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Just How Bad is NYFW for the Environment? A New CFDA Report Tries To Find Out

Some of what's in it may surprise you.
A scene from Christian Siriano's Spring 2021 collection.

A scene from Christian Siriano's Spring 2021 collection.

Just because Covid-19 has come onto the scene doesn't mean that people have forgotten about the other looming crisis facing humanity: climate change. In fact, according to one Yale study, Americans are as interested in it as ever.

Against that backdrop, it makes sense that CFDA is releasing its first-ever report on the state of sustainability at New York Fashion Week on Thursday (despite the fact that the pandemic altered the Spring 2021 season in about a million different ways). The report, which was first announced in February, is the result of a partnership with Boston Consulting Group to assess the environmental impact of NYFW.

"We recognize that making NYFW more sustainable is but a mere drop in the bucket compared to the fashion industry as a whole; but it can serve as a bellwether for changes," said Sarah Willersdorf, BCG's global head of luxury, in a press release. "Sustainability is not a nice-to-have anymore. It is essential both for our planet and for the long term prosperity of the fashion industry."

The 56-page report attempts to break down where NYFW's environmental impact is the largest and offers suggestions about how fashion-week stakeholders could reduce that footprint.

Some of the CFDA and BCG's findings are unsurprising — like the fact that transportation, including the air travel required by many attendees to get to the city, makes up the largest percentage of NYFW's overall footprint. The new report estimates that air travel is responsible for between 37,830 and 44,520 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each season. 

This far outweighs the next largest source of greenhouse gas emissions for NYFW, which come from either accommodations for guests (between 850 to 1,480 metric tons) or production of the collection itself (between 710 to 900). Meanwhile, set production and transportation contribute only 40 to 120 metric tons, says the study.

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The report claims that production is the category in which "stakeholders are doing the most to be more sustainable." Brands may focus on this category because runway sets attract more attention as potential sources of environmental harm — perhaps because they're so much easier to see and imagine ending up as pollution than the invisible greenhouse gases that helped transport everyone. 

Other insights are more subtle. One page in the report explores the idea that "sustainability" in fashion is a dynamic, ever-evolving concept, pointing to the way the language used to discuss it has changed over time. In 2013, for example, sustainability was mostly talked about in terms of manufacturing. Three years later, it shifted to waste. By 2019, sustainability narratives had changed once again to focus most on climate change and water usage.

The brand leaders surveyed for the study say that customers, investors and industry associations — as opposed to the government or their own employees — were the groups most responsible for driving industry change in the direction of sustainability. But while many acknowledge that the call-to-action is there from their customers, sustainability remains merely one concern among many, rather than a guiding principle impacting every decision. 

Arguably the most eye-opening finding from the report is in regards to how customers and citizens alike order their sustainability priorities. Among consumers, biodegradable products and packaging are the highest priority, with 48% of respondents saying they consider the practice important. Meanwhile, ethical treatment of the people who actually make the clothing scored lower: Only 39% of consumers say fair/ethical labor practices are important, and commitment to health/safety practices for workers got the lowest score, with only 36% of consumers seeing them as a priority.

Interestingly, brands rate almost every single sustainability priority much lower than consumers do. The highest priority for brands is use of recycled/waste/scrap materials at 35%, with fair/ethical labor practices following at 27%. This means that, relative to other priorities, brands think ethical labor is more important — but they still see it as being less important than their customers think it is. Furthermore, only 19% of brands see a commitment to health/safety practices for workers as important. It seems that both customers and brands are losing sight of the human impact of fashion when they're considering sustainability.

The report doesn't end there, though. It also points out ways that NYFW could work towards remedying the holes in its sustainability efforts, highlighting the kinds of digital shows that this season normalized (which don't require many flights), advising brands to collaborate on decreasing between-venue transportation and encouraging them to incentivize things like ride sharing. It also points to carbon offseting as a way to lower overall metric tons of greenhouse gases being counted. (It should be noted that Gabriela Hearst, a longtime champion of the sometimes-controversial practice, served on the report steering committee).

Fashion's faced a problem with hard-to-back-up data in the past when legitimate-sounding entities have put out reports with impossible-to-verify numbers in them, and the industry would do well to keep that history in mind and take any new report with a grain of salt. But even as that process of double-checking facts and matching claims begins, this effort by the CFDA and BCG is a win at least in that it signifies the beginning of what one can only hope is the industry beginning to move toward more measuring – and therefore mitigation – of its environmental impacts.

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