Style to die for? London fashion week faces climate change spotlight

by Sonia Elks | @SoniaElks | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 13 September 2019 14:06 GMT

Fashionistas pose for photographers during London Fashion Week in London, Britain, September 13, 2019. REUTERS/ Henry Nicholls

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Fashion is one of the world's most damaging industries, with figures showing it is responsible for about 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions

By Sonia Elks

LONDON, Sept 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The key trends for style-watchers coming out of Britain's fashion week: sharp suits, voluminous coats, and global environmental destruction?

Climate activists Extinction Rebellion disrupted the start of the glitzy event that opened on Friday by spilling fake blood outside the venue to highlight the environmental damage caused by fashion.

Oxfam urged shoppers to only buy used clothing this month under its Second Hand September campaign, backed by designer Vivienne Westwood - who staged a climate change rebellion on her catwalk last season - and model Lily Cole.

While event organisers, the British Fashion Council, unveiled an initiative, The Institute of Positive Fashion, which it hoped to set industry standards for greener business models.

Fashion is one of the world's most damaging industries, with figures showing it is responsible for about 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, and Britons are the biggest buyers of new clothes in Europe according to Oxfam.

Designer Safia Minney, of ethical fashion brand People Tree, joined Extinction Rebellion in a call to follow the example of Sweden by cancelling London Fashion Week (LFW), arguing the industry is "fundamentally unsustainable".

"It feels remarkable that we would just continue a kind of circus of fashion, bearing in mind the crisis that we face," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

LFW organisers countered the criticism, saying they offered a platform to promote sustainability, while others said haute couture should not be blamed for the sins of the high street and cheap, fast fashion.

"We are facing a climate change emergency and we all need to act," said Caroline Rush, chief executive of LFW organisers the British Fashion Council (BFC), in a letter to Extinction Rebellion which was shared online by the climate group.

"The fashion industry has to change from within and ... at the British Fashion Council we have a role to collate the resources, the knowledge and mentoring to create that change."


Brands are facing growing pressure both from consumers and from those within the industry who fear climate change could impact their business model.

A coalition of 32 of the world's largest fashion groups and brands last month published a manifesto with objectives and targets aiming to minimise the industry's impact on the climate, oceans and biodiversity.

While designers are increasingly experimenting with innovative materials, recycling schemes and even digital clothing, some climate activists dismiss such change as skin-deep "greenwashing" that failed to target the root issues.

The charity Oxfam said Britain's monthly fashion habit created a carbon footprint larger than flying a plane round the world 900 times with the production of one cotton shirt produces the same amount of emissions as driving 35 miles.

For the fashion industry to survive, it must change to offer exclusive experiences, new platforms and different ownership models instead of making ever more clothing, according to Jennie Rosen, the Swedish Fashion Council chief executive. "Switching from regular to organic cotton is not gonna do it. And neither will another 'Fashion Week," she said, explaining the surprise decision to call off this year's Stockholm Fashion Week to focus on launching a more sustainable alternative.

"We need to disrupt the whole industry for a complete systemic change and we need to act now."

Some fashionistas backed Sweden's change in tack - although acknowledged climate campaigners would have far more impact if one of the key fashion shows was cancelled - London, Paris, Milan or New York. "People think it was a good decision ... those I have talked to think something really good can come out of this," said Karin Soderland, founder of Swedish fashion brand House of Dagmar.

But others argued that fashion week was the wrong target.

Attacking LFW also revealed a "bias" against an industry that largely employs and caters to women, said Sophie Slater, co-founder of fashion social enterprise Birdsong.

Most of the brands taking part in fashion week were smaller, artisan designers that usually already prioritise sustainability more than high-street, she added.

"The fast-fashion industry would continue to ravage the environment and to sell us endless amounts of stuff if fashion week wasn't there," she said.

(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths and Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit

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