Just How Bad is NYFW for the Environment? A New CFDA Report Tries To Find Out

Some of the information it contains may surprise you.
A scene from Christian Siriano's spring 2021 collection.
Just because Covid-19 came on the scene doesn't mean people have forgotten about humanity's other looming crisis: climate change. According to a Yale study, Americans are still interested in it.
With that in mind, it makes sense for the CFDA to release its first sustainability state-of-the-art report on Thursday at New York Fashion Week (despite the fact that the pandemic changed the 2021 spring season in about a million different ways). The report, which was first announced in February, is the result of a partnership with the Boston Consulting Group to assess NYFW's environmental impact.
"We understand that NYFW's sustainability is just a drop in the ocean compared to the entire fashion industry. It can, however, serve as a guide for change," said Sarah Willersdorf, BCG's global luxury director, in a press release . "Sustainability is no longer nice to have. It is vital both to our planet and to the long-term prosperity of the fashion industry."
The 56-page report attempts to pinpoint where NYFW's environmental impact is greatest and offers suggestions on how Fashion Week's stakeholders could reduce that footprint.
Some of the results from the CFDA and BCG aren't surprising - like the fact that transportation, including air travel, that many attendees need to get into the city makes up the largest percentage of NYFW's total footprint. The new report estimates that air travel is responsible for 37,830 to 44,520 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per season.
This outweighs by far the next largest source of greenhouse gas emissions for NYFW, either from guest accommodation (between 850 and 1,480 tons) or from production of the collection itself (between 710 and 900). According to the study, the production and transport of sets now only contribute 40 to 120 tons.
The report claims that production is the category in which "stakeholders are doing the most to be more sustainable". Brands can focus on this category because runway kits are attracting more attention as potential sources of environmental damage - perhaps because they're so much easier to spot and imagine ending up as pollution than the invisible greenhouse gases that helped transport everyone.
Other realizations are more subtle. One page of the report explores the idea that "sustainability" in fashion is a dynamic, ever-evolving concept, and shows how the language in which it is discussed has changed over time. In 2013, sustainability was the main topic of discussion with regard to manufacturing. Three years later it was wasted. By 2019, sustainability narratives had changed again to focus primarily on climate change and water use.
Brand leaders interviewed for the study say customers, investors and industry associations - as opposed to the government or their own employees - were the groups most responsible for driving the industry's shift towards sustainability. While many recognize that the call to action comes from their customers, sustainability remains just one concern among many and not a guiding principle that influences every decision.
Probably the most eye-opening result of the report is how customers and citizens alike organize their sustainability priorities. Biodegradable products and packaging have the highest priority for consumers. 48% of the respondents say that they think practice is important. Meanwhile, the ethical treatment of the people who actually make the clothing has received lower ratings: only 39% of consumers say fair / ethical work practices are important, and commitment to health and safety practices for workers was rated the lowest, with only 36% of consumers seeing this as a priority.
Interestingly, brands rate almost every single sustainability priority much lower than consumers. The top priority for brands is using recycled / waste / scrap materials at 35%, followed by fair / ethical labor practices at 27%. This means that when compared to other priorities, brands think ethical work is more important - but they still see it as less important than their customers believe. Additionally, only 19% of brands consider a commitment to health and safety practices important for workers. It seems that both customers and brands lose sight of the human impact of fashion when they think about sustainability.
The report does not end there, however. It also highlights ways NYFW can work to fill the gaps in its sustainability efforts. It highlights the types of digital shows that have normalized this season (which don't require many flights) and recommends brands to work together to reduce transportation between venues and encourage them to offer incentives such as ridesharing create. It also indicates CO2 compensation to reduce the total number of tons of greenhouse gases counted. (It should be noted that Gabriela Hearst, a longtime advocate of the sometimes controversial practice, served on the report's steering committee.)
Fashion has had a problem with hard-to-backup data in the past when legitimate-sounding companies have released reports with unverifiable numbers, and the industry would do well to keep that story in mind and take into account any new report with a grain of salt . But even as this process of verifying facts and matching claims begins, these efforts by the CFDA and BCG are at least a win in that they mark the beginning of what can only be hoped for as the industry begins to measure itself - and hence mitigation - its environmental impact.
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