How Sustainability Became a Luxury Value

On Friday, 32 fashion companies, including pillars of the world’s luxury fashion market—Chanel, Ralph Lauren, and Prada among them—as well as fast fashion players like H&M Group and Zara, announced that they were signing the Fashion Pact, a non-legally binding agreement to combat greenhouse gasses and emphasize sustainability in the industry.

The pact was announced at the Group of 7 summit in Biarritz, France. “This Fashion Pact is about saying: We have acknowledged the 21st century’s environmental issues, and we are taking our responsibility through collective action and common objectives,” Kering chief executive François-Henri Pinault, who is organizing the Pact at the behest of French President Emmanuel Macron, emailed the New York Times.

There are doubts about whether the Pact, which is both vague and lofty in its goals, can really have an impact on fashion. Fashion’s premium on fast-paced trends and globalized consumerism are qualities that can run anathema to environmental concerns. Nonetheless, it’s quite a turnaround to see so many fashion companies take the threat of the climate crisis so seriously.

Regardless, the Pact seems like a somewhat sudden shift in the priorities of the luxury industry, which seems to have put a sudden spotlight on environmental issues. Just this past April, Gabriela Hearst, whose brand of sustainable luxury clothing has attracted major prizes and investors (and launched menswear earlier this summer), told the Business of Fashion that she has made sustainability a priority in her branding despite warnings against doing so. “People tell me, ‘Oh you shouldn’t talk so much about sustainability.’ But for me, personally, there’s no other pressing thing happening in the world,” she said. Since launching her brand in 2015, Hearst has tastefully promoted her use of recycled cashmere and biodegradable materials, as well as the fact that not a scrap of her fabric goes wasted. “I can’t justify what I do without having that as a core value,” she said.

Observers were wary of Hearst staking her line on environmental awareness for a reason: for decades, sustainability seemed to be a niche trend, a sort of crunchy and noble pursuit, rather than the foundation of a proper luxury brand. But in recent years, what used to be crunchy has become…cool: Stella McCartney has preached and practiced the tenets of sustainable luxury since founding her brand in 2001, using faux leathers and suedes, and working with Adidas to develop groundbreaking recycled fabrics. McCartney was a solo sustainable act at first, but now, however, her work looks prescient. After her partnership with Kering ended in 2018, she acquired her company back from the Pinault-owned conglomerate—and then rival LVMH took a minority stake in the brand earlier this summer, suggesting the latter’s belief in the growth potential of brands that address climate change. (LVMH also made a minority investment in Hearst’s brand in January.) Perhaps most tellingly, even fast fashion brands have been introducing “green” brands, which also tend to have a kind of “earth mother” vibe. You know a trend is “real” when fast fashion starts doing it.

And now the heaviest hitters in fashion have agreed to keep the ball rolling. How did we get here?

First, it’s the allure of the French. France has been a global leader in taking climate change seriously, most notably by spearheading the Paris Climate Accord. (Media skepticism aside, the Fashion Pact represents a major win for President Macron, who has not been able to get President Donald Trump to reconsider pulling out of the agreement; he told a reporter last week, “If we draft an agreement about the Paris Accord, President Trump won’t agree. It’s pointless.”) France also remains the spiritual leader of the global fashion industry, the mecca from which trends (which in fashion includes values) emanate, even as the consumer base for most luxury brands shifts to China.

Indeed, the major shift seems to have happened over the past five years, as a number of luxury brands launched that have responded to fast fashion’s global dominance by taking things more slowly. Before she started her namesake label, for example, Gabriela Hearst ran a contemporary brand—but told BoF she felt she couldn’t compete in price and speed with fashion fashion brands like Zara. A focus on ethical production became a tool to get people to pay more for clothing. (Coincidentally, that’s also the year that H&M launched their garment collection program, a major sustainability effort.)

As so often happens in fashion, the practical concern was quickly spun into creative motivation, and sustainability became a kind of do-gooder muse to the industry: Brendon Babenzien, who reestablished Noah in 2015, tells customers to buy less. Alyx, Matthew Williams’s Italy-based brand (also founded in 2015), has started dying his leather goods using CO2 gas. And Marine Serre, who launched her label in 2017, upcycles materials like deadstock bedspreads and silk scarves into dresses and sweatsuits that sell for thousands of dollars. Key to this development has been the sense that the designers aren’t preaching; as Serre told me in an interview last year, “I don’t want to be a green brand and make commercial promises [based] on that…. Being a designer is not only being able to make a fabric in China that is cute and beautiful and pink and then you make a nice dress.”

And when the cool kids started caring about sustainability, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the industry followed suit. As soon as sustainability became something that consumers could dream of caring about—something rare and expensive—it ironically had more appeal. Fashion, as any truly modern designer knows, is as much about branding and marketing as it is about clothes. And as long as there’s an audience for fashion, any properly sustainable strategy will require making ethically designed and produced clothes that are cooler than anything else you can buy.