Think of Pandora’s Box, filled to the brim with evil, sickness and misery. The only silver lining is from the final item in the jar—hope. The 2008 financial crisis resembles a 21st century take on the Greek myth. Like with every other sector, the fall of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent recession eventually led to setbacks in luxury and fashion. But there has also been a definitive course correction. In the post-Lehman world, there is an increased focus on ethical practices and environmental sustainability.

Luxury gets a bleeding heart

For one, changing consumer mindsets have led to brands becoming more answerable. In July, British luxury label Burberry found itself in deep waters when news broke that the brand had destroyed £28.6 million (around 270 crore) worth of products that had been unsold in the fiscal year 2017. In response, the brand’s CEO Marco Gobbetti announced in an interview with digital publication Business Of Fashion that they would stop burning unsold goods. He also confirmed that the brand would stop using fur, joining other cruelty-conscious labels like Versace, Gucci and Tom Ford.

This is a typically 2018 response. As former UN deputy secretary-general Louise Fréchette wrote in a foreword to a report titled Environmental Sustainability And The Financial Crisis: Linkages And Policy Recommendations, “We see remarkable overlap and interconnectedness between the global financial crisis on one hand, and emerging and escalating environment and resource issues on the other."

Sustainable, fair-trade, eco-friendly, ethical and cruelty-free are of-the-moment buzzwords. They come from an acknowledgment of the not-so-chic side to the fashion story—it is one of the world’s most polluting industries. A 2017 report by Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group states that the fashion industry consumes nearly 79 billion cubic metres of water per year (enough for 32 million Olympic-size pools); by 2030, the figure is likely to increase by 50%. There are also immense quantities of discarded clothing—according to a report by the Ellen McArthur Foundation in 2017, less than 1% clothing is recycled into new clothes.

“The financial crisis of 2008 showed us how a dysfunctional system of lending snowballed into impacting global banking. It forced economists, financiers, governments, academics, and even civilians, to examine what happened and what went wrong in order to make changes in their institutions, systems and homes, respectively," Shivam Punjya, founder and CEO of New York-based fashion label behno, which tags itself as “socially conscious".

Based on perception and brand image, the fashion industry has been compelled to rethink its strategies in order to be appealing in an age of mindful consumerism. The idea of conscious dressing has been contemporary fashion’s biggest contribution, as brands—both luxury and high-street—make “sustainable style" their campaign hero and design philosophy. Case in point: Stella McCartney, an early mover in the sector, uses renewable energy to power her stores, and highlights recycled designs, like the recently-launched vegan Stan Smith sneakers in association with adidas. Positive Luxury—an organization founded in 2011 by Diana Verde Nieto and Karen Hanton MBE—awards luxury brands the Butterfly Mark for best practices in eco-consciousness, philanthropy and innovation. On the list of certified brands are Dior, Guerlain, Tag Heuer, Berluti and Givenchy.

Then there are emerging labels focused solely on ethical values. Californian label Reformation offers English language courses and free legal aid for its staff, while behno uses an in-house quality standard to ensure welfare for artisans in India. “I believe that garment workers and artisans aren’t a commodity in a much larger industry, but rather, people—like me and you—who have trained and learned a technically challenging craft, and are people who deserve a workplace that sees them as individuals with wants and needs," says Punjya.“The standard is broken into six categories, from healthcare to women’s rights and eco-consciousness, including fair wages that directly contribute to economic empowerment."

Similarly, high-street label H&M’s Conscious sub-brand uses eco-friendly materials like Econyl, recycled polyester and recycled cashmere to create high-fashion designs. According to the brand’s 2017 sustainability report, 59% of their cotton was sustainably sourced, 458 of their supplier factories had been trained in workplace dialogue programmes, and their goal is to use 100% recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030.

Sustainable fashion is still a niche, but is steadily growing. While fashion weeks across the world are taking small steps towards ethical practices, Finland’s Helsinki Fashion Week sets itself apart as an event focusing solely on sustainable brands and production. Closer home, Reliance Industries Ltd collaborated with the United Nations in India and the Lakmé Fashion Week to launch a “Circular Design Challenge" at the event’s recent Winter/Festive edition in Mumbai to recognize designers who promote sustainability and circular design thinking.

H&M’s Conscious Exclusive Fall/Winter 2018 line includes recycled cashmere and velvet made from recycled polyester.
H&M’s Conscious Exclusive Fall/Winter 2018 line includes recycled cashmere and velvet made from recycled polyester.

Consumer perspective

Who makes my clothes? Where has it come from? What are the yarns, dyes and embellishments that make our choice of clothing stand out? These are some of the questions that consumers are increasingly asking of the brands they purchase.

While the recession helped organizations across various sectors make the shift towards sustainability, the fashion industry’s moment of reckoning came in 2013 with the Rana Plaza building collapse. As the eight-storey building in Bangladesh housing several garment factories outsourced by international brands came down, killing over 1,100 people, attention turned to the exploitative conditions in the clothing industry.

Luxury hasn’t always been an active subject in sustainability conversations. But times are changing. “Luxury consumers implicitly hold the belief that luxury brands have the duty of being sustainable, a mission of exemplarity based on their price and promised exceptional quality, " wrote Jean-Noël Kapferer and Anne Michaut-Denizeau in the paper Is Luxury Compatible With Sustainability? Luxury Consumers’ Viewpoint.

Organizations such as Fashion Revolution play an active role in increasing consumer awareness, a crucial factor in motivating brands. The organization runs a number of campaigns like the viral #whomademyclothes that urged consumers to post their garments on social media, tagging the brand for a response, and free online courses for consumers in identifying the labour behind their garment

Models at the Helsinki Fashion Week, which focuses on sustainable style.
Models at the Helsinki Fashion Week, which focuses on sustainable style.

Cost of consciousness

While much of the sustainability discourse centres on environmental concerns, it contributes to economic growth as well, particularly for artisans engaged in the manufacturing process. But taking the ethical route is neither simple nor cheap. “A lot of people have the notion that sustainable clothing is not expensive but the fact is it involves a lot of time and effort," says designer Aneeth Arora over the phone, giving examples from her own brand péro. “We follow a conscious practice of reusing waste and creating upcycled products, but it involves (fabric) waste segregation, material transport and storage. All of this can be very expensive."

Overhauling operations is a time-consuming exercise both for big and small brands. According to Arora, while the bigger brands have the advantage of resources, they generate significantly higher waste.

What fashion—and the world—needs is for brands of all sizes to contribute towards creating an ecosystem that cares for people and the planet in equal parts. “Luxury fashion labels can adopt ethical practices, but there needs to be an appropriate set of lenses through which this happens," Punjya says. “There must be an interdisciplinary approach, where individuals versed in understanding and dissecting the discourse behind ethical practices are engaged in the process. It has to be collaborative, non-traditional, even bottoms-up in its approach, where communities we work with are included in the conversation."

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