High-end fashion is synonymous with luxury. For most, images of swanky catwalks, exclusive galas, and intricate yet unaffordable garments spring to mind. These are the designers who prevail billboards and dominate the features in Vogue and other magazines. Typically, they are labels known for their quality, desirability and a haute couture approach to the fashion industry.
This luxury and exclusivity, however, comes at a price. The global fashion industry is responsible for a significant ten percent of the world’s carbon emissions and pollution annually, thus being one of the worst contributors in impacting global climate change. Although to most this figure may be synonymous with the unsustainable nature of the fast fashion industry, high-end fashion labels are by no means exempt from creating an environmental footprint. This is particularly prevalent when sourcing ‘luxury’ materials, or dealing with multiple collections per year and the over-purchasing of stock. What high-end labels do have, however, are the resources, financial and beyond, to be able to prioritise sustainability within their ethos, and set the bar for other leading fashion powerhouses to follow suit.
One high-end fashion powerhouse following this and striving to prioritise sustainability is British label Stella McCartney, a brand with its aims surrounding sustainable development and engagement within the fashion industry. Through the development of breakthrough techniques throughout both the supply chain and the designs themselves, McCartney’s label has reached a number of admirable sustainable milestones. These range from the publication of the global Environmental Profit and Loss (EP&L) , to the development and creation of entirely new materials for their garments, such as sustainable viscose polyester instead of leather and animal-based materials, in order to have less harmful environmental effects.
The brand’s development of regenerated cashmere is a particular milestone in terms of sustainability, as this regeneration of the material’s production takes it from being one of the most environmentally damaging luxury materials to produce, to having an 87% reduction in environmental impact. By setting sustainability as the number one priority of the brand, Stella McCartney has created a force for good in one of the world’s most environmentally damaging sectors.
Nevertheless, it is not just major fashion names that are looking to make a difference. Although it may be a greater priority for some larger brands to tick sustainability boxes, largely due to being in the public and commercial eye, this does not mean smaller high-fashion brands are exempt. If anything, many smaller luxury labels are the best for prioritising sustainability, as there are likely to be less concerns over needs for mass production. Take the lesser known Brooklyn based label Brother Vellies, caught in the media’s eye recently for dressing congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the 2021 Met Gala. Instead of putting their products on sale, the value of the brand’s garments is assessed based on materials and fair labour practices, which are not affected by traditional commercial consumption cycles, thus limiting waste as greatly as possible. This is an extremely sustainable way for fashion to be produced.
However, high-end fashion is unsurprisingly not guilt free when it comes to sustainability. Although there are designers who clearly prioritise this within their ethos, there are others that fail to meet the mark. Take Burberry as an example, a classic British staple, known for its timeless trench coats and checkered designs. Although the brand pride themselves on contributing to the sustainable development goals (SCGS), with a dedication to reduce environmental footprint and enable social progress, a history of their relationship with the environment argues otherwise. In 2017 alone, the brand burned £28.6 million worth of stock in order to dispose of outdated items and make way for new collections. Not only does this reflect a blindsided lack of environmental consciousness, but it reflects little respect towards the resources that have gone into the creation of their collections. There is no doubt that issues of excess stock will always arise, but this does not mean disposing of it is the only solution. Donations to outlets and resale brands are far more sustainable alternatives.
Exclusive designer brands are not blindsided to backlash they have received on the pertinent topic of sustainability. Reprisal from activist groups such as Greenpeace in 2018 over this particular incident led to Burberry confirming they would “reuse, repair, donate or recycle” all products that were no longer saleable and in need of disposing. However, it should not take press and media attention for these changes to be made. Like Stella McCartney has achieved, these brands need to develop an environmental and sustainable conscience into their ethos. Kirsten Brodde, leader of the Detox My Fashion campaign, argues that overstock is the key issue, and this roots back to the source that is production. Her solution? “By slowing down production and rethinking the way [the high fashion industry] does business”.
Although it is easier for smaller-scale designer brands to prioritise sustainability in terms of production levels, this is no excuse for their powerhouse counterparts, as sustainability is not a luxury, it is a necessity. The biggest names in the fashion industry are the ones with access to the greatest levels of resources, opportunities and financial back up to ensure they incorporate an environmental conscience into their companies as greatly as possible. Labels who aren’t at least making some effort to do so, should strive to do better.