As you may have heard, the world is warming up—fast. And while it's no surprise that the consequences of climate change are mind-bogglingly manifold, there's one in particular that even most scientists likely wouldn't didn't expect: a new trend popping up on the runways of Fashion Week, where "carbon neutral" has become the buzzword du jour.
Earlier this month, during New York Fashion Week, Gabriela Hearst staged what was reportedly the first-ever "fully carbon-neutral" fashion show. Then, about two weeks and 4,000 miles later, Gucci followed suit in Milan. And then, on Tuesday, Gucci's parent company, Kering, made an announcement: The luxury conglomerate is planning to go carbon-neutral across the entire company, within its own operations and across the entire supply chain. Essentially, that means that Gucci, Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Brioni, and Alexander McQueen, plus a handful of other names in fashion, leather goods, jewelry, and watchmaking will soon be joining Gucci in taking the leap.
The reason is simple: Last year, the United Nations reported that the fashion industry is responsible for about 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But what does "carbon neutral" actually mean? More generally, carbon neutrality is the concept of achieving a net zero carbon footprint, which requires offsetting the carbon that one inevitably produces, even by simply taking a breath of air. For everyday humans, that could mean taking actions like making up for a long car ride by pitching in to planting a tree, which turns CO2 into Oxygen. The same concept applies to corporations like fashion companies, just super-sized: Gucci, for example, made its spring/summer 2020 show carbon-neutral by buying carbon offsets, aka donating to groups that work in tree planting and forest conservation.
Ostensibly, Gucci took enough steps to cover 1,000 guests and 900 workers' worth of travel emissions. As for how many trees that equals, well, at the moment, no one's really quite sure. But Gucci, as well as the rest of Kering, is taking other steps, too: They're all also working to cut back emissions overall, chiefly by rethinking their approaches to distribution and production. Kering's plans of actions are by far the most rigorous and detailed in the industry so far, but at the moment, the label of "carbon-neutral" seems to be up for interpretation: Gabriela Hearst, for example, instead took steps like casting local models, banning hairdryers, and donating to a charity that provides efficient cookstoves to families in Kenya. (Perhaps most importantly, she did so by partnering with Bureau Betak, which which can now spread similar practices across the industry as one of the most prominent producers of fashion shows.)
To be clear, being carbon-neutral doesn't mean that one stops producing carbon; it means doing something good to make up for the bad stuff. Of course, one could simply stop doing harm in the first place, but that's not exactly viable for brands. As Gucci's CEO, Marco Bizzarri, told the New York Times: "The only way we can have zero emissions is to shut our business." The solution, then, is classic consumerism: Rather than stop selling, companies will start buying things themselves to keep people buying their clothes.
It should be interesting to see how the announcement trickles down through the industry. Up-and-coming designers aren't exactly in the position to dole out money, but then again, they aren't contributing nearly as much to fashion's overall carbon footprint as luxury conglomerates like Kering and LVMH. (The latter has yet to make a similar announcement, but given the house's infamous rivalry, it should be interesting to see if they quickly announce their own efforts.) More broadly, though, how much are LVMH and Kering even contributing to carbon production themselves? Their operations pale in comparison to the fast fashion industry, and yet it was only this August that companies like Nike, H&M, Gap, Puma, Levi's, and Target joined Kering in pledging that by 2050, they'd achieve carbon neutrality.
Through the lens of sustainability, though, it's hard to resist making adjustments to an industry that pours enormous resources and efforts into fashion show spectacles that only last about 15 to 30 minutes total; after all, ephemerality never stopped Karl Lagerfeld from building a full-size cruise ship or grocery store in the name of Chanel. Shows often involve invites, place cards, and front-row freebies, not to mention the actual clothes that appear on the runway. And to see those clothes in the first place, hundreds of people shuttle from car to car, not to mention between cities like Paris, Milan, London, and New York. (Of course, those are just the "Big Four"; so many other iterations of Fashion Week have popped up across the globe that "it's always Fashion Week somewhere" has become a common refrain.)
It's also always Fashion Week somewhere because of the sheer amount of collections that designers are expected to produce per year. Resort and cruise shows haven't just struck out on their own: They've so outdone themselves that at this point, each is expected to double as a destination show. Between Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Dior alone, in the past few years, a good portion of the industry has traveled everywhere from Havana to Rio de Janeiro to Marrakech to Kyoto.
Models, editors, designers, influencers, buyers, and regular ole industry employees have become jetsetters, whether they like it or not—after all, they can't exactly pull a Greta Thunberg and arrive by sailboat. Though come to think of it, that might be the only real sustainable way to preserve any of Fashion Week's signature theater and spectacle. (Not to mention save Kering the step of offsetting its guests and employees' travel emissions.)