The Environmental Cost of Fashion Shows

Last week I read this article about how the January 2020 issue of Vogue Italia doesn’t have any photos, but drawings instead.

Why? It not only gives an incredible artistic value to the issue, but it’s intended to make a statement about the unexpectedly high carbon emissions of filling the pages of a single magazine. According to the editor-in-chief:

“One hundred and fifty people involved. About twenty flights and a dozen or so train journeys. Forty cars on standby. Sixty international deliveries. Lights switched on for at least ten hours nonstop, partly powered by gasoline-fuelled generators. Food waste from the catering services. Plastic to wrap the garments. Electricity to recharge phones, cameras …”

vogue italia sustainability issue

This blew my mind. I had never ever ever thought about photoshoots as something that could have an environmental impact.

It made me think about these other faces of the fashion industry that we cannot really see as consumers, but that can be just as bad for the environment as fashion production. Like fashion marketing, fashion shows, and fashion weeks.

These past years, after realizing that the poles are melting, Australia is burning and half of the Amazon is gone, we try and calculate the impact of everything. We question the good in everything – which is amazing and an absolute game-changer. But the truth is that we don’t really know how much emissions or waste fashion shows create.

So how do fashion shows impact the environment?

I’m a self-confessed fashion week street style addict, so I HATE to bring you these news…but the carbon footprint of a fashion show is not really quantifiable. One of the reasons is that there are many many factors to consider.

We already have talked a lot about the impact of the fashion industry, but mostly from the point of view of fashion production and consumption. But what about these trade events and their environmental impact?

Let’s see. So we have tons of buyers, celebrities and influencers, designers, makeup artists and hairdressers, models, and organizers flying several times a year from one corner of the globe to the other.

And this obviously brings a ton of environmental issues: carbon emissions from flights, taxis and Ubers bringing people to the fashion shows, waste from plastic bottles, catering, printed programs,… We have to count as well the high electricity consumption – not only for the 15 minutes the show takes, but also during its preparation.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: this isn’t sustainable, no matter how we look at it.

Any solutions?

The example to follow is the Copenhagen Fashion Week. They’ve just announced their plan to give the fashion industry an extra push in the right direction – literally my idols. CPW is technically a regional event, but recently it has gained a lot of popularity partly because it’s becoming the “Sustainable Fashion Week”.

One of the measures they’re taking is to only allow brands that reach certain sustainable standards participate in the CFW. This is an amazing incentive mostly for emerging brands with manageable production chains that can implement sustainable practices.

copenhagen fashion week environmental cost of fashion shows
Designers Remix at the Copenhagen Fashion Week AW20

But what about our good old fashion classics like Chanel, Dior,…? Well, actually many of them have signed the Fashion Pact proposed by the French President, Macron, pledging to become more sustainable and transparent. Let’s hope that brings forth actual change.

Still, a lot of these agreements focus on garment production, and not marketing, trade and consumption. But at least they’re a step in the right direction.

There are some brands offsetting the emissions produced by the travel of guests and staff. But that doesn’t mean that they should quit from actively trying to become greener in other areas! At the end of the day, carbon offsets compensate our bad by doing good elsewhere. It’s not the brand getting more sustainable, but the brand paying to balance their emissions globally, and this means nothing if they don’t start by reducing their emissions in the first place.

But I have good news! Carbon neutrality is becoming a thing in the fashion industry. And not only for high fashion brands – like Gabriela Hearst or the Kering conglomerate – but also in our favorite everyday sustainable brands, such as Reformation and Everlane.

What about fashion shows?

How can carbon neutrality be achieved in fashion shows? The key is local, local, and local.

Hiring models that don’t need to be flown in, getting food from local suppliers and catering services,… But, once again, we run into the same brick wall: flying guests from all over the world and making sure they can get around with taxis and Ubers.

So can we even get around the transportation problem?

There’s this company called The Fabricant that only produces digital fashion. Yep, as futuristic as that sounds, it is exactly what you’re thinking. They don’t produce physical clothes that you can touch, but virtual ones. And who knows. Maybe this is the line that the fashion industry will follow. Maybe the future of fashion shows is in virtual shows. And there’s no doubt, this would be the most sustainable option, given that it’ll get rid of all the main problems of transportation, preparation, waste,…

Honestly, I’m not completely sold on this idea because one of the things that make fashion shows worth it – if we see beyond their main goal of being trade shows – is the mood created by the staging, the street style and people watching,… Everything is part of the show, and we’d lose that in a virtual show.

And as I told you, I love fashion weeks and I hope they never stop existing. And for that, we need to work on solutions to make them less wasteful, more sustainable.

fashion shows and environment
Copenhagen Fashion Week Street Style AW19

Maybe using social media can become the middle point between having a digital show and  having hundreds of people to fly over for a 15 min-long show. Maybe we can opt for a more locally based staff and audience – probably easy in the case of fashion shows organized in big cities where there’s a lot of people working in the industry, or in the case of European cities where it’s relatively easy to get anywhere using the train as an alternative to the plane.

As you see, there are more questions than answers.

But at the end of the day, the main takeaway should be that these fashion shows can also become the scene for change and a way to spread the message of sustainability in fashion.

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