What responsibility does the luxury sector have to lead the fashion industry in sustainability? This is the question posed to a panel of fashion’s thought leaders, including ORDRE co-founder and chief executive Simon P. Lock, sustainability consultant Julie Gilhart, Laurent Claquin, head of Kering Americas and Eva Kruse, chief executive of Global Fashion Agenda, at Remode in LA. In short, the sector has a lot to answer for.
“Everyone is convinced that sustainability is a necessity and not a luxury, but for the luxury industry it’s a duty,” opened Kering’s Claquin — who believes that luxury products should, by their very nature, be inherently sustainable. “When you think about luxury you think about creativity, quality, craftsmanship and the preservation of craftsmanship, exclusivity... all these words are also associated with sustainability.”
Kruse, who launched the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in 2009 contributed to the debate by adding, “We believe that the luxury sector is where sustainability would thrive the most, because it’s something that we expect from products that we pay a lot of money for...The rest of the industry is looking towards [the luxury sector] — they are setting the trends and leading the runway shows — the sector has an obligation to lead the way.”
As ORDRE co-founder and CEO Simon P. Lock explains, technology will play a vital role in the creation of a more sustainable industry for both consumers and makers. “We’re starting to use technology to better understand apparel online, so when consumers understand this, they make better purchases and the return rates go down,” Lock explained. “Therefore, we don’t need to have couriers running around all over the world.” These advancements in technology are also helping designers too, he advocates. “We’re seeing the use of 3D animation in the design of sampling. You can create a virtual sample, put in a virtual showroom, without having to spend millions of dollars on fabric sampling, manufacturing, and the resources that goes along with that.”
A major challenge to the weaving of technology and sustainability into the system seems to be in updating complex supply chains and archaic business models within luxury brands, which are often rooted in heritage and tradition. “A lot of what has stalled the luxury business is that it’s so hard to undo a lot of the practices that they’ve had for decades,” sustainability expert Gilhart added. “They’re also very afraid of not being 100 percent perfect [at becoming sustainable] — I’m a big believer in doing something and not expecting to change everything in a day.”
“The elephant in the room is consumption. How much more do we really need?”
Indeed, Lock conceded that this has been a challenge to pitching ORDRE’s future-focused concept to luxury leaders. “I spend most of my time convincing luxury brands to change their antiquated practices, to move and embrace technology in a new way,” he said. “It’s not that they don’t believe in technology — the evidence is there, you can see how powerfully it can be directed towards a brand — but it’s often the change in business practices which is the most difficult thing.”
While the sustainability discussion has been gathering momentum within the fashion industry, Kruse points out that communication must now spread further than the industry to truly have an impact. “We have had this discussion internally in the past 10 years, and now we need to take it to the mainstream level,” she said. Additionally, Kruse raised one under-considered issue which is at the crux of the whole debate. “The elephant in the room is consumption. How much more do we really need?” she asked the room.
“That in itself is always the most difficult question to talk about in an industry that thrives off creating a need that we don’t even have. I think there’s an opportunity for the luxury sector right here — brands have an opportunity to speak to customers about purchasing less, buying smart, buying products you really care for and keep them longer.”
“I deeply believe we can grow in a sustainable way — I don’t think they’re two opposite worlds”
While research shows that consumers are taking sustainability into their purchasing considerations, (BoF’s 2018 State of Fashion report showed that 66 percent of Millennials were willing to spend more on ethical fashion), Gilhart believes it would be irresponsible to put the responsibility wholly on the customer. “We can’t wait for them to change their ideas of consumption — luxury has to stand for that thing that is aspirational, and [the sector needs to] invest in and look at ways to use what we have, so that were not going to waste more materials.”
Ending the discussion on a positive note, the group agreed that the relationship between the luxury sector and sustainability has a promising future. “I deeply believe we can grow [the sector] in a sustainable way — I don’t think they’re two opposite worlds,” said Claquin. “When you do it in a sustainable way, you not only decrease your negative impact but you can create a positive impact… When I see the number of innovative startups in this market today — with their combination of new materials, new business models and artificial intelligence — that is going to create the luxury of tomorrow.”