Is high fashion as bad for the environment as fast fashion?

It’s well understood that clothes classified as “fast fashion” are bad for the environment. They are produced cheaply and quickly, leading to the outlook that clothes are disposable. Thanks to documentaries like True Cost, consumers have now united to turn their back on fast fashion, but what about luxury or high fashion? As the sustainable fashion movement spreads, a myth has formed that those unreasonably expensive dresses and bags from internationally recognized brands like Gucci, Prada, and Louis Vuitton are just as harmful to the planet as cheap fast fashion. While it’s true that a higher price tag does not necessarily mean the garment or product is more sustainable, high fashion is not as damaging as fast fashion.

Materials alone can’t make clothing sustainable, but using natural fabrics is better than a synthetic blend when addressing the physical pollution crisis. Polyester, the most popular synthetic material in fashion, is widely found in fast fashion clothes. It is cheap, easy to access, and easy to produce. No need to wait for more cotton to grow; just use fossil fuels to make more polyester. It is common to see most fast fashion garments made with 100% synthetics, but that is not the case in high fashion. While synthetics have slowly crept into luxury clothes, most of the time, polyester or polyamides are blended with natural materials like wool, silk, or cotton. This is not perfect, but since high fashion is produced at a much slower pace than fast fashion, it is easier for luxury brands to switch over to 100% natural materials.

High fashion is in a better position to become sustainable quicker than fast fashion. In fact, certain luxury brands have already made incredible strides towards being environmentally-friendly companies. Gucci, for instance, officially declared it was a carbon-neutral brand in 2019 thanks mainly to carbon-offsetting. The brand also launched a sustainability project, Gucci Equilibrium, to keep the conversation going about fashion’s environmental impact. While Gucci was making waves as the first carbon-neutral fashion brand, it’s parent company, Kering, was said to be the most sustainable fashion company in the world in 2019. This was according to Corporate Knights’ Global 100 Index, a ranking of the most sustainable companies across all industries. Compared to the other high fashion powerhouse, LVMH, Kering is the sustainability leader — Kering also owns Stella McCartney, which is considered the original sustainable luxury brand.

Kering's success with sustainability initiatives can be challenged, though. While Gucci and Stella McCartney have claimed to achieve remarkable milestones, neither brand is perfect in terms of sustainability, giving critics ammunition. The reality is perfect sustainability is not achievable by any fashion brand right now, but if it were possible, it would most certainly be done by a luxury brand with a lot of financial backing and industry connections. Small, local brands may seem like the perfect alternative to fast fashion, but in reality, there is little that a small brand can do that a multi-billion high fashion brand can't do and hasn't done. High fashion labels can implement sustainability initiatives like carbon-neutrality, plastic reduction, and circularity more quickly, as well as create new initiatives.

Of course, money and access to the inside of the fashion industry do not automatically mean that high fashion’s path to perfect sustainability will be easy. Many issues plague luxury brands, some of which small brands and fast fashion don’t have to deal with. The occurrence of in-person fashion shows is one issue that has become increasingly talked about as COVID-19 creates disruptions in the normal operation of Fashion Weeks. Physical shows and events are responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions caused mostly by guests traveling to and from. Despite the environmental and monetary cost of Fashion Week, events continue because it is engrained into the high fashion system. Brands are slowly beginning to move away from traditional in-person catwalk shows, but some, like Chanel, remain absolute in their ways.

Then there's the counterfeit market issue, which hurts a brand's image and damages the environment. Counterfeits are made similarly to fast fashion, and can sometimes even be produced and sold by fast fashion retailers. High fashion brands have resorted to litigation to limit the knock-offs, but their demand remains.

The demand for fast fashion also holds steady, but that doesn’t mean it will last forever. Fashion industry insiders are concerned about luxury fashion and how it will come back from the COVID-19 related downturn in sales. Despite the drop in revenue, sustainability initiatives continue in high fashion — Tommy Hilfiger just released new goals to achieve carbon-neutrality. As long as high fashion brands continue to be more sustainability-focused than fast fashion retailers, sales can be expected to rebound. And as those sales rebound for luxury fashion, their sustainability initiatives will be propelled into the spotlight, dispelling the myth that high fashion is just as bad for the environment as fast fashion.