How Best to Manage The Carbon Footprint On The Runway?
Human inactivity is not the answer to correcting CO2 emission problem
The pandemic has given us the once in a lifetime experiment to observe what the impact on reduced CO2 emissions could be on global warming. Perhaps an immediate result that we noted from the so-called “anthropause” period was the dramatic reduction of greenhouse gas emission (about 2.4 billion tons or 7% drop in 2020 than the previous year). Greenhouse gas is directly linked to global warming, which leads to climate change.
Such an outcome may lead us to hastily conclude that nature can heal itself if humans make a concerted effort to eliminate CO2 output. However this is not necessarily true because “the climate is driven by the total amount of CO2 put in the atmosphere over centuries”, said Glen Peters, a research director of the International Climate Research in Norway and a member of the Global Carbon Project. To prevent further climate change, a net zero balance of CO2 emission needs to be achieved and sustained. The COVID-induced CO2 reduction had a negligible effect on overall CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. In fact, data from NASA’s satellite revealed that CO2 emission returned to near pre-pandemic levels in the later part of 2020, possibly due to industries trying to maintain an even level of economic productivity. So what can the fashion industry do to help achieve the lofty goal of net zero CO2 emissions? Afterall, human lives are at stake during the pandemic and people still need to put food on their tables.
Fashion, transportation, and carbon footprint
A surprising fact is that the fashion sector is responsible for about 10% of the world’s CO2 emission, and the transportation sector, a staggering 21%, with aviation industry alone estimated to be responsible for at least 5% of global warming. Somewhere between these two sectors there is an overlap of at least 2% of CO2 emission which comes from consumer transportation (i.e. transport of garments). Given these numbers, it goes without saying that these industries have a huge impact on climate change and should be targets for government or self-regulation or implementing new ideas/means/technologies to reduce carbon footprint.
Lately, the term “carbon-neutral” has become a popular buzzword in the fashion industry. Take Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci, Burberry, and Gabriela Hearst for example, which all have recently staged carbon-neutral runway shows, pledging a greener approach to battle the climate crisis. But do we exactly know what the carbon footprint of a fashion show is? With so many variables (i.e. location, people, materials, time, travel, etc) to consider, the answer is probably not. The only way to guarantee that fashion shows don’t impact CO2 levels is to not have fashion shows at all.
While kudos should be given to brands doing their utmost to minimize their carbon footprint, it’s important not to forget the thousands of attendees (press, retailers/buyers, influencers) traveling, often trans-continent, to merely attend these events. And some celebrities may fly in their private jets, which produce a far greater carbon footprint per person than commercial flights.
To be more specific, consider the amount of CO2 emitted from attending 4 major ready-to-wear fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris, including couture, resort, cruise, and other fashion trade shows in other cities, twice annually. According to a recent report jointly released by Zero to Market, Ordre.com, a fashion technology company, and Carbon Trust, a climate change consultancy, a single year of fashion events measured by the activities of 2,697 retailers and 5,096 ready-to-wear designers released approximately 241,000 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. To take this into perspective, that is equivalent to the amount of energy needed to light up New York Times Square for 58 years.
In-person runway shows yay or nay? What can we do to improve?
One thing that the pandemic has shown us is that many gathering events could be achieved virtually. This wouldn’t be possible of course without technology. Obviously, the total CO2 emission from virtual events is significantly far less (<1%) than a traditional fly-in event. Though challenging, designers were still able to partake in fashion weeks and showcase their collections via virtual platform during lockdown.
Often runway shows are not solely about clothes, but also an experience orchestrated by the designer who wants to share their vision to the audience. Two-dimensional images on a flat screen are simply not sufficient to truly appreciate the quality of clothing. Other details such as the craftsmanship and the texture of the garment, how it catches light, require us to be able to touch, feel and see them in person. Together with the physical environment/set design, it completes the picture behind the inspiration, which allows us to immerse ourselves into the vision of the designers. Therefore, runway shows are important for the fashion industry and are here to stay.
But as we are pushing the climate crisis to the tipping point of no return, the fashion industry is facing real challenges to do better and in doing so can make an impact. If fashion brands are serious about integrating “carbon neutrality” into their DNA, then every decision that they make must place our environment before their profit. For example, consider not hosting runway shows in exotic locations, take Saint Laurent’s spring 2023 men’s show in Moroccan desert and Jacquemus spring 2022 ready-to-wear show in Hawaii as examples. It’s almost unfathomable the amount of CO2 generated just to get all the attendees to fly in for a single event.
Furthermore, it is time for some brands to stop preaching about sustainability while continuing to launch new lines that, frankly, no one really cares about. Also, we need to ask “whether we really need all these shows”, said Tamara Cincik, the founder and CEO of Fashion Roundtable, in a Vogue piece. These shows usually exist more to generate buzz and promote influencers/celebrities rather than customers buying into the season. Simply put, they are ineffective and harmful to the environment. Lastly, we can also limit the size of the runway shows by limiting the number of physical attendees. Aside from retailers/buyers, consider prioritizing having press or contributors of the publication in local proximity to reduce unnecessary trans-continental travel.
Overall, canceling in-person runway shows would not be a pragmatic approach to address carbon footprint concern. To many, fashion is beyond just clothes; it is a form of art because it expresses our creative imagination and triggers our senses. And reflecting on what NASA's climate change lab report had said, completely eliminating human activity to offset CO2 emissions is impractical in the short term. If we want to reduce carbon footprint and protect our environment, we must transition to using low-carbon-emitting technology or find alternative approaches that are better for the environment and would allow us to continue to operate effectively in our industries. In the meantime, reducing the number of shows, limiting their size and having them in accessible locations could at least make a dent in the amount of CO2 emissions generated by these events.