It’s clear that 2021 has to be the year that fashion accelerates its action on the climate crisis. Despite sustainability being much-discussed in recent years, a 2020 report by the Global Fashion Agenda and management consultants McKinsey found that the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions — which already make up as much as 10 per cent of total global emissions — are actually on course to rise by about a third, to a shocking 2.7bn tonnes a year, by 2030.
While we’ve seen a flurry of environmental targets of late, brands now need to urgently follow through on these commitments to cut carbon emissions. “There’s a real focus this year on what those companies are actually doing,” Maxine Bédat, executive director at the New Standard Institute think-tank, tells Vogue. “That requires disclosure and accountability [from brands].”
Still, there have been some promising developments that we’re likely to see more of this year — whether that’s the upcycling trend that dominated the runway during spring/summer 2021 or the development of innovative new materials and technologies set to hit the market. “It’s about scaling and accelerating progress — brands need to invest in [creating a positive] impact,” says Céline Semaan, founder and CEO of the Slow Factory Foundation , of the action she’d like to see this year.
The good news is that many of the answers already exist. “The challenges are known, the solutions are there — there’s real possibility to make these important shifts [within the industry],” Bédat adds. Here, we take a look at seven major sustainability trends that could propel the industry forward in 2021.
1. Regenerative agriculture
Given the vast CO2 emissions created by the fashion industry, an increasing number of brands, including Eileen Fisher and Patagonia are looking at natural solutions to remove carbon from the atmosphere, including adopting regenerative farming practices — a method of farming that involves no tilling, but grows a diverse range of crops to help put nutrients back into the soil. In fact, eco-conscious designer Mara Hoffman recently released a range of Climate Beneficial knitwear, which is carbon negative thanks to regenerative techniques. Expect to see more collaboration in this area in the coming months via a new project from Californian-based non-profit Fibershed.
2. Climate positivity
The growing interest in regenerative agriculture fits into the wider climate-positivity movement, which, as the term suggests, looks at how fashion can actually have a positive effect on the environment — rather than just limiting its negative impacts.
Exciting developments in this space include a carbon-negative leather from California-based startup AirCarbon, which is created by taking methane and carbon from the atmosphere, replicating a natural process found in microorganisms in our oceans. Algae is also a material to have on your radar, with Canadian-Iranian designer Roya Aghighi and London-based research studio Post Carbon Lab exploring using living algae in our clothes that can photosynthesise (and therefore, take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) as you wear them.
With one million species under threat of extinction, biodiversity — or the variety of animal and plant life on Earth — is set to be high on the agenda this year. Fashion plays a significant role in global biodiversity loss, due to land use (for example, growing cotton and livestock breeding), deforestation (caused by viscose production), water pollution (from textile dyeing and microplastics), and waste (92m tons of textile waste ends up in landfill every year).
Gucci-owner Kering unveiled its biodiversity strategy in June 2020, with a target of having a net positive impact on biodiversity in 2025. Watch out for similar commitments from other brands to coincide with the UN Biodiversity Summit, due to be held in China in May.
4. Circular thinking
Circularity — the move towards materials being used again and again within the industry — is a trend that isn’t set to go away in 2021. We’re likely to see attempts to scale-up new recycling technologies, such as the H&M-backed Green Machine, which claims it can separate and recycle polyester and cotton blends on a mass scale (something that would be a potential gamechanger, given the amount of polycotton textiles on the market). There is still a long way to go for fashion to be truly circular, though, with the Global Fashion Agenda reporting that brands only met 64 per cent of their circularity targets for 2020.
5. Brands embracing resale
One element of a circular business model includes resale, which has been booming thanks to sites such as The RealReal, Vestiaire Collective and Depop (vintage obsessive Bella Hadid is the ultimate poster-girl here). Luxury brands are increasingly looking to capitalise on this trend, with Gucci announcing a new partnership with The RealReal in October. This year, we’re also likely to see more companies take ownership of the resale of their garments, as well as online luxury retailers embracing pre-owned clothing (see Farfetch’s Second Life scheme).
6. Bio-based materials
From rose petal silk to cactus leather, there’s been no shortage of new bio-based materials to hit the market in recent years. The next challenge? Scaling these technologies up so they can be swapped in for the more environmentally damaging fabrics they’re designed to replace. We’re already seeing more investment in this area, with cult loungewear brand Pangaia recently announcing its partnership with materials-science company Kintra to develop a bio-based alternative to polyester that’s 100 per cent biodegradable. Pangaia already creates self-cleaning T-shirts made from seaweed and puffer coats filled with wildflowers, plus uses lab-produced pigments made from a flower’s DNA.
7. Social impact
With the pandemic shining a light on the treatment of garment workers, social impact is an area that brands will have to improve on. Increasing consumer concern means there’s more pressure on brands to share information about their suppliers and measures they’re taking to ensure ethical working conditions and fair wages. With Chloé — under new creative director Gabriela Hearst — revealing that it will be seeking B Corp certification (which verifies a company’s social and environmental performance), it’s likely we’ll see more brands following suit.
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