When Karl Lagerfeld staged a runway presentation around a Chanel-branded rocket ship — complete with moving liftoff effect — in the spring of 2017, it inspired a flurry of awe-filled Instagram posts and reviews from attendees. Almost none of the coverage touched on the environmental footprint of constructing a building-sized prop for the sake of a show that would last 20 minutes.
Just three years later, that response is nearly unthinkable.
These are the days of brands boasting about "carbon neutrality," of Extinction Rebellion protestors calling for the shutdown of London Fashion Week and of luxury labels wanting attendees to note that their seats will be recycled after the show. Climate apocalypse feels closer than ever, and fashion is sitting up and taking notice. The dialogue has shifted so much that in a recent survey, 61% of fashion week participants reported feeling some guilt about the toll the whole event, and their involvement in it, takes on the environment.
So what should be done?
For some, taking that question seriously leaves room for only one answer: Runway shows have got to go. This is the approach advocated for by outsider activists like Extinction Rebellion, but it's also been adopted by some insiders, too.
The Swedish Fashion Council made waves in July by announcing that it would be canceling Stockholm Fashion Week indefinitely. "Claiming that we are aware of the problem [and] repeating what we have done in the past will not allow the necessary change to happen," Jennie Rosén, the organization's CEO, tells Fashionista in an email. "Switching from regular to organic cotton is not gonna cut it; neither will yet another fashion week in organic suiting."
Instead, Rosén argues, brands should be willing to imagine a future beyond the runway. The Swedish Fashion Council is committed to setting up a new format for supporting local brands that Rosén claims "will not be comparable to a 'fashion week,' nor is [that] what the industry needs."
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The Swedish Fashion Council's approach is noteworthy for its boldness, but it's perhaps unsurprising that no other major fashion week has yet to follow Stockholm's lead. Often, the dilemma is framed as a simple financial equation: If the runway show drives significant sales or awareness for brands, then it isn't going anywhere.
There are some who argue in favor of fashion week on the premise that it could actually have a more significant, positive impact on the environment by continuing — albeit in a different, much more sustainability-focused format — than by ceasing to exist entirely. Copenhagen Fashion Week is one such proponent: It introduced a sustainability requirement for any brands wishing to show on its schedule this season and promised to reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions by 50% over the next three years.
To some activists, there's a tension inherent in the idea of creating a sustainability event that people fly from all over the world to attend. By the estimation of Copenhagen Fashion Week's carbon calculating partner Climaider (called Rensti in Denmark), the international flights booked by the event's attendees are by far the biggest source of carbon emissions connected to the gathering. Even if a brand opts to use local models, there are still the flights of all the international influencers, editors and buyers to account for — and the travel of the latter category alone is responsible for about 241,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year, according to a recent report. That's comparable to the annual emissions of a small country.
Still, CEO of Copenhagen Fashion Week Cecilie Thorsmark believes the flights are worth it if the event significantly propels sustainability forward in the industry.
"If we, through our requirements, manage to actually drive change in the industry, then we are going to have a bigger impact then cancelling travel [would have]," she says in a phone interview. "We're [trying to] use the influence that we have."
Thorsmark's defense isn't too far off from the argument often used by climate scientists to justify flying to conferences to present research papers. The same dilemma faces every sustainability convening in the world that tries to have global reach, from the Conference of the Parties (COP) to various U.N. gatherings.
Dr. Arvind Ravikumar, an Assistant Professor of Energy Engineering at Harrisburg University who studies environmental and energy policy, says that whether an event's sustainability aims justify the flights it involves is up to every individual and organization to decide for themselves. He points out that when participants are primarily from developed nations in the West, there ought to be a greater sense of responsibility "to undo the decades of emitting carbon pollution into the atmosphere." Considering that the biggest fashion weeks on the calendar are all held in industrialized Western nations, this point is particularly relevant.
Still, he argues, there's plenty of merit to Thorsmark's perspective.
"If the conference ended up moving major fashion houses into developing a sustainable supply chain for their creations or force[d] them to reduce the carbon footprint of their operations, I'd say it would have been worth it," Ravikumar tells Fashionista via email.
Though Paris Fashion Week hasn't gone quite as far as Copenhagen in trying to establish itself as a sustainability authority, it too is starting to invest in tracking its own emissions. French fashion's governing body, the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, is currently experimenting with a new tool designed to track the "environmental, social and economic impact of PFW," according to Executive President Pascal Morand.
"[The tool] aims to take into account the following areas of impact (not exhaustive): transport, decor and scenography, communication and media, energy, choice of venue and catering," Morand notes in an email to Fashionista.
This list hints at a few of the many ways runway shows can shrink their impact. They can take place in venues that don't require elaborate sets or energy-sucking heat lamps (the latter of which are often required at outdoor locations in winter) and that are near train stations (an incentive for attendees to take public transit over fossil fuel-guzzling cars). If food will be involved, plant-based menus have a smaller footprint than meat-heavy ones. Avoiding goodie bags, merch, single-use plastic and paper invites also cuts out unnecessary waste.
Not building a set at all is perhaps the lowest-impact option. But if a brand does opt to incorporate newly-built pieces on a runway, they can make sure the raw materials end up with an organization that can re-use them, which is crucial to building a circular economy that extends beyond clothing. In Paris, La Réserve des Arts picks up used set pieces that are then offered to its members — often local art and design students — to incorporate into their own creations. This keeps about 300 tons of material out of landfill every Paris Fashion Week according to Sandrine Andreini, La Réserve's Director.
"Usually at fashion week, there's the show, and then people destroy everything and throw it away and it's done," she tells Fashionista. "It could be textiles, leather, wood, plexiglass... We come, try to protect the materials as much as possible and then we put the materials in trucks. About 90% of those are going to have new life through our members."
La Réserve was inspired by New York City's Materials for the Arts, which has also been working with brands on its fashion shows for years. Harriet Taub, the group's Executive Director, says that the donations they receive can be game-changing for public schools and other chronically underfunded organizations. Donations can take a variety of forms, like the extra-tall lucite chairs Marc Jacobs used to seat showgoers in 2018 that Materials for the Arts diverted to a local school that needed tall seats for the last row of their jazz band.
"If you can come to Materials for the Arts and get five chairs or two desks so you can save yourself $2,000, maybe now you can put that into programming money, hiring a part-time staff person or buying materials that you wouldn't be able to get from us," Taub says. "Those savings can be transformational to the budget of a small organization."
Materials for the Arts is also willing to work with brands on the front end of show production. Taub mentions that Bureau Betak, the production company famous for such highly-Instagrammable runways as the Jacquemus lavender field in Provence, approached the organization as it looked for recycled materials to use in Gabriela Hearst's Fall 2020 show. Though Bureau Betak ended up going with a different source for its materials for logistical reasons, its interest in working to make its events more sustainable says something about where the industry is headed.
Ultimately, though, the impact of one runway show is a drop in the bucket in comparison to the overall carbon footprint of any given brand.
Géraldine Vallejo, Sustainability Program Director at Kering (parent company to Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Balenciaga), estimates that a brand's supply chain accounts for upwards of 90% of its overall impact. With that in mind, focusing too much on what happened to the chairs at a show or how many people flew in to see the collection might seem like a distraction from the bigger issue.
But it also might be the seed that grows into something far larger and more powerful: the normalization of emissions tracking in an industry that has been content not understanding its own environmental impact for far too long. The lack of reliable data about this is so glaring that whole institutes have been created to combat it, but the problem — and the circulation of misinformation — persists.
It's the symbolic power of the runway show, more than its actual footprint, that convinced climate consultancy EcoAct to work with Gabriela Hearst on creating the first-ever "carbon neutral" show last season.
"Events are a smaller part of our business," explains William Theisen, CEO of EcoAct North America. "What I really liked about Gabriela Hearst was the statement it was making, and that's why we decided to support them on this."
Already, it seems the gamble has paid off: Since working with Hearst in the fall (the two companies partnered again for Hearst's February show), Theisen says, EcoAct has seen an increase in inquiries from fashion brands — including some "very well-known luxury brands" — looking to track their own impacts. The most noteworthy part? They're not just looking to track the impact of one show. They're hoping to measure their carbon footprint company-wide and start reducing it.
If all the hubbub about the environmental impact of fashion shows can inspire more of that far-reaching change, Thorsmark and Dr. Ravikumar may just turn out to be right about fashion week's power to drive sustainability in a manner that could justify its existence. If not, Extinction Rebellion and Stockholm Fashion Week's approach will continue look more compelling. Either way, one thing's clear: continuing to measure and reduce emissions is a must for any brand.
"We all know that we have to take action," Thorsmark says. "You might as well get started now."