Fashion has been busy setting climate goals, but there’s movement for the industry to promote sustainability as a cultural currency.

Fashion has been playing catch-up on sustainability, setting climate goals that regulators and customers increasingly want to see. Industry leaders also want to see fashion promoting sustainability as a cultural value and positioning it as a culture and lifestyle to be desired, not tacked on as an attribute for individual products. The UN Fashion Charter, renewed and updated during COP26, added a communications commitment for the first time, and for some, the implicit messages fashion disseminates are just as important as its explicit messaging. 

“I think we as human beings need role models, and we need cool role models. A lot of the time, when we talk about sustainability, people get turned off,” Ugandan designer Bobby Kolade said during a Vogue Business and Google Summit panel last week. “That’s where I think fashion should be moving towards right now — creating great role models, and showing people it’s not always about having a new pair of sneakers.”

As industry organisations and leaders pressure fashion to align its communications with climate science, some are also pushing the sector to step up and become more of a role model for sustainability, and make it something for people to emulate rather than hope it becomes camouflaged into the background. Spotlighting new role models and notions of success, demonstrating solutions to help individuals live more sustainable lifestyles and celebrating ecological, cultural and social values are among the recommendations released by the UN Environment Programme, which led consultation on the UN Fashion Charter. While fashion has ramped up efforts on sustainability goals, including emissions reductions and water consumption, it also has an opportunity to tackle global challenges from an angle that most sectors do not have access to, say experts.

Separately, a network of advertising professionals launched Good Life 2030, encouraging the ad industry to help drive consumption rates down — a reversal of its traditional role, encouraging consumption, which according to the initiative is responsible for driving the average consumer’s carbon footprint (in the UK, where the initiative is based) up by 28 per cent.

Stella McCartney's “Future Of Fashion” installation at COP26. OWEN HUMPHREYS-WPA POOL/GETTY IMAGES

Brands have rolled out sustainability plans en masse in recent years, but they tend to be formal reports that, often by design, do not engage their customers directly in a meaningful way. If anything, brands have worked hard to blend sustainable product attributes into the background, because while consumers are increasingly interested in sustainable fashion, most are not likely to buy something that “looks” eco-friendly compared to a mainstream runway style. Some brands, such as Reformation, Girlfriend Collective and Patagonia, have found success in marketing their sustainability policies; many others, catching onto the growing demand, make marketing claims that may or may not be substantiated.

However authentic and effective the messaging is, though, the information largely only reaches the customers who are actively looking for it. What fashion has an opportunity to do, experts say, is bring sustainability to a larger audience — encouraging them to seek it in the products they buy, but also to embrace it as a value and priority in their daily lives. To some degree, this is something Stella McCartney has done for years, most recently during COP26, where she hosted a Future of Fashion installation to showcase some of the next-generation materials she has been designing with and advocating for. Along with the British Fashion Council and other brands including Burberry and Phoebe English, McCartney also participated in the Great Fashion for Climate Action campaign, aimed at using fashion innovation to “encourage the world to ‘see things differently’”. A growing number of designers, companies and initiatives are now also working toward this, and following COP26, are poised to gain momentum quickly.

“Fashion is one of the most powerful cultural curators of our societies. Fashion helps define what’s sexy and hot, what’s cool and what’s not,” says Nicole Rycroft, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Canopy. “The whole world has been slow on the uptake of solutions, including fashion. But this is a turnaround decade and coming out of COP, [there’s] no better time than the present for fashion leaders, brands and producers to lean in and scale solutions.”

Sustainability’s cool factor

The Good Life 2030 campaign is an effort by advertising industry professionals, with input from some of the same people who contributed to the updated Fashion Charter. The aim is to shift public perceptions of what success and “a good life” look like — towards a greater sense of connectedness and away from a reliance on material abundance and growth, which it says has been the metric for too long. “No wonder ‘sustainability’ doesn’t connect with people: it sounds like compromise and living with less,” the website says. “People in our industry are skillful at defining what society finds attractive and compelling. What if these skills were used to create alternative visions of ‘a good life’ in the future? Ones that are about connection not just consumption?”

The cultural influence of the fashion industry in particular is a key reason Rycroft says she first began engaging with apparel supply chains in 2012 — because while the industry has direct impacts on forests globally, through viscose and other raw materials, it also has the potential to serve as a positive role model.

Canopy’s new Circular Chic fashion campaign features activists and influencers modelling garments made from next-generation alternative fabrics. CANOPY

The new campaign, Circular Chic, was launched in part to leverage that potential. The organisation has campaigned for fashion to stop sourcing wood pulp, which is used to make cellulosic fibres including viscose and rayon, from ancient and endangered forests, and over time has pushed the industry in the right direction, according to trends revealed by its annual industry assessments. It’s not enough, however, to avoid the most urgent hotspots for deforestation, says Rycroft; fashion needs to shift away from natural resource extraction more broadly, and to use more of the resources already in circulation. In the case of raw materials for apparel, that means fibres made from old textiles or other renewable waste streams. And while such technologies exist, they have yet to scale.

“Brands prioritising next-gen solutions will be key to triggering the production of these game-changing solutions at scale,” says Rycroft. “Coming out of COP, we wanted to show that [they] are here today, not some theoretical future. Circular Chic shows that low-carbon technologies are ready.”

The idea for the campaign, which features bestselling author Candice Carty-Williams, actor Anna Shaffer and model and activist Arizona Muse, was to provide positive messaging around solutions.

That’s something Samata Pattinson, CEO of Red Carpet Green Dress, focuses on in her own work and hopes to start seeing more of throughout the industry. “When we talk about sustainability within the fashion industry, we talk about enabling everyone involved in creating that fashion to remain in healthy contact with their culture and identity,” she says.

CANOPY

The groundswell of support for and interest in regenerative agriculture, with its potential for both positive environmental impacts and to connect communities to nature, is a good example of this, she says, while also emphasising that the farming concepts themselves are not new. “For many, this is about a return to values that we had before we were overrun with the consumerist mentality,” she says. “Fashion can be a vehicle to educate the masses about global cultures; it can be an opportunity for people to learn about their neighbours from across the oceans and it has the opportunity to do it in an extremely exciting and engaging way.”

That’s where a growing number of advocates want to see brands and designers using their influence. Kolade, for instance, questions why celebrities don’t repeat outfits more often — which could help shift the culture away from desiring newness all the time — and why fashion shows don’t spotlight sustainability as a central and fashionable theme, instead of continuing to sideline it for only the most attuned observer to learn about. Others say there could be opportunities for fashion to promote, rather than simply accommodate, resale and rental models, and more generally to replace messages of consumption with values-based themes and lifestyles.

Pattinson reflects on the work and legacy of Alexander McQueen. “He had a way of making his clothes a cultural commentary that got people talking, thinking and reflecting. This is an important conversation to be having, showing that sustainability is about a cultural value and priority that’s placed on every participant in the conversation, not just the privileged few,” she says.

She challenges brands today to step up and define themselves as purpose-led businesses, and be clear about what that purpose is. “If your purpose as a brand is purely based on monetary measures, your culture will reflect that internally and it will be what you project out, too,” she says. “Our purpose is to redefine sustainability from a perception and accessibility perspective — helping people find themselves in the conversation is crucial.”

By Rachel Cernansky from Vogue Business.

November 24, 2021