Scrap the catwalk: Extinction Rebellion is right – London fashion week is unsustainable

The environmental impact of the fashion industry is enormous. And with fashion weeks acting as promoters of even more consumption, it’s time for radical action

I have long wanted to get a special T-shirt printed for our national bi-annual fashion showcase. It would read: “I went to London fashion week and all I got was this lousy (unsustainable) T-shirt.” A pale form of dissent, I know, but it would probably generate some Insta likes and at least be a way to echo my frustration that the four premier global fashion jamborees (London, New York, Paris and Milan) continue to celebrate a system of production and consumption that is spinning us ever closer to ecological Armageddon.

I had better get a move on with my T-shirt before London fashion week (LFW) is cancelled. Because the environmental group Extinction Rebellion has seized the initiative, writing to the British Fashion Council (BFC), conveners of London fashion week, demanding it is scrapped in favour of “a people’s assembly of industry professionals and designers as a platform to declare a climate and ecological emergency”. It is too early to speculate on what format this might take, but it is not a scenario brimming with immediate Frow (front row) appeal. That is to say, it is hard to imagine fashion influencers, the Insta-elite and bloggeratti, including Kylie Jenner et al, stampeding to take part in a town hall meeting on Arctic melt rates. But Extinction Rebellion is not likely to be fazed by such frivolous objections. It is deadly serious, on account of the deadly nature of runaway climate change.

The fashion sector has been in Extinction Rebellion’s sights for a while. In February 2019, at the last LFW, the group formed a human blockade around venues to highlight the excessive carbon footprint of the industry and to force the BFC to declare a climate emergency. Two prominent members, Sara Arnold – founder of the fashion rental company Higher Studios – and the fashion designer Clare Farrell are former industry insiders. Farrell was a mentor for one of LFW’s outstanding designers in February, Bethany Williams. Williams’s social-justice themed collection was shown on the runway shortly before she received the Queen’s Award for British Design. Unfortunately, Farrell was not there to see it: she had been removed from the queue for the show by the police, who recognised her as a protester.

But Extinction Rebellion’s desire to up the ante is not motivated by revenge or spite. (Farrell was sanguine after the incident. “Oh well,” she said, “at least I don’t have to go through the rigmarole of an FOI request to find out if I’m on the domestic terrorism list.”) This is not about payback. When you get your mandate from the planet (as Extinction Rebellion might claim), there is no escaping the fact that the fashion system as it stands is unsustainable.

Sara Arnold, Tamsin Ormond and Emily Sheffield at the Port Eliot Festival.
Sara Arnold, Tamsin Ormond and Emily Sheffield at the Port Eliot Festival. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

While for decades it managed to swerve any implication that it was anything other than fabulous, increased scrutiny of its environmental impact has proved startling. An industry that depends on the growing of cotton – a pesticide-dependent and highly thirsty crop – and the cracking of oil for synthetic fibres, inevitably has a huge impact. Over the past decade, production has intensified. Globally, we now produce in excess of an estimated 100bn new garments a year, almost all from virgin resources. These garments stay in our lives for an increasingly short space of time, becoming waste (with yet more impact). Even the industry-friendly Pulse report conceded earlier this year that fashion is failing to counterbalance the harmful impact of an ever-swelling clothing inventory and continues to be a net contributor to climate change. By 2050, without radical action, the global textile industry will be accountable for one quarter of all carbon emissions. As Extinction Rebellion organisers recently made clear in a talk at the Port Eliot festival, the emissions alone give them a mandate for decisive action. This business is their business.

London fashion week

Started in the 1980s, London Fashion Week is organised by the British Fashion Council. It takes place four times a year, in February and September for womenswear and January and June for menswear. February showcases autumn and winter looks, while September’s focus is on the following spring and summer seasons

Around 14,000 people attend each year, including press and buyers, and the designers exhibiting include major heritage brands as well as emerging talent.

After the main event has ended, the 4-day London Fashion Week Festival takes place. This allows consumers and shoppers a chance to experience the shows and view collections.

But their move to cancel fashion week has caused a backlash. Judging by the flood of messages I have received – including from sustainable fashion campaigners – many think this is just too extreme. Some of the angst stems from a genuine worry that this will harm people (particularly young British designers who need the leg-up publicity from LFW’s NewGen platform to launch their careers). Then there is the much trumpeted fact that the UK fashion industry is a cash cow for the economy, contributing a reputed £32bn each year. To remove a linchpin event that – according to the BFC – secures more that £90m in global media coverage and generates more than £100m worth of orders of new clothes each year, would surely be a crazy move.

But isn’t that precisely the point? It wouldn’t be fair to say the BFC has ignored sustainability or the reduction of carbon emissions. Every season, at least one designer with sustainable values is profiled to the heavens. For many years, LFW ran Estethica, a dedicated wing of the show profiling sustainable fashion (although it was often housed in a rather hard-to-get-to wing of Somerset House). But these designers and initiatives are the exception, not the norm. Elsewhere, the 60 catwalks over six days perpetuate business as usual. This means studiously avoiding talking about the central problem: volume. Year on year, so much product is being thrown out into the marketplace that it is a wonder any designer can sell anything at all, and it is pretty obvious that the environment will never win.

Of course we should think about the effect on the next generation of design talent, many of whom have spent thousands of pounds on a fashion degree at one of the UK’s highly rated establishments – some of which include sustainability as part of their curriculum. But maybe this is a good opportunity to assess whether the current mechanism built around February and September shows is actually serving them. I suggest it isn’t.

Bethany Williams’s social-justice themed collection.
Bethany Williams’s social-justice themed collection. Photograph: Jamie Baker/The Observer

We tend to regard the path to LFW unquestioningly, a little bit like those old-time Judy Garland films when an ingenue must get to Broadway to achieve their dreams. But in the fashion world, even those budding designers who get picked up as a talent can find themselves in a vicious and financially draining cycle. Even if you win a talent bursary, it doesn’t cover the thousands of pounds in subsequent seasons, when you are no longer the hot new talent, to rent showrooms in order to attract buyers to secure orders. Although the media outcry around fashion weeks has largely focused on the exploitation of models, many of whom are unpaid, you don’t have to go far to find designers who are similarly disillusioned.

You could argue fashion weeks are displaying all the pitfalls of late-stage capitalism, and remarkably few benefits. Yet we cling to them. This reflects a reluctance to admit we need systematic change, a complacency that is deep-rooted and happens in every sector. But in fashion there exists an assumption that it is enough to work with the industry and just tweak the supply chain toward sustainability – for instance, through the odd recycling initiative or sustainable collection. Basically, we want things a bit like now, but less bad. Extinction Rebellion’s stance shakes this assumption to the core.

There is also a precedent. Last month, the Swedish Fashion Council cancelled the 28th Stockholm fashion week. Looking at the reality of a fashion week in the context of a climate and ecological emergency led organisers to conclude that they needed to shut the event down until they could remodel it to be truly sustainable.

As to what that means, over the past year we have increasingly seen an evidence-based lens applied to the fashion industry by academics and institutions such as the UK’s Union for Concerned Researchers in Fashion. Academic researchers map the industry against the reality of how ecological systems actually work. Once you apply this framing, you move towards real sustainable options, namely curtailing production and consumption – that which fashion weeks are traditionally allergic to doing. If this smacks of deprivation, imagine focusing on a different system of circulating and using clothes, such as the rental model. Runway-dominated fashion weeks only allow for clothes to be celebrated when they are new. Why not celebrate a different phase?

But that’s for a future conversation. London fashion week’s day of reckoning is both logical and overdue and we should heed Extinction Rebellion’s call to mothball it. Don’t be scared: embrace the change.


Lucy Siegle

The GuardianTramp

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