By DANA THOMAS
The hottest buzzword in luxury fashion right now is sustainability.
Trade associations, educational institutions, nonprofits, luxury groups and brands have all established programs aimed at making the industry more environmentally aware and respectful. There’s talk of creating an industrywide logo to identify clothing and accessories made in a sustainable way. Even the Obama administration has stepped into the arena by enlisting beauty and fashion companies to join the American Business Act on Climate Pledge, a program focusing on reducing industry’s carbon footprint.
“The luxury industry has a particular responsibility because it sets trends and is open to innovation,” said Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer for the Kering luxury group. “Sustainability should be at our core.”
It was slow in coming. For years, some major brands were more interested in greenwashing — a derisory term for public relations spinning — than investing in actual sustainable measures. But that mind-set has been changing, in large part because customers have demanded it.
“Consumer consciousness and expectations are evolving regarding corporate environmental issues, especially for millennials. They want their brands to behave responsibly,” said Elisa Niemtzow, director of consumer sectors for BSR, the world’s largest nonprofit business network dedicated to sustainability. “Brands up until now were marketing sustainability as what consumers should do. Now it’s: ‘Here’s what we are doing for you.”’
Eva Kruse, chief executive of the Danish Fashion Institute in Copenhagen, also said the public perception has been important. “It’s true that people always ask: ‘How could fashion consider calling itself sustainable, since it’s always about consumption?”’ she said. “But it can be sustainable if we concentrate on less impact on society and the environment. We aren’t going to stop producing clothes, but we have to have a discussion about how we do what we do and the amount we produce.”
For many, fashion’s green targets are cleaner fabrics (treatment is often chemical-heavy), animal rights in leather and fur production, production transparency, safer manufacturing conditions and worker rights and a proactive look at the impact of climate change on the industry.
And some point out that if those targets aren’t attacked, it is fashion’s own supply chain that will be affected.
Earlier this month, BSR and Kering released a study that says climate change will “negatively affect the availability and quality of key raw materials — and by extension, the vulnerable communities that are herding or farming these materials,” Ms. Niemtzow said. For example, vicuña farmers in Bolivia and Peru “depend on that fur for their livelihood. If vicuñas are at risk due to climate change, so are the people.”
To lessen the impact, the report states, fashion companies need to help suppliers improve their practices, for instance by learning sustainable grazing and herding skills. “The most important thing to do as a luxury company is to understand your supply chain, to see where you might be most vulnerable,” Ms. Niemtzow said. “Traceability is key.”
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Initiatives abound. In Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland, the Danish Fashion Institute has several tools to help brands clean up their practices, such as a library of sustainable fabrics — more than 1,500 cloth samples, kept in Copenhagen — and a database of 100 sustainable fabric suppliers. “It’s a one-stop shop,” said Jonas Eder-Hansen, the institute’s development director. The institute also has a sustainable-fashion shopping guide for Copenhagen and organizes fashion swap meets so consumers can recycle clothes.
To promote these initiatives, the institute is host in Copenhagen to the world’s largest conference on sustainable fashion; the fourth gathering is scheduled May 10 to 12. “We want to encourage everyone to move ahead on this,” Mr. Eder-Hansen said.
In September, the world’s largest fabrics fair, Première Vision, staged what it called a “smart conversation” in Paris on “a new generation of responsible values in the fashion and textile industries.”
More than 200 attendees heard Carlo Capasa, head of the Italian fashion trade association Camera Nazionale della Moda; Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council and Chantal Malingrey-Perrin, marketing director of Première Vision, discuss programs such as Première Vision’s “Smart Creation,” which aims to set standards for acceptable social conditions in fashion manufacturing and production and Estethica, a showcase during London Fashion Week that promotes sustainable brands, and the Camera Nazionale’s working group of 10 major brands, including Armani, Zegna and Versace, that is studying how to reduce toxic chemical use in fabric treatments, with hopes of creating a sustainable industry standard.
In the United States, the Council of Fashion Designers of America has teamed with Lexus since 2010 for an annual “eco-fashion challenge,” a competition that awards cash prizes to three small, young companies committed to creating environmentally responsible fashion lines.
Lisa Smilor, the council’s executive director, noted that at first, small companies were adopting sustainable practices but now large American brands, such as Ralph Lauren, have hired directors of sustainability — a noteworthy development because, she said, “Big companies will be where major change comes from.”
“It’s like learning a new language,” she said. “But it really does feel like everyone is starting to say: ‘We all have to work on this together.”’
Most in the industry agree that radical and substantial change will come from fashion’s next generation.
The Centre for Sustainable Fashion, a research center for six colleges in London created in 2007, helps fashion and design students ponder questions, as its director, Dilys Williams, said: “What does a life well lived through fashion mean? Can we live well with nature? What could we imagine making better from the start rather than tweaking?”
In conjunction with Kering, the center offers “development goals” for students and entrepreneurs that focus on “authenticity, integrity and design in the face of social injustice and climate change,” Ms. Williams said. “Sustainability isn’t a fixed point in fashion, so you need the industry to be called to account.”
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With that in mind, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the apparel, footwear and home textile industry association, based in San Francisco, is working on the Higg Index.
The index, which the coalition hopes will be ready by 2017, will be a standardized supply chain measurement tool so garment tags can inform shoppers about their purchases’ social and environmental effects. “It will be the same label whether you are at Walmart or Levi’s or Kering brands like Alexander McQueen,” said Mr. Hansen of the Danish Fashion Institute, a coalition member.
Other measures that have been or are being put into place include Kering’s ban on the use of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC; production by Bottega Veneta and Gucci of what they call “zero-deforestation” handbags; and the start of responsibilityinfashion.org, a trade association working with the C.F.D.A. that provides fashion companies a three-step action plan template, industrywide goals and listings of organizations and tools to help companies become more sustainable.
“It’s important for luxury companies to make investment in sustainability and to know that it’s also good business,” said Mr. Capasa of the Camera Nazionale. “What I really hope is really, all together, we create a strong system. It would be beautiful if we could do this as a fashion family.”
Sustainability isn’t only a concern on the fashion side of luxury.
In jewelry, brands including Tiffany & Company and Chopard have announced they are using ethically mined gems, recycling gold, silver and platinum and working with ecologically conscious mines.
One example is Tiffany’s opposition to the New World Mine in Montana, outside Yellowstone National Park, first voiced in the late 1990s. ‘‘We felt that if you could pick the worst place in the continental U.S. to have a mine, it would be at the doorstep of Yellowstone,’’ said Michael J. Kowalski, Tiffany’s chairman. He has a similar opinion of the Pebble Mine in Alaska, which is at the head of ‘‘one of the last great salmon fisheries,’’ he said. ‘‘We think the science is clear that the mine would lead to the fisheries’ destruction.’’
The Environmental Protection Agency of the United States ‘‘is calling for the halt of the development of that mine, based on the concerns around the Clean Water Act,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s now in litigation, and is probably many years away from development, if it should ever happen at all.’’
In 2010, Chopard joined the Responsible Jewellery Council, a 600-member alliance based in London that sets guidelines on environmental, social and economic issues, and regulatory compliance. The Swiss-based family-run jewelry company also is working with the Alliance for Responsible Mining, a nongovernmental organization based in South America. At the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Chopard unveiled the Green Carpet Collection, jewelry made in accordance with the Green Carpet Challenge, a platform to raise sustainability and ethical awareness. The movement was founded by Livia Firth, the creative director of Eco-Age, a brand consulting firm based in London.
Chopard is aiming to become entirely sustainable. ‘‘It is a bold commitment,’’ Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, the company’s co-president, conceded, ‘‘but it is one that we must pursue if we are to make a difference to the lives of people who make our business possible.’’
*This story first appeared on the New York Times.