How Sustainability Became the Future of Retail

Maria Grazia Chiuri of Dior loves a cause, and this season, she’s turned her attention to the climate. Today in Paris, the Dior spring ’20 show featured a cast of Greta Thunberg clones and a wooded set of 164 trees — all destined to be replanted in and around the French capital.

With the emergency U.N. Climate Action Summit on Monday in New York, and climate change protests taking place across the globe, it’s fair to say that the world is finally waking up to the gravity of the environmental situation. The fashion industry, too, is making an effort to prioritize sustainability. More than 150 brands have signed the Kering-led Fashion Pact as a commitment to reduce their environmental impact.

Dior spring '20, Paris Fashion Week.
Dior spring ’20, Paris Fashion Week.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

It’s about time. Until recently, Ida Petersson, womenswear buying director at Browns, said fashion has lagged behind in sustainability. “People have long been making those conscious choices in how they eat, sleep and travel — but how they dress has been last on the list,” she said.

Headline-grabbing gestures notwithstanding, what are brands actually doing at a grassroots level and how is the retail industry at large responding? The climate change strike proves that we care, but how do we put our money where our mouth is when it comes to our wardrobes? How can we shop responsibly and what is the retail industry doing to help us make the right choices?

Marine Serre, spring '20, Paris Fashion Week.
Marine Serre, spring ’20, Paris Fashion Week.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

Many younger brands have actually built their labels around sustainable principles rather than factoring them in later. Marine Serre, who also showed today in Paris, has been working with upcycled and overstocked components from the beginning, but a consumer would have no idea, which, she said, is the whole point. “That’s not the idea I’m trying to sell,” said the designer, who won the LVMH Prize in 2017. ”I want to do amazing things with what is already there, and for me, that’s normal.”

The title of her show was Marée Noire, or “Black Tide,” and half of the looks featured recycled materials, such as black PVC trench coats fashioned from ocean-waste plastic bottles.

The whole concept of sustainability is becoming even more rooted in the design ethos of today’s up-and-coming talents. “It’s the backbone of everything we do,” said Spencer Phipps, an LVMH Prize 2019 finalist. He prefers to use the word “responsible” because he believes “sustainable” is an ambiguous term. Responsibility for him involves using organic cottons, local production, recycled or biodegradable cornstarch bags, and upcycled and recycled fabrics. He only works with factories that share his principles, from waste disposal to energy efficiency. “I give them a questionnaire that’s three pages long,” he said during an event hosted by 24S to launch a capsule collection from the prize finalists.

Phipps’ upbringing in San Francisco revolved around biodynamic produce and locavore farm-to-table eating, so he wanted to found his brand on the same principles. “I wanted to do it in a way that I could feel honest with my family and friends from back home,” he said, though he admits it can be limiting. But he likes the challenge: “You just have to be creative.”

Emily Bode takes a bow at her runway debut, Paris Fashion Week, Men's.
Emily Bode takes a bow at her runway debut, Paris Fashion Week, Men’s.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

Similarly, Emily Bode of Bode is also up to the challenge. About 40% of her production is one of a kind, made either from antique textiles or deadstock. In such cases, scalability is often cited as an issue, but she maintains that it’s about “being incredibly good at sourcing and having a really strong network of suppliers.” This includes working with companies that resell fabrics from shut-down mills.

“It’s also about knowing in advance what you envision selling,” she said, explaining that she often stockpiles textiles to create a warehouse element for buyers to shop. “It’s a totally different way of working; sometimes we will show one thing and then ship comparable.” While the ballet pumps Bode showed in Paris in June were repurposed, she said she’s creating her own footwear for fall ’20. “That’s what I’m most interested in doing next,” she stated.

Anacuta Sarca, who made her London Fashion Week debut for spring ’20 with Fashion East, created hybrid kitten heel sneakers with parts sourced from charity-shop pumps and old Nikes. Now there’s talk that Sarca may partner with Nike. Right now, she has a tiny capsule available at concept store LNCC in East London.

Both Bode and Phipps admitted their designs were first met with buyer apprehension. “[But] now they’re more tuned in because the caliber of responsible designers is even higher,” Phipps said.

“[Buyers] are also able now to justify it in terms of their e-commerce algorithms and the traffic it brings to their websites,” Bode added.

Petersson agreed: “For so long, sustainable brands were just hemp and hippie, but now there are amazing young designers who have this way of thinking ingrained into their labels.”

Browns is in the process of launching a Conscious category on its digital platform. Currently in beta, it lets customers navigate brands that are taking measures to address their environmental impact. “People were increasingly asking for transparency; we wanted to put everything together so they don’t have to trawl through the site,” she said.

Additionally, the retailer is working with agency Good on You, which uses a rating system that scores brands on their environmental consciousness, social consciousness and animal welfare. Similar initiatives are already in place or in the works at MatchesFashion, Net-a-Porter and Browns parent company Farfetch, along with meaningful partnerships or launches.

Net-a-Porter has launched a Net Sustain section on its site, categorizing brands by sections including local production, materials and processes, and waste reduction. Similarly MatchesFashion is partnering with brand consultancy Eco Age, which specializes in bespoke sustainability solutions. Farfetch’s startup incubator Dream Assembly, for example, is piloting a handbag resale platform called Second Life, plus a luxury goods repair service dubbed The Restory. And Browns is working with designer rental platform Armarium.

Unsold stock is another cause for concern. “It’s sacrilege when stock arrives late in the season,” Petersson said. “Items might only be on the shelves for a few weeks before they have to be marked down.”

When it comes to old-season stock or faulty pieces, there’s another initiative in place: Browns gave avant-garde designer Duran Lantink, a 2019 LVMH Prize semifinalist who works with upcycled garments and accessories, access to its warehouse. The results will form a special capsule collection that will be on sale next month at its East London boutique.

Veja's debut technical runner.
Veja’s debut technical runner.

Another noteworthy brand in the sustainable space is Veja, the eco-conscious sneaker label that has been ahead of the curve since its launch in 2004. Co-founder Sebastien Kopp has simply been waiting for the rest of the industry to catch up.

On Thursday, the brand launched its first technical post-petroleum runner called the Condor. The upper is made from 100% recycled plastic bottles, 45% of the midsole is made from bio-based materials and the rest is synthetic rubber. The goal is to up the sustainability quotient, said Kopp, but for now, the shoe is the best possible balance between organic materials and running optimization.

That’s the keyword: balance. After all, no one is perfect. And as Phipps admitted, when all is said and done, “the most responsible thing you can do is just buy vintage.” But as that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, the next best thing is to work for the best achievable outcome given the current circumstances, future-proofing the industry one step at a time.

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