2019 has been a big, big year. From political instability (hello Trump impeachment and Brexit chaos) to the global impact of Greta Thunberg’s climate activism or environmental tragedies like Sydney’s bushfires, there’s no denying that the last year of the decade will be remembered for many things.
For the fashion industry, 2019 was undoubtedly the year sustainability made big waves. Though there’s long been a body of dedicated individuals, journalists and designers campaigning for a more sustainable fashion industry over the last few years, it’s taken a while for big international brands to catch on and make it a priority. In 2019, H&M launched more editions of its Conscious Collection. A slew of luxury brands, including Gucci, announced they were going carbon neutral. ‘Circularity’ became the industry’s buzzword, with more and more companies announcing collections using recycled plastics or other synthetic materials.
Sustainable fashion going mainstream was also in part thanks to a few key public figures and organisations championing the cause. After HRH Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle was spotted in a pair of Outland Denim jeans, the ethical brand sold out of the style in 24 hours across Australia and the US, enabling them to hire 46 new seamstresses in Cambodia. Vogue just announced the launch of Vogue Values, a global mission statement adopted by all 26 of its editions cementing its commitment to communicating sustainability, inclusivity and more of the ‘issues that matter.’ Actress and ethical fashion darling Emma Watson worked with the magazine to source conscious looks for her December 2019 cover shoot, and has been continually vocal about the importance of sustainability in fashion and it’s connection to human rights.
2019 was also a big year for bringing fashion’s environmental and labour violations to the fore. In a move that unsettled fashion lovers worldwide, activism movement Extinction Rebellion called to shutdown London Fashion Week, making many question the future of fashion weeks in the wake of the climate crisis. The industry has long been known for a history of human rights violations, brought to mainstream attention by the tragic collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013, but many brands continue to get caught in the act. Released in February 2019, Oxfam’s Made in Poverty report revealed that workers in Bangladesh and Vietnam working for brands like Big W, Cotton On and Target earn as low as 51 cents an hour, with nearly 80% of workers separated from their children due to a lack of adequate income. Just a few days ago, Fashion Nova just got called out for underpaying workers in a Los Angeles factory.
All of this new knowledge (in part, thanks to an onslaught of media coverage) has started to create a generation of ‘woke’ empowered consumers and brand’s have been feeling the heat. Online retailer Missguided caused a social media uproar for advertising a black polyester bikini for a mere £1, a move branded by many concerned netizens as perpetuating the industry’s throwaway culture. A number of fast-fashion retailers have declared bankruptcy or shuttered more stores, including the likes of Forever 21, perhaps in part due to a growing shift in consumer consciousness. Movements like Fashion Revolution continue to encourage us to ask brands #whomademyclothes, calling for greater accountability and transparency.
At the same time, 2019 saw an interest in sustainable fashion consumption grow. From the success of global brands like Reformation and Mara Hoffman to local Singapore labels like Matter Prints, Dorsu and Maisha Concept, demand for brands with ethical values is clearly growing. US-based company Rent the Runway recently hit a $1 billion dollar valuation, whereas new grassroot players like By Rotation, Rentadella and Style Theory are making waves. The second hand consumption movement is also growing. Oxfam’s Secondhand September campaign saw thousands of people proudly sharing their second hand outfits on social media, with the hashtag #secondhandseptember racking up almost 50,000 posts to date.
So, all of the above makes us wonder, how will sustainability continue to shape the fashion industry in 2020? Where’s the conversation shifting to and what type of action will be taken?
More design innovation. It goes without saying that any fashion brand launching in 2020 should be making sustainable production a priority, but we’re also expecting brands or services launching to be building in the United Nations SDG's (Sustainable Development Goal’s) into their business models from the start, designing with a garment’s end of life in mind right from the ideation phase.
Looking beyond circularity to regenerative fashion. Beyond looking at circularity as simply recycling waste in the fashion supply chain at production stage (which, regardless, is still not mainstream and we hope to see increased adoption of in 2020), we’re looking forward to innovation in the field of regenerative fashion supply chains, particularly regenerative agriculture. As it stands, the fashion industry plays a massive part in the degradation of soil, destruction of forests and ecosystems. The goal of any regenerative system is to protect and reverse environmental damage, including restoring healthy soil (with the goal of removing CO2 from the atmosphere, acting as a carbon sink to mitigate climate change). This is something that luxury giant Kering is already working on.
We’re expecting to see an increase in uptake of rental and subscription brands, as well as more business cropping up regionally to cater to local markets. Direct-to-consumer brands will also look into creating their own buy-back schemes to give consumers options to sell their clothes back to the brand for second hand resale.
What’s certain? Sustainable fashion finally seems to be having the moment it deserves — but will this last and will it transform into meaningful, system-wide change? That will be fashion’s biggest dilemma in 2020. Until then, in the now infamous words of Diane von Furstenberg, “Buy Less, Choose Well, Make It Last.”
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