire

"The fashion industry has a disastrous ecological footprint," the activist and ethnical fashion blogger added. "This symbol must be dropped to send a signal. This isn't something we're just saying for fun. Honestly, if we can keep the planet from warming up by 2 ° C in coming years, is it really asking too much?"

Despite the protests, the British Fashion Council (BFC), which organizes London Fashion Week, chose to carry on with the event. "I am sensitive to their arguments," said Caroline Rush, CFB's executive director. "But Fashion Week is also a place for exchanges where the industry can collectively think about how to become more sustainable, not to mention the exposure it offers to creators and the jobs that the event guarantees."

Rush also announced the launch of a positive fashion institute whose job it will be to help fashion brands transition towards greener, sustainable practices.

Although some brands are unwilling to put an end to runway shows, many are trying to compromise. Gucci, for example, won't give up its Milan show, but did announce on Sept. 12 that it will offer payment for all the CO2 emissions it cannot eliminate.

The English menswear brand Cottweiler, on the other hand, decided to switch out their June fashion show for a "digital" one instead. "We need to rethink our relationship with consumerism, and this fashion week system has exhausted itself," said Matthew Dainty, one of the brand's co-founders. Dainty admits that the decision cost the brand sponsorship revenue, but insists that by going digital, Cottweiler actually reached a larger audience than it would have with a traditional fashion show format.

And in Paris? Pascal Morand, the executive chairman of the Federation of Haute Couture and Fashion, organizer of Paris Fashion Week, isn't ready to give up on actual shows just yet. "Not only is streaming not ecologically neutral, but the physical event has the benefit of bringing people and fostering a community spirit. It has an added emotional value," he says.

Also, there are technological limits to the digital approach, Morand explains. "The 3D imagery is not developed enough to appreciate the movement of a garment," he says.

Still, the Federation is willing to make some changes. They're putting together sustainable development guidelines, for example, that they'll share with fashion industry professionals in November. The Federation also has plans to measure the environmental impact of next year's Paris Fashion Week, and to offer event goers 100% electric transport. "We've got to rethink everything," says Morand.

In the meantime, the frenetic and polluting pace of fashion shows no signs of slowing down. For this year's Paris Fashion Week, held between Sept. 23 and Oct. 1, an estimated 5,000 showed up — for presentations, dinners and parties... Oh, and there were also at least 75 different runways shows!

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