What 2023 meant for sustainable fashion

From fast-fashion bans to progressive new legislations, and not to mention some flagrant greenwashing, Sophie Benson looks back on the year in sustainable fashion

A core part of tracking sustainable fashion throughout the years – whether professionally or otherwise – is the ever-present need to scream into a pillow because a fast fashion brand is selling items for less than 10p again, or an illegal pay scandal has surfaced again, or an enormous pile of clothing waste has turned up in the Global South again, or a millionaire has released a fast fashion collection again. But in amongst the predictable despair, a few developments emerge that either move things forward in a meaningful way or are so completely outrageous that you put down the pillow momentarily to ask “what the actual fuck?”. So, let’s dive into what those moments were this year.

As of Copenhagen Fashion Week’s AW23 edition, any brand or designer that wants to show on the official schedule must adhere to a set of sustainability requirements. Aptly dubbed the minimum standards – because they represent the bottom line of what all brands really should be doing by now – they focus on six areas across the full fashion value chain: strategic directions (how the company is run), design, smart material choices, working conditions, consumer engagement, and show.

Under those six key areas of focus are 18 action points which include not destroying clothes from previous collections; finding a second life for samples; ensuring at least 50 per cent of a collection is made from certified or preferred materials; exercising due diligence in the supply chain; educating consumers about sustainability practices; and practising zero waste set design and show production. On top of these minimum requirements, brands can take additional actions like offering rental services to earn extra points on their application. 

The first fashion council to implement such standards, Copenhagen Fashion Week has started a trend, with Copenhagen International Fashion Fair, the Norwegian Fashion Hub, Oslo Runway, and the Icelandic Fashion Council all set to implement the requirements in coming years. The standards also served as the inspiration for London Fashion Week’s Minimum and Bronze standards for NEWGEN designers.

In 2022, Vestiaire Collective announced it was banning a number of brands from its platform as part of its commitment to end fast fashion. Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, Shein, and ASOS were all on the list. This year, the resale platform added 30 more including H&M, Zara, Uniqlo, and Urban Outfitters after consulting with experts including Fashion Revolution co-founder Orsola de Castro and The Or Foundation co-founder and director Liz Ricketts.

Reactions to the ban have been mixed, with some applauding Vestiaire for drawing a line in the sand and others sharing concerns that it provides fewer avenues for resale, therefore increasing the chances of clothing becoming waste. Acknowledging such concerns, Vestiaire Collective says it wants to “ensure that this ban doesn’t push the responsibility of fast fashion waste onto Kantamanto”. To do so, it is lobbying alongside The Or Foundation for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation, and seeking out “practical solutions” for the fast fashion its community already owns including “recycling, upcycling, and constructive donation strategies”.

For its SS24 show at New York Fashion Week, Eckhaus Latta teamed up with fashion tech company Unspun to develop a selection of zero waste 3D woven garments including chunky tree trunk-esque trousers made from twine, layered jeans, and a sparkly trousers and sleeves set. Unspun’s ‘Vega’ technology makes it possible to create seamless 3D textiles, so instead of starting with a piece of fabric and cutting away what you don’t need – which obviously creates a lot of waste – you 3D weave only what you need, often in less than ten minutes. It was the first time this tech has appeared on a major runway.

While Japanese genderless brand Setchu took the main prize, one of two Karl Lagerfeld Prize winners this year was Bettter. Run by former Vogue Ukraine fashion director Julie Pelipas, Bettter is described as an ‘upcycling system’. While the label reworks deadstock and secondhand pieces (digitally tailored to an avatar for the perfect fit) for sale on its own platform under its own name, it also works with other brands and retailers such as Dover Street Market to launch their own upcycled lines. The ultimate aim is to become a global platform which facilitates upcycling at scale. While upcycling is currently a slow, analogue process done piece by piece, which tends to result in small capsule collections (like Balenciaga’s new Recyclé line, also debuted this year), Pelipas wants to modernise and streamline the whole thing to make bulk production a reality and give the traditional linear fashion system a run for its money.

The destruction of unsold goods has been a hot topic in fashion, with countless high fashion brands linked to the practice. That changed when a landmark law in France to ban the destruction of unsold goods was tabled in 2019, approved in 2020, and came into force as of January 1, 2022. This year the action spread, and in December the EU completely banned the destruction of unsold textiles and footwear. The agreement is part of a wider update to the ‘Ecodesign’ regulation which covers everything from repairability to recycled content. Once that comes into force, large businesses will have two years to comply, and medium-sized companies will have six. So, while not an immediate change, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Fashion stalwart Comme des Garçons collaborated with sustainability stalwart FREITAG on a collection of upcycled bags. The “Holidays with FREITAG” collection was released in December and designed by Comme founder Rei Kawakubo. Swiss brand FREITAG has been making bags out of recycled truck tarps for the past 30 years, and has a sustainability track record that would leave many newly converted sustainable fashion brands in the dust. With this collection, Kawakubo pays tribute to a brand she has reportedly worn for years, while bringing it into the luxury fashion fold.  

NEWGEN footwear designer Helen Kirkum shone a light on the shoe waste she fights against with her upcycled sneakers at February’s London Fashion Week. Her presentation, Step Back, featured four 20-metre rows of single shoes collected from a recycling centre in London. Laid out under low lighting, the 824 worn out shoes were destined to become 137 pairs of Kirkum’s Palimpsest sneakers for the AW23 production run. In an event characterised by excess, Kirkum’s presentation brought focus back to the industry’s propensity towards wastefulness.

No sustainable fashion round up is complete without some greenwashing and scandal, and this year it came courtesy of Kim Kardashian’s nipple bra. Reviving a style that already did the rounds in the 70s, Kardashian introduced the launch of the new SKIMS Ultimate Nipple Bra with a climate-themed ad. “The sea levels are rising, the ice sheets are shrinking, and I’m not a scientist, but I do believe everyone can use their skill set to do their part. That’s why I’m introducing a brand-new bra with a built-in nipple. So, no matter how hot it is, you’ll always look cold,” she said in the promo.

Kardashian also revealed that 10 per cent of sales would go, as a one-time donation, to 1 per cent for the planet. Obviously, the campaign was designed to be a tongue-in-cheek way to approach the climate conversation, but riffing on deadly climate breakdown just felt gross, especially when so many SKIMS products are made from fossil fuel-based synthetics, the production of which fuels the crisis. She’d have been better off releasing nothing at all and donating a sizable chunk of her own wealth instead. Oh, and maybe she could pack it in with the private jets too.


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