The not-so-fun fact about fashion: The multi-trillion-dollar apparel business is one of the biggest polluters on the planet. For years, in fact, experts argued that it was the second dirtiest industry in the world, behind only fossil fuels. While the provability of that specific claim has been called into question in the last year or so, what's clear is that fashion certainly isn't doing Mother Nature any favors.
Each year, the world is threatened by billions of pounds of clothing pumped into landfill sites, not to mention the use of synthetic fibers and the needless overconsumption of fast fashion — and these issues are only worsening. According to a 2018 report from environmental sustainability group Quantis, fashion's climate change impact increased by 35 percent between 2005 and 2016, "driven by shifts in materials used, consumption habits and production locations."
But fashion's wastefulness reaches further than just clothing. Instagram is awash with images of individuals' invitations to shows, presentations and parties, most recently during Paris Couture Week and New York Fashion Week: Men's, the latter of which ran through Wednesday. It's ironic that such images of industry wastefulness are glorified in the digital age, when brands are ostensibly attempting to embrace sustainable approaches to design in order to create a more ethical future and lessen the environmental damage caused by fashion. In the past year, luxury brands like Gucci, Versace and Michael Kors all pledged to go fur-free; men's streetwear retailer Noah goes out of its way to reduce its paper and packaging waste
Fashion show tickets have long been emblematic of industry hierarchy. Only the select few chosen to attend the shows receive them, while only the upper echelon of brands require them for access to shows. These invitations can range from thick sheets of embossed card stock to handwritten tickets; in some cases, they can be beach balls, balloons and leather sleeves. At Milan Fashion Week Men's latest installment this past June, Dolce & Gabbana sent their guests a functional tablet which played a video about their men's clothing; Plein Sport sent a tube of tennis balls; Prada sent a cardboard box which, when opened, left a surplus of packaging.
Tickets have no serviceable purpose after the show, destined for one grave: the trash. They are left on benches in show venues for PR firms to dispose of. I once discovered an abandoned invite on the cobbled courtyard at Somerset House, when London Fashion Week was held there, many moons ago.
"It's no secret that these invites just end up getting tossed in the trash in huge piles, and it's become such a blatant sign of unnecessary excess in this industry," says Clara Jeon, co-founder of Chapter 2 Agency, a New York-based public relations firm. "As much as a physical invite can be so beautifully and thoughtfully done, and a great experience to receive, opting to use digital invitations and tickets is one of the easier actions we can make as an industry to become more sustainable and reduce waste."
As of 2014, The World Count reported that 50 percent of waste produced by businesses is comprised of paper, while 93 percent of paper comes from trees. At a fashion show, this can mean the invitation, the press release and the show notes page. But per Statista, an online statistics and market research portal, the global production of both paper and cardboard rang in at approximately 407 million metric tons in 2014. It's no secret our trees are disappearing, and for a myriad reasons that include bio fuels and mining. By the year 2030, The World Count estimates that we may only have 10 percent of rainforests left, and that can all disappear in a century. This, of course, poses a threat to humankind, as each tree has the capability of supplying enough oxygen to three people.
The brands that show at fashion week aren't the only ones to blame for this continued use of and demand for paper. There are also modeling agencies that distribute their signees' work with portfolios, or the books that catalogue a models' editorial and commercial work and are sent to casting directors to consider for various projects. Like invitations, a portfolio's functional lifespan is as short as the model is relevant, and their value in the world nil. Even successful candidates may find their portfolios tossed in the trash.
However, this is slowly beginning to change — at least for London-based casting director Adam Hindle, who has worked for Christopher Kane, Marni and Roberto Cavalli.
"Almost all portfolios are now sent and viewed online. I rarely get sent hard-copy model books. Models usually have a book, or an iPad with relevant app on it when they attend casting, so I can view books this way," says Hindle. "What we nearly always take from the models, as a reference that they have attended the casting, is their model card, or 'composite card.' We usually file some cards and recycle the others."
Fashion has a responsibility to send e-vites and press releases via email post-show, in lieu of producing unnecessary paper waste, and to do so soon. High-level editors and buyers are beginning to post calls to action on social media. Last month, Ted Stansfield, digital editor of U.K. publication Another Man, posted an open letter to Twitter that reads: "dear brands/PRs, please can you stop using physical tickets for fashion week? I just received a horrible plastic one which is honestly going to take about 450 years to biodegrade. It's such a waste and digital tickets are so much better/more practical anyway."
Of course, a paperless fashion week could lead to some complications. This shift may result in increased digital counterfeiting of tickets, necessitating stricter access to venues with photographic identification. But certain brands are already taking this on, and New York Fashion Week, in particular, is already widely paperless, having switched to the Launchmetrics system. (Though, many attendees are still forced to print out barcodes identical to those received via email, so it's not a perfect system quite yet.)
"I have several brands that have opted to solely send digital invitations to their shows and events as a conscious effort to reduce waste and streamline check in," says Jeon. "I know that some brands see physical invitations as an extension of the full show experience — and that's a choice that's up to each brand's designer and team — but I don't see it as absolutely necessary." There is also the incentive that brands would reduce their costs on printing, mail and packaging.
The show process is already largely paper-free for Chapter 2. "From invite lists to seating to sending out information to confirmations — everything is done digitally," says Jeon. "It's also often easier for our guests to look up show information on their phones than dig for a physical invite, too."
Could the broader organization Chapter 2 serves here in the U.S., the CFDA, begin by implementing a policy to reduce the level of paper waste at fashion week? The CFDA already works on making the red carpet a greener space, as seen at the 2018 CFDA Fashion Awards last month: In partnership with Lexus and Conscious Commerce co-founder Barbara Burchfield, the event sourced décor and menu items "with an eye to the environment," including an entirely sustainable tabletop. With an increased focus on such environmentally mindful practices, perhaps a paperless fashion week truly is the future of fashion. In fact, it's already started: "New York Fashion Week: Men's, which the CFDA produces, is paperless, and each season, we look for ways to decrease our carbon footprint," says CFDA president and CEO Steven Kolb via email.
But as is notoriously the case with the fashion industry at large, it's years behind on social change. (The anti-fur policies come nearly 40 years after the formation of prominent animal rights organizations, such as PETA, established in 1980.) But there is no time like the present. In June, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee announced that it had launched an inquiry to investigate the environmental cost of fashion — more specifically, to explore the "carbon impact, resource use and water footprint of clothing throughout its lifecycle and supply chain."
One must ask, when did it become fashionable to destroy the planet?
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