Medias more and more talk about sustainability – eating organic food, recycling, avoiding wasting. Sustainable development is also a big question in fashion. Elise is the winner of the Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion and she explains to us what sustainable fashion means.
People usually work in fashion because it’s prestigious, and creative. Why have you chosen sustainable development?
First, I studied interior design and industrial design. I was really interested in sustainable development, recycling, compost… After an internship in fashion that I really liked, I decided to enter the “Fashion Future” course of the London College of Fashion to sharpen my knowledge in that area. It’s a specific course dedicated to fashion and sustainable development. To me, designers have huge responsibilities – choosing materials, consuming energy, producing… We need to change so many things!
What is the Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion?
Kering is a French company that includes 22 brands and 35 000 employees. It is the biggest fashion company in the world, and the most advanced in terms of sustainable development. In 2014, it published online the first account of environmental results assessing Kering’s impact on the planet in a very transparent way.
The consumer can see ”Made in Italy” on the label of his leather jacket, but the skin often comes from China, or from elsewhere
Besides its creation of a sustainable development department to help transform completely its 22 brands on environmental issues, Kering launched a competition in partnership with my school, the London College of Fashion. The aim is to put forward a sustainable development innovation for one of their brands. There are two awards: €10,000 and a 3 months internship. At first, we were 400 to compete. Only 30 people were selected, and then we were divided into two groups, working either on Stella McCartney or on Brioni. We were coached for 6 months, which was very interesting.
On which brand did you work?
I worked on Brioni, a very luxurious fashion brand for men. From the start, it is very sustainable because all the suits are handmade in Italy – with a very low carbon footprint – and the clothes are of incredible quality so you can keep them for a very longtime. The tailors from Brioni have studied for 4 years in a specific Brioni tailors school. They are experts, and can make a suit with their eyes closed! For several years, James Bond’s suits were made by Brioni.
What is the idea that helped you win?
The customer that comes to Brioni is extremely rich, and doesn’t really care about sustainable development when buying clothes. I know it’s a stereotype, but it’s true. I tried to find a way to make him care. When he comes home from work, the Brioni man puts on his smoking jacket and smokes the cigar. I imagined a smoking jacket dyed with tobacco. I made lots of research, and found a woman in California who uses this kind of dye. You have to be aware that the dye used for clothes is responsible for 20% of water pollution, which is huge! Tobacco doesn’t pollute because it is natural.
I also wanted to establish a link with my own story. In Saskatchewan, Canada, where I come from, there are many natives for whom tobacco is a sacred plant. It adds a spiritual dimension to my project, because I think that tobacco has had an inaccurate commercial history.
What pollutes the most when you make clothes?
If you consider the process of making clothes, first of all is sourcing – in which country are the clothes made, in which factory, and who owns the factory? I’m talking about fast-fashion – Zara, H&M, Primark, among others – because luxurious brands are a bit cleaner. The fashion brand pays a factory in Bangladesh or anywhere in the world to make a certain kind of clothes. Let’s say it needs 10,000 t-shirts. The brand contacts different factories, to know which one offers the best price. The factory offering a good price will land an enormous contract, that’s why every factory takes its prices down to the maximum, in order to make the deal. Sometimes the factory takes the prices down to such an extent that it can no longer afford to produce the t-shirts all by itself. The factory needs to subcontract the production to another factory, where the working conditions are even worse, and the employees earn even less. That’s why factories collapse, with fires and people dying. Everything is extremely precarious. Manufacturing is therefore one of the first major problems in terms of sustainable development.
In 2016, H&M opened more than 400 shops throughout the world. That’s more than one a day! When do we decide that it’s enough?
But before the fabrication process, you have to make the fabric! Take fabric, or leather, for instance. Once again, there are tricks and abuses. For leather, in particular, brands talk about transparency and traceability, but they don’t take into account the whole story of the skin. Before arriving to the factory, animals are killed – and often in awful conditions. When the factory receives untreated leather, you have to add chemical products to be able to use it. Brands conceal these first steps of the process and only take into account the last one, the tacking of fabrics together, that often takes place in Italy or in France. The consumer can see ”Made in Italy” on the label of his leather jacket, but the skin often comes from China, or from elsewhere. That’s not fair.
What can we do about it, as a consumer?
You have to ask about what you buy, make research. Buying cleverly, clothes of good quality that will last, and more importantly, buying less. Always prefer natural fibres like organic cotton, wool, or linen. Avoid acrylic that is hard to recycle and polyester, which is made out of oil. We are made to believe that consuming makes us happy and that we always need to buy new stuff. We consume, we throw away, and we waste. We become addict. When we consume, we act. Let’s keep in mind that our decisions affect us.
How do you imagine fashion and sustainable development in 5 years or in 10 years ?
I think it is important to remember how things were 5 years ago. There were not so many H&M and Zara. In 2016, H&M opened more than 400 shops throughout the world. That’s more than one a day! When do we decide that it’s enough? When will it stop? We had a talk in the London College of Fashion by one of their spokespersons and his answer was: “400 shops are not enough, we should have opened 800 of them! If we don’t do it, Primark will.”
I think that we’ll keep going this way. Brands of fast-fashion will continue to spread. But mentalities also change. Not so long ago, we didn’t talk at all about sustainable development, it was synonymous with lesser quality. Now, it has become a selling point!