London Fashion Week – Fashion Industry Turning its Back on Unsustainable Practices

London Fashion Week September 13-17, never fails to bring haute couture and glamour to the capital, with the likes of Victoria Beckham and Burberry amongst the 250 designers showcasing their brands. It was launched by the British Fashion Council in 1983, and is now one of the world’s top four fashion events. In recent years it has become more responsive to environmental concerns. These have increased considerably over the last year when global concern about waste and excessive consumerism led to ground-breaking international legislative action against plastic pollution and climate change. But with Extinction Rebellion planning a peaceful protest during London Fashion Week, we cover the issues we need to be aware of.

The sustainable fashion movement is not just concerned with wasteful consumerism but a overhaul of the whole system and a focus on ecology and ethical practices. The fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world; it accounts for 10 per cent of the global carbon footprint and every year produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the aviation and shipping industries combined. It also ranks second in the list of freshwater polluters. Over-production, synthetic fibres and failure to regulate waste disposal are amongst the contributory causes.

Throwaway consumer culture is the movement’s main focus because it is an area where we have immediate, individual responsibility. We do not need to wait for governments to pass legislation or outline policy for us to make a decision to buy less or make better use of what we have. According to a study by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we bin 2m tonnes of garments every year and faced with this ‘fast fashion’ era of low prices and ever-changing trends we need to be more selective. Quality over quantity. Cut price bargains may seem great but the fact it’s become a disposable industry rather than a luxury-orientated one has caused over production and waste.

London Fashion Week, model Hedi Naimi

Fashion fads need cheap labour and speedy means of production to keep up with demand and therefore make a profit. Environmentalist are concerned about the never-ending cycle of fashion trends which change according to colour, season, big brand marketing or celebrity endorsement – and the throwing away of outdated clothes merely because they are not the ‘in thing’.

Tied to this are the working conditions and pay of those churning out these garments in factories were the emphasis is speed and quantity. Prices are being driven down and the Asian countries meeting this demand are often paying poverty wages and have little environmental regulation. Research by IndustriALL shows 90% of such garment workers have no means of renegotiating these low wages. Certainly, most UK garments come from these countries.

There are also concerns about synthetic fibres used in polyester and nylon. Polyester gives off the same sort of micro plastics as the shopping bag waste getting all the headlines. It enters our waterways and then the bodies of fish, with scientists concerned these micro-pollutants will end up in our food chain. Moreover, polyester is created using fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum which give off air pollutants and increase carbon emissions.

London Fashion Week, model Hedi Naimi

However, even natural fibres harm the environment where garments and textiles are over-produced at this current unsustainable rate. There is an agricultural impact because of use of pesticides on cotton crops and wasteful use of water resources. The Aral Sea region of Kazakhstan is fast-becoming a desert solely because of the massive amounts of water sucked out of the sea to irrigate cotton fields. Toxic waste water from both natural and synthetic garment production is also an issue. These factories often dump this wastewater in rivers so arsenic, mercury and lead poison marine life and contamination levels if not reversed will spread to the world’s oceans.

So how is the fashion industry responding to this desire for change? Independent companies and super brands alike have shifted towards the fast-growing green market and a preference for natural and organic fibres which can be produced without fossil fuels. It’s a step in the right direction. Fashion researchers claim 50% of people seek out companies that are environmentally-aware while the number is even higher amongst young people – 60% of under 24 year olds.

The government has led the way with a sustainable clothing action plan and signed up major retailers such as Primark and Next, committed to reducing their carbon footprint and tackling waste. Both these companies also have clothing recycling schemes, with the M&S shwopping scheme one of the first in the UK. It has partnered with Oxfam to encourage shoppers to hand over unused garments which are then passed on to the charity, resold or recycled.

Amongst the London Fashion Week regulars, Stella McCartney tops the list of eco-friendly luxury brands. Her parents were passionate animal rights and environment advocates and, similarly, Stella ensures sustainability is the no.1 priority in her fashion line and uses natural fibres and ethcially-sourced products. She uses no materials from animals, slaughtered or otherwise, so the nation’s sheep can rest easy with their woolly coats. She’s made a point of being a signed up member of the Ethical Trading Initiative and is attentive about what happens along the supply line as regards fair pay and working conditions. Setting the standard for the rest of the industry? She probably is.

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Eddie Saint-Jean

Eddie Saint-Jean is an arts reviewer with a background in art theory, film and theatre.

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