Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

Earlier this month, Italian fashion house Gucci shredded the traditional fashion calendar with its plans to move from five runway shows per year to just two. The brand’s creative director, Alessandro Michele, admitted to realising that the industry’s “reckless actions have burned the house we live in” in a clear reference to fashion’s sizable contribution to the climate crisis. Certainly, this is news to be applauded. But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, the fabric of our current world is in so many ways unsustainable. If the fashion industry is to truly become sustainable it must overhaul much more than Gucci’s catwalk.

Exactly one year before Michele’s Instagram announcement was Gucci’s Resort 2020 runway show inspired directly by “the world of the past, because it was a world that no longer exists.” The 2019 show’s inspiration stands as the epitome of fashion’s central problem. Four annual seasons of strutting new designs down the catwalks of New York, Paris, London and Milan stands out as woefully unnecessary. The travel alone required to haul an entire industry to fashion weeks around the world rivals in emissions that of a small country (241,000 tonnes). In an age when the latest collection can be in your hand at the touch of a button, this level of excess can only be considered archaic. Unsustainable? Yes. The whole problem? If only.

Though the likes of Gucci may be at the top of the couture pyramid, how many of us have really looked at one such £4,900 dress and thought, “perfect for my dinner party next week”? I would estimate not many. Though the fashion weeks are certainly environmentally debilitating, it is fast fashion that is the real disease.

Fast-fashion is both literally and figuratively akin to single-use plastics. Literally, the proportion of oil-based synthetic fibres in clothing has doubled since 2000. Figuratively, the consumption models for both are depressingly alike.

Between 2000 and 2015, the production of clothing doubled while in the same fifteen years, the number of times a single item was worn before being discarded decreased by 36%. The ‘buy more, waste more’ model which this shocking level of consumerism promotes is massively destructive to our planet. Yet worse still is the knowledge that fast-fashion giants wilfully promote this model for the sake of their own balance sheets.

The fast-fashion industry is specifically designed to make you feel behind the trends in less than a week. Just think about how many times the ‘new in’ section of your online retailer of choice is updated. For Zara, the oft-touted pioneer of fast-fashion, it’s weekly. For ASOS, it’s daily – sometimes twice-daily. In continuing this perpetual rat-race, estimations put the fashion industry’s contribution to global carbon emissions at 26% by 2050. And the current carbon footprint is already greater than that of all international flights and shipping combined.

While I myself am certainly no saint when it comes to clothing consumption, it is nevertheless harrowing to see the impact of consumer-driven fast-fashion on the planet. As most consumers shop on the high street, this is where the change needs to happen.

Reusing and recycling materials must take precedence over the endless churning of ‘trends’, sustainable fabrics must become the norm rather than the exception, and the promotion of pre-loved and vintage shopping must be massively upscaled. Moves within the fashion industry towards sustainability are commendable – be it Gucci’s reduced catwalks, Diesel’s ‘upcycling’, or Edie Campbell’s train travel between fashion weeks – but they are merely the tip of the already melting iceberg.