This week, Madeleine Oakley explores the environmental issues and subsequent human reactions to London Fashion Week.

Let’s be blunt. The fashion industry is damaging the environment. London Fashion Week is not helping.

The biannual event showcases hundreds of elaborate garments, made from globally sourced materials. A wealth of fossil fuels is used for fabric production, countless celebrities fly in on private jets, and a huge amount coffee is drunk from take-away cups. The list goes on! However, it is specifically the luxurious aspect of the catwalk shows and experience that separates the world of fashion from the everyday. Is it possible to make Fashion Week sustainable, whilst simultaneously retaining its extravagant charm? Can protests be beneficial in making this change?

Arguably, the lack of change in the structure and lavishness of Fashion Week over the years demonstrates it to be archaic, and its organisers to be in denial of environmental issues. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change states that the textiles sector currently contributes to 10% of carbon emissions worldwide; a number expected to rise by more than 60% by 2030. It therefore seems odd to be celebrating the production of new clothing, when we are in the midst of an environmental crisis.

Recently, The Swedish Fashion Council proved that it is possible to make significant change, when they cancelled the 28th Stockholm Fashion Week, due to take place in August 2019. Jennie Rosen, CEO of the Swedish Fashion Council admitted: “Stepping away from the conventional Fashion Week model has been a difficult, but much considered decision.”

The council have pledged to rethink the format of the event, and to not stage it again until it is sustainable. They plan to set new green credentials, and to support brands who value environmental conservation in design. By publicly acknowledging that it is necessary to adapt fashion week to the current state of the world, it means that they must put strategies in place to prepare for the future. It seems that many designers and key players in London Fashion Week are scared of acknowledging environmental problems, as then they will have to work on changing their normal way of doing things.

In this digital age, it is questionable whether the norm of a catwalk show is necessary for brands to present their collections. In recent years, designers like Burberry and Tom Ford have abandoned traditional methods, with their clothing ranges being on offer to purchase immediately. Social media can also be an effective tool in promoting new fashion offerings. Throughout February 2018’s London Fashion Week, the official London Fashion Week account received 871,648 views of its stories, according to the British Fashion Council. Information can be circulated worldwide far quicker than catwalk show images are published, showing that social media is certainly a tool which designers could benefit hugely from. It could even rival the traditional fashion show.

A group in favour of the cancellation of Fashion Week is Extinction Rebellion. Founded in 2018, they advocate environmental and social change by staging non-violent protests. The term “civil disobedience” is used by them to describe the public demonstrations they implement, in order to create the biggest public statement possible. An ongoing mission is their fashion boycott, where participants are pledging to not buy new clothing for a year. Key member, Sarah Arnold, commented that this does not mean going without, but instead, requires us to question and change our relationship with clothes consumption. She explained: “We can swap clothes between one another, we can customise clothes, we can upcycle them.

At past Fashion Weeks, Extinction Rebellion has carried out numerous public protests to raise awareness of the environmental issues. At February 2019’s London Fashion Week, they created a human road block to stop traffic. The aim was to cause disruption and highlight the large carbon footprint of the occasion, as opposed to them being violent or invading the catwalks. During the recent September 2019 London Fashion Week, the movement staged a funeral along The Strand entitled ‘Fashion Week: RIP’. Protesters dressed in black, wore veils and held white roses. Two coffins were carried, emblazoned with the words “RIP LFW 1983-2019” and “Our Future”. Safia Minney, the founder of fair-trade clothing company People Tree. made a moving speech: “I’m calling on London fashion week to have the courage and the strength to change everything it does.”

Activists also swarmed Victoria Beckham’s well-renowned show, appealing to the fashion industry for acknowledgement. The movement’s demand is for London Fashion Week to be replaced with a bi-annual summit, which will discuss fashion’s role in the environment crisis.

Extinction Rebellion also organised the infamous environmental demonstrations in London in April 2019. The group managed to shut down many of the city’s main roads by playing live music, marching with banners, and also at one point turning the crossing at Waterloo Bridge into an impromptu garden. There were around 50 arrests at the bridge, but these were not violent, and according to a spokesperson, were celebrated with cheers. Evidently, the group’s members are serious about their cause; agreeing with Arnold that “this is a time for boldness”.

The April demonstrations caused a huge amount of disruption for commuters, and others working and living in the capital. Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said that the protests cost the police an extra £7.5 million. The marches affected the public greatly, but did not seem to produce a lasting effect in helping the environment.

It is interesting to consider who is hurt most during these and similar protests. In regards to Fashion Week, the demonstrations may be detrimental to young designers, who simply cannot afford to alter their collections in response to concerns. They also need the publicity and help of London FashionWeek’s NewGen platform to boost their careers. The larger, established fashion houses are more able to ignore the protests. Disruptions to show timings are not significant enough to prompt them to abandon their successful catwalk show traditions.

London Fashion Week is important for boosting our economy. It requires global media coverage, brings in more than £100m worth of clothing orders (according to the British Fashion Council), and supplies countless jobs for fashion, travel and hospitality sectors. The cancellation of the event could damage smaller businesses that rely on the shows for a large proportion of their income. Extinction Rebellion assures us that they do not want revenge, but just want to help the planet. If changes are made to London Fashion Week, then it would be important to consider who is being affected the most, and how these people can be supported.

Perhaps, in order for no one to suffer, there is a requirement for everyone to be more aware and economical with their clothing choices. In the past, this has been possible. Following World War Two, the shortage of raw materials led to the continuation of clothes rationing for a further two years, until 1949. The population was encouraged to ‘Make Do and Mend’, creating a thrifty society, who were at the opposite end of the spectrum to the fast-fashion-obsessed one of today. Our current environmental concerns should be taken as seriously as the material shortages of the war, and it is baffling that the Government does not put laws in place to combat the issue. People were imaginative and experimental with their use of fabrics in the forties, proving that it is doable to have fun with fashion regardless of the newness of the garment.

Protesting does have its place though. It raises awareness of environmental issues and makes us question our role in the matter. It shows politicians that we want change. However, alone we cannot make the bigger fashion houses listen. We are unable to enforce beneficial regulations. It is up to larger organisations such as the BFC and politicians to implement the rules to make a real difference. Climate change is the defining issue of our era, and the fashion frontrunners and major politicians need to stop taking the comfortable route by simply ignoring the issue.

Stay up to date with Madeleine on Instagram @madeleineoakleytextiles

All images via Unsplash

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