Solidarity in sustainability: Fashion's new generation of eco-responsibility

Collaboration, integration and evolution were top of the agenda for a panel on “Sustainable Style: Fashion for the future” on Tuesday evening,  on the final day of the international fashion season.

Among the diverse subjects covered were creative accountability, material innovation and attitudes to consumption. And it was certainly a timely discussion, in light of the day’s events - Chanel’s extravagant use of real trees in its AW18 show that morning had been condemned by French ecologists as “heresy which goe to show the lack of consideration for the environment in the luxury industry.”

L - R: Claire Bergkamp, Frances Corner, Godfrey Deeny, Marie-Claire Deveu, Tamsin Lejeune - Photo: British Fashion Council, Darren Gerrish

Hosted by the British Embassy at the Hotel de Charost, the residence of the British ambassador on Paris’s upscale rue Saint Honoré, four fashion sustainability heavyweights discussed these key areas for progress in a debate moderated by’s Global Editor-in-Chief, Godfrey Deeny.

The expert panel assembled by the British Embassy included Marie-Claire Deveu who is Kering’s chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs; Stella McCartney’s head of sustainability and ethical trade Claire Bergkamp; the head of the London College of Fashion, Frances Corner; and Tamsin Lejeune, CEO and founder of the  Ethical Fashion Forum and networking platform Common Objective.

Among the broad-ranging issues, one theme in particular emerged: solidarity in sustainability. Eco-responsibility in fashion has undergone a profound shift from fashionable issue to actionable, collaborative strategy, eagerly communicated to consumers and investors alike - and it saw a host of joint projects taking off in 2017.

Championing its initiatives in the sector was French luxury titan and Gucci parent company Kering. The group has teamed up with other major fashion players to promote change within the industry, including on the creation of a MOOC (massive open online course), called 'Fashion and Sustainability: Understanding Luxury Fashion in a Changing World', with the London College of Fashion.

“We are convinced that we need to be a more eco-resilient business model,” explained Kering's Deveu in front of an impressive guest line-up including the British Fashion Council’s Caroline Rush; Alice Temperley; and Katharine Hamnett. She added: “We are very conscious of the fact that if we want to change the paradigm, it won’t be possible to do it alone. So that’s why we think it’s important to involve other people.” She also revealed that the next step for the course, set to launch on 9 April, will be to take it worldwide - with a first translation into Chinese - and widen its accessibility.

“People were shocked that it’s free,” added Frances Corner. “But everyone on this panel believes in collaboration… and [we] are prepared to share the knowledge that we have with the world. It’s a marker of a new approach to the issue.”


Driven by increased accountability and transparency on social media, increased cooperation is perhaps the natural outcome of the level of authenticity and new methods of communication that consumers demand from brands. Following a widely publicised casting debacle last year at Balenciaga (a Kering-owned label), the group has also moved to introduce the model wellbeing charter in conjunction with fellow luxury powerhouse LVMH. “They said yes [to the partnership] immediately,” Deveu said with satisfaction. “Our ambition, with LVMH, is to have other groups and other brands all over the world join us and apply this charter. If you want to change the industry you need to have collaboration.”

To facilitate such collaboration, as well as grassroots discussion of ethical issues among industry professionals, Tamsin Lejeune has spearheaded the development of an online platform, Common Objective. The online business networking site and ‘matching engine’ is an initiative focused on connecting businesses and individuals committed to building sustainable practices. It's an approach that may prove particularly valuable for a new generation of fashion entrepreneurs looking to ethical production as the way forward. “We’ve had a lot of young female graduates setting up businesses, wanting to come up with a new model,” said Corner, noting that of these new LCF fashion graduates, 85% are female.

And Deveu conceded that at Kering, the approach is top down - and that collaboration sometimes means compromise. Kering brands are accountable to the group’s three-pillar strategy, but asked whether the designers themselves are held responsible, Deveu admitted that it’s a balancing act. “It’s a long journey. [The Kering designers] are really convinced by sustainability but it has to be seen not as a constraint but as an opportunity for them to stimulate their creativity. Our challenge is less for the designers but more for our operations to be able to answer their requests for creativity and to give them the raw material for the products with the highest quality... and minimum impact. You have to pay attention not to kill the creativity.”

At Stella McCartney, sustainability also starts with production - and it’s also at that stage that there’s room for innovative partnerships. The British label is currently working with Bolt Threads in Silicon Valley, California, a start-up that has raised $123 million in funding for its synthetic silk business. “You can start to engineer properties that we’ve never seen in silk [from silkworms],” explained Bergkamp. “That’s where we’re moving into with collaborations with biotech firms. It’s not just fashion-to-fashion, it’s looking outside of our own industry to learn from tech, and from all types of industries.” The fashion house has also signed a deal with California-based luxury consignment site The RealReal in an effort to encourage the recycling of unwanted garments beyond the point of sale.

But for all the talk of business-to-business collaboration, there is one group that has to evolve as well - the consumer. “We tend to think of The Consumer as ‘someone over there somewhere’,” said Corner. “But actually, it’s us.” A consumer asking the difficult questions, according to Corner, can serve as a catalyst.

“The way that we consume is a result of the way the industry has provided us with product. And it can be reversed,” concluded Lejeune.

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