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The Sustainability Conversation Infiltrated the Red Carpet This Awards Season

Celebrities embraced it with varying degrees of success, but either way, it proved that a shift is happening.
Jane Fonda and Joaquin Phoenix at the 2020 Academy Awards bonding over re-wearing old outfits, probably.

Jane Fonda and Joaquin Phoenix at the 2020 Academy Awards bonding over re-wearing old outfits, probably.

When up-and-coming "Booksmart" starlet Kaitlyn Dever was asked about her dress at the Oscars red carpet on Sunday, she didn't just name-drop the famous brand that dressed her. She also name-dropped one of the buzziest words in fashion at the moment: sustainability.

"This is a completely sustainable dress by Louis Vuitton and I'm here supporting sustainable clothing," she told "E!" host Giuliana Rancic. "It's really important."

The term "completely sustainable" is, of course, debatable: its vagueness has oft been lamented by industry insiders, especially when used in place of more concrete, verifiable verbiage. What she could have said specifically was that the dress was made of Tencel, a wood pulp-derived fabric that's allegedly less water- and energy-intensive to produce than cotton.

But even if Dever wasn't as precise in her language as some environmentally savvy onlookers would've liked, the fact that she was bringing up sustainability on the red carpet at all signified a shift. There have always been a few outspoken animal rights activists showing up here or there, and even a few events like the Sustainable Style Awards and the Green Carpet Fashion Awards designed to bring sustainability and the red carpet together. But this awards season was the first where there were enough celebs considering the environmental impact of their clothing at mainstream awards shows to really communicate some sense of momentum.

Kaitlyn Dever in a Tencel Louis Vuitton dress at the 2020 Academy Awards.

Kaitlyn Dever in a Tencel Louis Vuitton dress at the 2020 Academy Awards.

"There is absolutely an undeniable new spotlight on sustainability on the red carpet, and that is a reflection of the times," says Samata, the CEO of Red Carpet Green Dress, an organization that's been pushing for more environmentally conscious choices on the red carpet for over a decade, via email. "There is more dialogue about eco-fashion within the fashion industry because the industry’s impact on the environment is so huge and undeniable... we are seeing it become part of everyday conversation."

It was arguably kicked off this awards cycle by Joaquin Phoenix at the Golden Globes, when it was announced that he would be wearing the same Stella McCartney suit for the entire season. While recycling the same outfit for more than one high-profile event isn't exactly unheard-of — Tiffany Haddish memorably did so with an Alexander McQueen gown in 2018, and she wasn't the first — it's still an unusual enough move that it made headlines.

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Phoenix was one of a number of celebrities who used his speech that night to call attention to climate breakdown, which felt especially pressing due to the onslaught of headlines about the ongoing bushfires in Australia. A day or two after the awards, "Fleabag" star Phoebe Waller-Bridge auctioned off the Ralph & Russo suit she wore on the red carpet to benefit charities responding to the bushfires.

In London, where environmental activism from groups like Extinction Rebellion has helped shape a more urgent climate conversation, the BAFTA Awards seemed like they might help add fuel to the engine. The organization issued a set of guidelines encouraging celebrities to re-wear old garments, opt for vintage or choose designers known for eco-conscious practices — only to have those guidelines ignored by almost everyone but Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, who re-wore an old dress.

At the Grammys, Maggie Rogers seemed to make a statement about disposability by carrying a fancy reusable water bottle — and though some might have poked fun at her for calling her Chanel dress from the 2014 Métiers d'Art collection "vintage," the fact that she was proudly wearing something that wasn't fresh off the runway still sent a message about how aspirational newness is (or isn't). And at the SAG AwardsJennifer Aniston opted to wear vintage, too.

But the Oscars, the biggest and highest-profile of the awards shows, featured more nods in this direction than any other. Kaitlyn Dever's Tencel gown was one of three dresses that came out of a partnership with Red Carpet Green Dress. This year, RCGD partnered with Good On You, an organization best known for having produced an app that ranks brands based on their ethics. (The other dresses from the collaboration, also Louis Vuitton, were worn by Léa Seydoux and Elena Andreichevna, according to a press release. All involved Tencel as part of an official partnership with Lenzing, the company behind the material.) 

Kim Kardashian in vintage Alexander McQueen at the Vanity Fair Oscars 2020 after party. 

Kim Kardashian in vintage Alexander McQueen at the Vanity Fair Oscars 2020 after party. 

Costume designer Arianne Phillips wore an upcycled version of her 2012 Academy Awards dress, which was made by Moschino, in partnership with Red Carpet Advocacy and the New Standards Institute. Saoirse Ronan wore a Gucci look, made in part from the same fabric as her BAFTAs dress. Margot Robbie, Joanne Stucker (Adam Driver's wife) and Vanessa Nadal (Lin Manuel-Miranda's wife) wore vintage Chanel, Oscar de la Renta and Alexander McQueen, respectively. Not to be outdone, Kim Kardashian West showed up in vintage Alexander McQueen from one of the late Lee McQueen's most iconic shows. And Timothée Chalamet's Prada ensemble — while not his most popular red carpet look — was made of recycled nylon.

Perhaps most striking of all, however, were the re-wears. There was Joaquin Phoenix, of course. But there was also Elizabeth Banks, who donned the same red Badgley Mischka dress she wore to the Vanity Fair after party in 2004, "to bring global awareness to the importance of sustainability in fashion and consumerism as it relates to climate change, production & consumption, ocean pollution, labor & women," according to her Instagram. Huffington Post founder Arianna Huff re-wore a dress from the 2013 to the same party, and Laura Dern donned a vintage Armani gown she first started wearing in 1990 to attend. Meanwhile Jane Fonda — recently in favor with activists everywhere for her willingness to participate in, and be arrested repeatedly at, climate protests in Washington D.C. — re-wore an Elie Saab dress she was first picked for Cannes in 2014.

What will all of this mean for the future of environmentally-responsible fashion on the red carpet? With the relative flop at the BAFTAs and what appeared to be a lack of real sustainability literacy from even some of the celebs actively opting into the conversation, it's certainly too soon to claim that eco-conscious choices on the red carpet are "taking over." But still, for those used to seeing celebrities strut through every awards cycle without the barest mention of how their clothing choices might be affecting the environment, the shift registered this season is reason for hope that awareness might be growing amongst Hollywood's elite.

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