The fashion industry has been rightly criticized for its negative environmental impact, however, shopping doesn’t have to come with guilt-ridden, doom-and-gloom feeling. Numerous luxury labels are working to become more sustainable, serving as a glimmer of hope and sign of progress. Though the most harmful effects frequently are equated with the fast-fashion corner of the market, luxury and contemporary labels aren’t immune to the controversy. Working conditions, a brand’s carbon footprint, and contribution to excessive waste are fodder for ethical criticism across the spectrum. The primary argument made for the luxury end of the market is the rationalization that something made of high-quality fabrics and craftsmanship will ostensibly last a lifetime. But, this doesn’t mean there aren’t improvements to be made, especially for labels with the capital to innovate.
The “investment piece” argument holds true in many cases — in second-hand luxury retailer Fashionphile’s 2021 Sustainability Report, 88 percent of luxury handbag owners said they hold onto their bags for a very long time, with 33 percent anticipating over ten years of ownership. Increasingly, consumers are considering ways to do more with less. “The most important consideration when shopping should be whether we actually need something new. Sometimes we might find that with a little creativity, we can get by with what we already own,” says Rachael Wang, a stylist, brand consultant, and sustainability advocate.
So, as brands continue to re-work production processes, implement more ethical materials, and shift to a mindset centered around circularity, more responsible creation is possible. These efforts take time to be put in place effectively, especially for brands producing on a large global scale. But with each innovation or shift comes a greater customer craving for more ethical luxury goods. Ahead, four sustainable developments worth taking note of when shopping at luxury labels. They’re not the end-all, be-all, nor the only changes the industry needs to see. But at the very least, each is a step in the right direction.
How Luxury Brands Are Becoming More Sustainable: Fabric Innovation
“The climate crisis has forced the fashion industry to reckon with the vast environmental toll it’s responsible for,” Wang tells TZR. “As consumers become more vocal about demanding fashion with a lower environmental impact and a greater social impact, brands have become motivated to audit their practices. The luxury sector is no exception.”
One of the most innovative ways a luxury brand can lessen its adverse environmental effects is through fabric changes, which go far beyond recycled and responsibly sourced organic textiles, though both are ethically favorable. “Aside from Stella McCartney, an ethical fashion pioneer, the luxury fashion industry has largely ignored its processes’ social and environmental impact,” Wang continues. But things are looking up.
Said fabric innovations, largely inducted by McCartney, include rose petal fibers and fabric sourced from hemp, bamboo, and banana, materials that ethical New Zealand-based designer Maggie Marilyn incorporates into her collections. Then there’s ECONYL® — regenerated nylon made from waste, such as discarded fishing nets or carpets — which Gucci uses in the Off The Grid collection accessories and ready-to-wear, and Prada also utilizes in its Re-Nylon collection of sportswear-inspired clothing and accessories.
Cruelty-free leather alternatives like Piñatex and Mylo™ — the former being an innovative natural textile made from pineapple leaf fiber, and the latter, an infinitely renewable vegan material grown from mycelium, the underground root structure of mushrooms with the look and feel of leather, is among the most innovative. McCartney, who started using Mylo™ to create accessories in 2018, has since designed the world’s first-ever garments made from the material — a bustier top and trousers released in March 2021. Hermès also announced a new edition of its Victoria bag march from mycelium in March this year.
“I believe the Stella community should never have to compromise luxury desirability for sustainability, and Mylo™ allows us to make that a reality,” the designer says in a press release. “These rare, exclusive pieces embody our shared commitment with Bolt Threads to innovate a kinder fashion industry — one that sees the birth of beautiful, luxurious materials as opposed to the deaths of our fellow creatures and planet.”
These material innovations stand for much progress for the future of large-scale production, as Dan Widmaier, Bolt Threads CEO and founder, points out. “Creating new, high-quality biomaterials is a major technological challenge and a massive opportunity for people and the planet,” he says. “The material used in these two garments not only represents a huge step forward in both aesthetics and performance of biomaterials but also marks the beginning of the rollout of product-ready Mylo™. [It] can make a significant positive impact.”
“From a production standpoint, they are more cost-efficient,” Amanda Hearst, founder of the ethical retailer Maison de Mode, tells TZR of these vegan leather alternatives. “The cattle leather industry is not sustainable.” Adding, “As more brands gravitate toward using mushroom leather and pineapple leather, more animal lives will be saved — innovation is leading to animal protection, which is a truly beautiful thing.”
How Luxury Brands Are Becoming More Sustainable: Upcycling Materials & Supporting A Circular Economy
The second-hand market has boomed over the last year, drawing attention to the importance of circularity, as has the course of upcycling materials in luxury designer collections. “Sustainability has become increasingly important to our members over the years, and it’s now a motivating factor for them to support resale,” James Rogers, director of sustainability at The RealReal, tells TZR. “About half of our consignors cite environmental impact as a key motivator to sell with us, and 33 percent of our customers say they shop TRR as a replacement for fast fashion. We’ve also seen search demand for sustainable brands is 4.4 times stronger than it was three years ago. Consumers are eager to support brands that align with their values and prioritize sustainability.”
On the brand front, Spanish luxury fashion house Loewe launched The Surplus Project in March. The brand uses scrap leather to create the label’s trademark Woven basket bag, which first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2015 collection — creative director Jonathan Anderson’s debut. New York-based label, Altuzarra introduced the brand’s Re-Crafted program for Spring/Summer 2021 as part of an ongoing commitment to sustainability where fabrics from past seasons and archival collections are re-spun to create one-of-a-kind pieces. In celebration of Earth Day, Fendi debuted a new basket bag made entirely of recycled PVC — an ethically-minded throwback to designer Silvia Venturini Fendi’s childhood summer memories at the beach in the ’80s.
Wang describes these luxury developments as “a relief,” which extends to circularity efforts, like the booming second-hand luxury market and how brands are focusing on “extending the life cycles of garments by partnering with online consignment sites like The RealReal.” Another welcome change is take-back programs, which ethical designer Mara Hoffman — who Wang styles, creative directs, and consults for — began “to confront the issue of waste and the end life of garments,” Wang explains. Customers can buy and sell pre-owned Mara Hoffman garments, giving items already in existence a chance at a new beginning.
“Upcycling has been one of the most noticeable rising trends in the industry and a practice we’ve supported more and more over the years,” Rogers says. According to TRR sustainability director, partnerships and upcycled collaborations with Gucci, Stella McCartney, and Collina Strada have all seen strong engagement among shoppers, which he hopes continues on an even bigger scale with the ReCollection initiative — a program giving new life to pieces that are distressed, damaged, or otherwise unusable to create one-of-a-kind pieces. Balenciaga, Stella McCartney, and Jacquemus were partners in the first iteration. “It creates an opportunity for brands to easily engage with resale, and we hope it will spark more conversations with them around creative ways we can collaborate,” Rogers says.
He continues, “To reduce [fashion’s] very problematic footprint, we need to keep items in circulation to avoid them being part of the garbage trucks worth of textiles that are landfilled or burned every second. We hope that through all of the sustainability work we’re doing ... from adding repair services at all of our stores to help members keep their luxury items in good condition to showing the positive environmental impact of buying second hand with our sustainability calculator ... we’re inspiring shoppers to be more conscious about how and what they consume.”
Rogers hopes that brands start following three principles of the circular economy: Design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use as long as possible, and regenerate natural systems. “To me, that starts with using regenerative materials and designing with an afterlife in mind,” he says. “We want to sell pieces made of quality materials that can and will have many lives.”
How Luxury Brands Are Becoming More Sustainable: Human Rights Initiatives
“Human rights crises — like the Rana Plaza collapse — have exposed a systematic prioritization of profit at the expense of tens of millions of garment workers around the world that can no longer be ignored,” Wang says. “I’d like to see luxury fashion brands pay each person in their supply chain a fair wage, provide fair working conditions and support the right for garment workers to unionize without retribution.”
A luxury label making this type of progress is Chloé. In her new creative director role, designer Gabriela Hearst introduced the world’s first fair trade-verified luxury bag collection in partnership with the World Fair Trade Organization this April. The four Woody panier styles are hand-woven by women in Kenya and made from natural environmentally responsible fibers, including fair trade paper, and are ethically produced in collaboration with Mifuko — a company empowering Kenyan artisans through fair pay and less dependence on unpredictable farming as a source of income.
Burberry has made similar strides. The Burberry Foundation is developing a more inclusive, sustainable, and resilient cashmere industry in Afghanistan with a five-year program in partnership with Oxfam and PUR Projet to help herders enhance their livelihoods for a better future. Smaller luxury brands like Alighieri, Bode, and Veja are similarly driving change and becoming an increasingly important consideration to shoppers, as Farfetch highlights in the online luxury retailer’s first annual Conscious Luxury Trends Report. According to findings, the ethical treatment of workers, including fair conditions and wages for those creating the pieces, is the second most important consideration among shoppers after the quality and durability of a product.
How Luxury Brands Are Becoming More Sustainable: Promoting Diverse & Ethical Luxury Labels
As the demand for sustainable luxury goods grows, so does the desire for brand discovery. Behemoths like Gucci, Stella McCartney, and Prada will continue to be the most coveted by many shoppers. And while each brand is innovating sustainably, there are more labels to be discovered, many of which drive the industry’s sustainable transformation.
“Almost all of us now know that the fashion industry can have a negative impact on communities, people, animals, and the natural world. The challenge I keep hearing is: ‘I want to shop better, but I don’t know how,’” Hearst tells TZR. “That statement is exactly why I started Maison de Mode. I wanted people to have a one-stop-shop where they could shop chic, luxurious products that are also responsibly made.”
You may already be familiar with some of the designers Hearst carries, like Amur, Campo Collection, and Lingua Franca. Other emerging brands, like STUDIO 189, Mastani, and Fanm Mon, are just a few of the many deserving more recognition. “There is rightly judgment when a brand does not consider the environment and the people who make their products,” Hearst tells TZR. “When we launched our first Maison de Mode pop-up in 2012, we had six brands in the store. And even finding those brands was a challenge. Now, our online boutique showcases around 80 brands [spanning] fashion, accessories, home, and there are many more brands out there we know and love. So, in almost a decade, we’ve seen many more fashion companies incorporate sustainability into their business.”
Wang points out, “From their inception, BIPOC-owned brands like Telfar, Phlemuns, No Sesso, and Ahluwalia have followed in the steps of Indigenous cultures worldwide to design with waste reduction in mind.” Another designer on the rise is Autumn Adeigbo, a first-generation Nigerian-American who attributes her innate love of fashion to her mom, who made all of her clothes growing up. Adeigbo uses traceable materials and deadstock fabrics while minimizing waste by producing in limited runs. What's more, she's devoted to positively impacting women across cultures by utilizing female-owned production facilities in the U.S. and providing global artisans with meaningful employment and fair wages.
Hearst says, “I think understanding what exactly ‘sustainability’ is can be a great challenge for consumers. But I would say sustainable fashion is fashion that considers the environment and the people who make it. That said, don’t be overwhelmed — fashion is fun. Start looking at the brands on our site and researching others you like online. Shopping sustainably isn’t about being perfect. It’s about doing the best you can with the knowledge you have. And when you know more, you do better.”