April 15, 2011 10:10 pm

Earth Day and a sea change

Big brands are dipping a toe in green waters, signalling long-term commitments

Next Friday is Earth Day. It’s also Good Friday, but that’s a random calendar coincidence. While it will be easy to recognise the latter, I’m not sure I would know about the former if it weren’t for the avalanche of e-mails over the last few weeks raving about a new bamboo-fibre or sustainable shopping bag – if there wasn’t, that is to say, a consumer opportunity in every cause, and marketing to push it. In this, Earth Day seems to rival Christmas for fashion enthusiasm. But how deep does it really go?

I get asked this question a lot, partly because about a year and a half ago I spoke at an eco-conference in Copenhagen linked to the UN Climate Change Summit, and ever since, have felt like a default go-to person for anyone (students, journalists, the upcoming International Wool Textile Organisation meeting) looking for comments on luxury and the environment. There’s no real reason for this, other than that singular appearance; my interaction with bamboo is largely limited to its use as a plant in my backyard. Indeed, though my husband used to work at Greenpeace and feels passionately about these issues, he would say I am at best a work in progress. But everyone loves a label, at least one they can paste on someone else, so I’ve gotten stuck with the eco-fashion-critic one.

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Vanessa Friedman

For a while, during the John Galliano/Dior scandal, I was also “a Jewish person in fashion” and kept getting calls wanting to know how I felt about the whole alleged anti-Semitism thing. In return, I explained that while I was, indeed, a proud Jewish person, generally I kept my personal allegiances and my job separate. Now I have been once again relegated to “green girl” – which it turns out, is a pretty interesting place to be, in part because, despite the trendiness of eco-everything, it has still forced me out of my comfort zone, and into a growing sense of systemic change, at least at the upper end of the spectrum.

PPR (which owns the former Gucci Group), for example, recently had a conference on sustainability, and has been aggressively bulking up its corporate social responsibility department. Gucci itself sent out an e-mail blast last February announcing their support of the “Clean Clothes Campaign”, which aims to “end all sandblasting production processes”.

Meanwhile, earlier this year LVMH bought Nude, the natural skincare twin of Edun, the ethical clothing label owned in part by Bono, and in part by Bernard Arnault. In other words, both groups are starting to put their money where their mouths are – and as soon as you involve investment, things get more serious, even if said investment is relatively minor.

Certainly, both the above signal longer-term commitments than what has been the norm in the fashion world, which is a big brand dipping a toe in green waters via the creation of a capsule collection of organic cotton T-shirts (the sale of which may or may not have a charity aspect). See, for example, Alberta Ferretti’s collaboration with actress Emma Watson on “Pure Threads”, a collection of five pieces made from certified organic cotton, not to mention most of the products in the zillions of Earth Day-inspired e-mails I’ve been receiving.

. . .

The cynic would say such brands are simply using these issues as window dressing to drive sales, and to a certain extent I agree – though at the same time, responding to these issues to any extent, even for self-interested reasons, is a good thing.

After all, if someone gives money to a cause to assuage their feelings of guilt, it still has a knock-on positive effect on the cause. I mean, April is also the beginning of benefit season, and you can’t tell me that all those hedgies spending thousands on tables at this and that black-tie gala are doing it just because they feel deeply about the charity involved; they are also doing it for social/political/cultural power. But that doesn’t lessen the amount of money they raise.

Besides, there are supply-chain issues that complicate the eco-fashion question. If you were really trying to gauge a brand’s impact on the environment, you have to look not just at what percentage of, say, organic cotton they use in their garments, but how the cotton is moved to the mills, what processes they use to treat it, and how it gets from there to the factory. Then there is the question of what happens when it becomes a shirt or skirt or dress, how it gets from the factory to warehouse and from the warehouse to stores, and so on. There are a lot of moving parts.

Which isn’t to say there shouldn’t be an algorithm to figure this out, just that it might take a while to create (opportunity, people!). In the meantime, I have always felt that the strongest response to anyone who complains about how long it takes fashion to get on board with the green exigency came from an executive at Louis Vuitton. I had asked how fast their bags degraded in landfill, and in response he looked at me, raised his eyebrows and said: “How many of our bags do you think end up as landfill?”

It was a good point.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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