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Is Digital Fashion Week More Sustainable?

Virtual fashion weeks are more common every season. But is digital fashion week more sustainable?

By Alex Chenery-Howes

All the big fashion weeks are just around the corner, and there have been many conversations surrounding the fact that they will be showcased via digital platforms. This follows the first digital LFW in June 2020. Such measures were not anticipated until the full extent of the global pandemic was realised. But with unforeseen barriers often comes innovation, as Vogue noted when it described the events as a cross between an ‘experimental arts festival and an online convention of opinion’.

For years, the fashion industry has been criticised about its environmental impact. While the debate has focused largely on fast fashion, it was only a matter of time before the debate reached the industry’s upper echelons. For example, recent research conducted by Ordre estimated that in total, fashion buyers and designers attending fashion weeks in New York, London, Paris and Milan contributed 241,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions a year.

Doesn’t sound very sustainable to us! So no wonder more fashion weeks are going online. But is digital fashion week more sustainable, in reality? To explore this issue, I’ll focus on the event I know best: London Fashion Week.

How LFW was already working towards sustainability

The switch to digital gives LFW leverage in the face of criticism. We cannot say that it was purely for reasons related to sustainability, but at the same time, we also cannot discount measures already implemented. These include the debut of the first LFW Swap Shop, as well as initiatives such as Alexander McQueen gifting surplus fabric to students across the UK

Perhaps one of the most important developments was the dominance of sustainable fashion brands at last year’s LFW. These include VIN + OMI, who struck audiences with their use of plant-based textiles, as well as the up-and-coming Vincent Lapp, marked as ‘one to watch’ with their mindful take on the avant-garde. 

But this season, LFW joins Milan and Paris Fashion Week in their upcoming digital showcase. For some, it marks the ‘democratisation’ of the fashion industry at large. LFW is now available to a much wider audience, not just the industry elite but writers, editors, bloggers and fashion enthusiasts. But is it more sustainable?

Is the praise for digital fashion week premature? 

According to Evelyn Mora, founder of Helsinki Fashion Week, we are being too quick to commend digital LFW. Helsinki Fashion Week (HFW) has always been a driving force of sustainability. Key examples include the ‘eco-village’ at the heart of HFW 2018, which included not only ample use of solar energy and electric cars but refreshments consisting of purified seawater and recouped food waste. In an interview with Vogue, Mora stated that ‘there’s a very big misconception that when you go digital, it’s automatically sustainable.’

Numerous sceptics have cast doubt on the inherent sustainability of digital ecosystems. In a 2019 article for The Conversation, Jessica Mclean says that while measuring the environmental impact of digital technology is incredibly complex, there is enough research to cause concern. She cites studies that show how data centres consume over 2% of the world’s electricity and use enough fuel to make them on par with the aviation industry in terms of carbon emissions. 

With potentially millions of people live streaming digital fashion weeks all day, every day for weeks, that’s a whole lot of energy being consumed, even if it is from home or the office. We’ll explore more exact figures of the impact of such viewing in more detail, below.

A well oiled machine

It’s well known that behind every Fashion Week runway is a massive well-oiled infrastructure. Hundreds, if not thousands, of staff are on-hand to ensure everything goes smoothly. Every light, speaker, stage, prop, and piece of sewing and styling equipment plays a part in the collective carbon footprint of a fashion show. Because the (often elaborate) sets are still in place for shows that are displayed over the internet, this will not necessarily be negated by switching to digital platforms. 

In fact, the switch to digital means there are now additional variables to consider. The first is the total carbon emissions of live broadcasting. Back in 2011, Carbon Visuals (now known as Real World Visuals) were commissioned by the BBC to create an animated data visualisation of the company’s carbon footprint. The final product estimated the real-time emissions associated with making one hour of broadcast-ready production was the equivalent of 8.02 tonnes of CO2

The official London Fashion Week website’s schedule contains approximately 24 hours of digital broadcasting. Of course, this is not an exact science, but based on the Carbon Visual’s estimate that equates to under 200 tonnes of carbon emissions. This is before we include fashion weeks in Paris, New York and Milan, all of which are offering a mix of both physical and digital shows.

On top of this is the environmental impact of live streaming. According to Balenciaga CEO Cédric Charbit, fashion shows have a reach of nearly 10 million viewers globally. These shows will be distributed across a variety of networks and servers, and then watched on a countless number of devices. Each one of these devices is a brushstroke in the bigger picture.

According to The Shift Project, a French climate change think-tank, watching online videos generates 300m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year (approximately 1% of global emissions).

Overall, it seems that the more threads we pull, the less we can view digital fashion shows as a magic bullet solution to the industry’s extensive environmental impact.

What can we do to make fashion weeks more sustainable? 

There are certainly aspects of fashion week that are becoming more sustainable, and there is also undeniable potential in the switch to digital. However, when we ask the question: is digital fashion week more sustainable? we must continue to assess the environmental impact of fashion week with the utmost scrutiny. At this point, it’s too soon to consider the switch to digital as an enormous leap of progress.

What climate scientists have taught us is the collective impact of small changes. As noted in Harper’s Bazaar, the decision to switch shower fixtures and taps at Helsinki Fashion Week saved on water usage by 19%. Moving forward sustainability must be the inspiration for every decision, no matter how small, rather than a retroactive choice made in the face of criticism. 

Ultimately, it’s clear that the conversation cannot just be about making Fashion Week more sustainable, but fashion as a whole. Fashion is about trends, cycles of influence, and the creative force of a single idea. And this works both ways.

The industry must continue to champion more sustainable brands, and encourage existing designers using more eco-friendly materials. As well as this, as consumers we must galvanise our spending power behind these brands. To do so would, over time, begin to dismantle the destructive cycle of fast fashion, hopefully bringing the industry into a greener, brighter future. 

Alex Chenery-Howes writes for eBloggers, a luxury online retailer specialising in second-hand designer clothes worn by some of the UK’s biggest influencers. 

Main image: British Fashion Council. All other images: @huishanzhang on IG

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