How Much Carbon Does Fashion Month Actually Produce?

Image: ORDRE

While sustainable initiatives were widely represented on the FW20 runways, can fashion month ever have a positive impact on the planet? New research by ORDRE calculates the overlooked carbon cost of travel during the four major seasonal showcases.

As the lights faded at the Louis Vuitton show in Paris last week, it marked the official end to another frenzied fashion month. Buyers, editors and industry insiders returned home after attending a back-to-back schedule of shows and presentations, while designers took barely a moment to breathe before getting to work on their next collections. 

While sustainability looked to be more than just a passing trend this season, with big names such as Diesel and Marni turning to upcycling to reduce their environmental impact, this did little to stem the increasing pressure from activist groups to cancel the events completely. The growing scepticism as to the relevance of fashion month in the face of the climate crisis remained, and left many of us asking ourselves the same question: is the carbon-intensive seasonal schedule finally going out of style?

A new report by fashion tech company ORDRE attempts to provide an answer by calculating the carbon cost of travel associated with international fashion weeks. Created in collaboration with the Carbon Trust, the research adds up the annual emissions of all transport that forms an integral part of the wholesale buying process. By measuring the carbon footprints of more than 7,000 buyers and designers participating in international fashion weeks over the four main seasons, ORDRE shone a light on what the hectic show schedules might be doing to our planet. 

The report, entitled Zero to Market, found that the industry emits 241,000 tonnes of CO2 a year just from travel costs associated with the quarterly fashion months. To put this into perspective, this amount is equivalent to the annual emissions of a small country, or the electricity used by 42,000 homes for a whole year. Yes, a whole year. Travel to New York was responsible for the highest amount of carbon (37% of all emissions), shortly followed by Paris (28%), London (18%) and Milan (17%). 

“While the emissions measured in this study are likely to be a small percentage of the fashion industry’s total emissions, it is a highly visible part of the industry where positive change has the ability to be influential across the supply chain and other industries,” explains Pauline Op de Beeck, sustainable fashion lead and client manager at the Carbon Trust. “We are an industry that thrives on innovation, and now is the time to start thinking about the business of fashion differently,” added Simon P Lock, founder and CEO of ORDRE.

The findings paint a stark picture of the environmental impact of fashion month, showing that sustainable approaches must go beyond the garments themselves. While lower impact design initiatives were aplenty from New York to Milan, the next step needs to see companies actively rethink the events and presentations that form part of the wholesale business model. 

Nonetheless, FW20 did bring significant glimmers of hope as to reducing fashion overwhelming carbon footprint through events as well. One such moment saw Bureau Betak, the international producer behind shows from Dior to Jacquemus, receive ISO 20121 certification for sustainable event management. Held by Wembley stadium among other leading names, the certification is an international standard for minimising the effect of important events on our planet. Bureau Betak’s commitment to the cause will see the organisers introduce a zero single-use plastics policy, recycle 100% of their event waste, and reduce its CO2 emissions by 25%.

 “This [certification] means that every fashion show, exhibition and event overseen by Bureau Betak’s offices in New York, Paris and Shanghai will be conceived and executed with a commitment to the best practices of reducing environmental impact across the entire supply chain and production,” the company wrote on Instagram. Bureau Betak’s commitment to low impact events proves the huge potential for the fashion industry to embrace more sustainable practices outside of the garment production process, demonstrating the scope for positive change.

Meanwhile, a new wave of young designers are moving away from the traditional wholesale practice completely, in favour of the made-to-order business model. This London Fashion Week, the judges of the International Woolmark Prize highlighted the widespread shift in industry attitudes by choosing to give the prestigious award to a designer operating outside the wholesale model. The winner, Irish designer Richard Malone, shared his excitement at the decision “to support something that is so radically different from the traditional supply chain.” 

Image: Bureau Betak’s show for Dior SS2020

While it’s clear that attitudes are slowly beginning to change, ORDRE hopes its findings will further the industry-wide debate on the international fashion week circuit and, ultimately, lead to the adoption of more responsible business practices. The industry’s leading sustainability body, the Global Fashion Agenda, is positive that the Zero To Market report will help to improve understanding of the real impact of fashion, with CEO Eva Kruse stating, “the conversation about the fashion industry’s environmental footprint has focussed on the supply chain, however, the entire fashion system has to be taken into account, including the impact of the industry’s mechanism.”

ORDRE’s proposed measures to lower the carbon emissions of the quarterly event would include collapsing and curating schedules by combining men’s and women’s events or showing main and pre collections at the same time. Shows and venues could also be limited to defined areas to encourage the use of shared venues and, in the future, digital technology could even be used to virtually present collections and cut carbon costs from travel. In the meantime, ORDRE advises show-goers to cut their own footprint by avoid business class flights, choosing train travel over flying, using electric vehicles, sharing houses rather than booking hotels, and working with travel companies that have robust sustainability polices.

If there’s one thing that the report makes clear, it’s that the clothes themselves only account for a small part of the industry’s emissions and responsible design only really scratches the surface of fashion’s carbon problem. The way we define ‘sustainable fashion’ arguably needs to look at the bigger picture, zooming out and considering ways in which the industry’s impact can we lowered in other areas of the business. To stop sustainability becoming a passing trend, it’s the behind-the-scenes work that really counts.