The Council of Fashion Designers of America, in partnership with the Boston Consulting Group, has issued “Sustainability by Design: Rethinking New York Fashion Week,” a report that looks at guidelines and recommendations for ways the industry can reduce both waste and the carbon footprint of fashion shows, events, and activities.
As reported, in February, the CFDA and BCG said they would undertake a study on the environmental impact of NYFW. Originally, they said they would issue their results in April, but it was put on hold due to COVID-19 and then resumed.
“In February, when the CFDA and BCG launched the focused study, nobody could have anticipated the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Steven Kolb, chief executive officer of the CFDA. “The new reality demands we all radically rethink and reset every aspect of the fashion system, and are resilient and innovative in the way we address the urgent climate change and pollution-related impacts of our industry. The study’s findings and recommendations provide useful guidance to fashion stakeholders in New York and are intended to also serve the global fashion industry.”
Asked if he found any surprises in the findings, Kolb told WWD, “Like everything we do, we come from what the industry wants. It was the result of inquiries and interest in sustainability.” He said there were plans to release the sustainability study earlier to influence September shows, but once COVID-19 hit, it brought the issues of sustainability to the forefront.
“Now that we’re releasing it a post-fashion week, people are beginning to think about it for February,” Kolb said. He said people who have seen the report have pivoted from the live shows to digital, have seen different ways shows were presented and a difference in the number of collections brands are committed to. “I do think it will have a practical use for a lot of designers and brands. It sends the message of the importance of rethinking the way business is done,” Kolb said.
He believes that the future of NYFW will be a combination of live and digital events. “I think digital will always be parallel to anything live. The benefits of digital are travel. The travel budget impacted is quite large. If you look at the ability to reach a global audience on an iPhone, or laptop or desktop, that’s a great win,” he said.
September’s New York fashion shows were primarily online on CFDA’s new digital platform Runway360. Kolb said they were pleased with the traffic and buyer and editor feedback. “For the most part, [Runway360] really delivered what needed to be delivered. Runway360 democratized New York Fashion Week,” he said, noting that the mix of look books and videos lent themselves to whatever the designer’s budget was and took off the pressure of doing the big investment of a fashion show. They also provided free showroom space to several designers with Harlem’s Fashion Row. “It gave access to fashion week to people who don’t normally have typical access to fashion week. Because of the pandemic, the industry will be more open to alternatives,” he said.
To be sure, NYFW has historically been a big moneymaker, bringing $600 million in economic impact to New York City. But it comes with a downside. Activities tied to NYFW can release as much as 48,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. Generally, during NYFW, up to 10,000 of the event’s 25,000 or so participants fly into town, accounting for the largest portion of the GHG totals, with additional emission coming from the frequent trips they take by car from venue to venue.
Furthermore, the manufacture of samples and other goods and sets and props used during the fashion shows produces large amounts of waste, as do many venues where the shows take place. All of this represents a sizable investment for brands and designers who show at NYFW, with budgets frequently running into the millions, according to the report.
“We recognize that making NYFW more sustainable is but a mere drop in the bucket compared to the fashion industry as a whole, but it can serve as a bellwether for changes, not only for the many other fashion weeks held worldwide, but also for the entire fashion industry,” said Sarah Willersdorf, Boston Consulting Group’s global head of luxury. “Sustainability is not a nice-to-have anymore. It is essential both for our planet and for the long-term prosperity of the fashion industry,” she said.
What’s happened over the past decade is that NYFW and similar events around the world have escalated from an industry audience to include thousands of fans and influencers worldwide. But critics have raised concerns about the way the fashion industry operates, the nature of the fashion calendar, and the role that events such as NYFW play in it.
The seasonal process of designing clothing, manufacturing, and selling them, as well as preseason collections, leads to an enormous amount of waste and lost revenues, the report notes. Fast-fashion companies often eat into the traditional players’ revenue. The number of fashion weeks around the globe has increased significantly, and there are now more than 130 a year. Various groups, including the CFDA and the British Fashion Council, brands such as Tory Burch, Altuzarra, Giorgio Armani, and Gucci, and retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom have pledged to make significant changes in how they operate, ranging from realigning fashion deliveries with actual seasons to delaying end-of-season markdowns to going seasonless, as reported. Putting many of these suggestions into effect would entail overhauling the fashion calendar and rethinking the number of collections that brands produce each year, and how, when, and where designers show and deliver them to retailers.
The report pointed out that people will consume more than 102 million tons of clothing over the next decade — up 60 percent from 2020 — and 80 percent of it will end up in landfills. Further, research shows that a single cotton T-shirt takes 2,700 liters of water to produce.
Consumers appear to be the group driving the industry toward more sustainability. According to the study, 37 percent attributed the major responsibility of driving the industry toward sustainability to consumers, 36 percent to investors/shareholders, 36 percent to industry associations, 31 percent to governments/policyholders/regulators, 29 percent to NGOs, 25 percent to brands/retailers, 23 percent to suppliers, 19 percent to employees, 14 percent to competitors and 4 percent to local communities.
In a recent BCG survey, more than 60 percent of consumer participants said they would choose a more sustainable fashion and luxury brand over a less sustainable one. The sustainability conversation, in fact, has shifted to a more specific focus on the industry’s climate impact and its use of enormous amounts of water from general environmental issues in connection with the manufacture of clothing.
For the study, BCG and CFDA surveyed various NYFW stakeholders, including designers, event planners, production houses, and public relations agencies to get a better sense of their attitudes toward and perceptions of sustainability. More than 50 percent said they viewed sustainability as a social responsibility that fashion show organizers should fulfill, rather than as simply a means to stay relevant to consumers or create value.
Participants found that the use of recycled materials, biodegradability, and fair manufacturing practices are the top shared practices.
About 75 percent of NYFW stakeholders surveyed said the companies they work for have sustainability targets for the materials they use, waste reduction, partnering with others dedicated to sustainability, and energy use. But almost 40 percent of those with such targets view them only as a consideration in their planning strategies, not as a guiding principle.
Companies that have made concerted efforts to increase their sustainability practices have reduced their environmental impact considerably. For example, Burberry, Dior, Gucci, and Ralph Lauren, among others, use recycled wood in their sets, send out digital invitations, travel in electric vehicles, and use partnerships to offset their remaining carbon emissions, the report said. Missoni and Saint Laurent use energy-efficient LED lighting powered by biofuel-burning generators at the show.
When asked what the greatest obstacles their organization faces in moving toward sustainability for NYFW, some 45 percent said it was more expensive to be sustainable, 27 percent were unclear what goals/targets to set and said they are difficult to measure, 27 percent lack the necessary partnerships, 14 percent said it was unclear what steps/actions to take, and 4 percent said other organizations’ leadership does not view sustainability as a priority.
The study showed that consumers and NYFW stakeholders value the same sustainability practices but to varying degrees. For NYFW stakeholders, the value, in order, use of recycled/waste/scrap materials, fair/ethical labor practices and biodegradable products/packing, participating in recycling/take-back programs, up-to-date waste disposal/recycling technologies, commitment to health/safety practices for workers and organic/natural materials.
For consumers, who consider the practice important, the value, in order, biodegradable products/packaging; efficient energy use in manufacturing; use of recycled/waste/scrap materials; fair/ethical labor practices; participation in recycle/take-back programs; organic/natural materials, and commitment to health/safety practices for workers.
CFDA and BCG analyzed impact areas and functions that must come together to help NYFW achieve maximum impact on sustainability.
The survey looked at six impact areas — Content, Sample, Production, Venue, Public Relations and Transportation/logistics — and four sustainability dimensions — Energy, Materials, Waste, and Partnership — to see ways to reduce NYFW’s environmental footprint.
Some of the highlights:
- In content, for example, actions to reduce NYFW’s environmental impact are digital live streams or showrooms, move from runway to presentation, selective use of photography/video, recycled paper in the brochure and look books, and reuse of content for assets, digital look books for buyers and partnerships with local artists and photographers. The greatest opportunity lies in partnerships between stakeholders to create content that promotes sustainability.
- In sample-making, many designers are opting to use recycled materials and to reuse and repurpose samples and fabrics after the show or event. Another action is fewer rush orders and use of non-toxic materials, single-use garment bags or hangers, and post-show reuse of samples and less packaging. The dimension with the greatest room for improvement in samples is energy. More designers could leverage renewable energy sources more effectively when producing samples and choose more sustainable methods of shipping them. To save energy, the report recommends designers produce samples locally (in New York) and choose ground/sea travel. “Half of the waste or more is already being generated at the design table,” Gabriela Hearst said in the report. “But being sustainable is not more expensive; in fact, being conscious of waste has helped me reduce costs at my company.” Maria Cornejo added, “As an industry, we should be more willing to share resources and be less protective. For example, if one designer discovers a supplier with hyper-sustainable fabric, they should share that with other designers to help the overall industry toward sustainability.”
- As far as production, the survey noted that fashion brands and production houses are trying hard to reduce waste by repurposing and reusing set materials, props, and decor during and after the show. Most stakeholders are also conscious of the sourcing of their catering and materials, actively pursuing organic, natural, and locally sourced options. Another recommended action is to use organic/natural makeup and hair products. Reducing energy use in production remains a challenge. Most participants work with local partners to minimize their carbon footprints, rather than flying in artisans and other vendors from elsewhere. The survey found they could make greater efforts to use renewable and clean energy sources on set, and they should compensate for any unavoidable emissions they create during the week.
- In terms of venue, some of the recommendations are choosing a venue location that complies with “green” energy standards, partner with other brands to minimize the distance between shows, have water-filling stations to offer boxed/sustainably packaged water versus plastic water bottles, have recycling bins on-site, share the venue with other brands and repurpose the venue after the show for other events.
- For public relations, actions include sending digital invitations and show notes to guests, using recycled materials in physical invitations, giving out recyclable compostable gift bags, or no gift bags at all.
- As for transportation/logistics, actions are consolidated travel as much as possible, offering ride-sharing and public transportation reimbursement options to and from shows and events, offset the carbon emission generated from air travel of guests, teams, and models, consolidate travel as much as possible from show to show, and partner with hotels with sustainable practices.
A majority of respondents said they expect to increase their efforts to drive sustainability during NYFW, focusing on materials and waste, followed by energy and partnerships. The stakeholders said the main obstacles to becoming more sustainable during NYFW are constrained timelines, limited budgets, and lack of knowledge.
Although brands will continue to host live shows during NYFW, many are considering digital or alternative formats. Some 39 percent said they are considering a shift to alternative formats during NYFW, such as presentations and videos, 22 percent said they will continue host runway shows/events at a similar scale to today, 15 percent said they will continue to stage runways shows/events but at a smaller scale, 4 percent said they plan to cancel all shows/events during NYFW altogether, and 2 percent said they continue to stage runway shows/events but at a larger scale.
When asked what the biggest opportunities for NYFW to become sustainable are, the replies were centralization, venue sharing, digital, government support, sponsors, and calendar (move to a tighter calendar with fewer days and shows).
“There is much work to be done to ensure that the entire industry reduces waste, uses less water, and becomes carbon neutral,” according to the report. “In the longer term, the industry should come together to support such efforts as transparent consumer-facing product certification and standardization, comprehensive materials, databases, and across-the-board operational digitization.” The CFDA noted it is already working with the UN and the Conscious Fashion Campaign to support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
The research steering committee for the study included Cornejo, Hearst, Tommy Hilfiger’s Virginia Ritchie, Brandon Sheffield, Alicia Loehle, Tracy Reese, Hillary Taymour of Colina Strada, Lucie Brigham of United Nations Office for Partnerships, and Kerry Bannigan of Conscious Fashion Campaign.
“NYFW generates immense attention in the media. In the fashion industry as a whole, and among its enormous consumer base. Its success in meeting its sustainability goals will have an outsize effect on the industry’s global commitment to sustainability,” the report concluded.