One of the biggest challenges facing the fashion industry in its move towards greater sustainability is changing the way we consume fashion.
It could be argued that the very term fashion implies unsustainable behaviour with its emphasis on regularly changing tastes and the need to discard garments as soon as they are “out of fashion”, rather than because they are no longer fit to wear.
Perhaps the most discussed fashion event of the year will be the Oscars – the Academy Awards – red carpet parade on 12 March 2023, with live streamed blogs of the fashion choices on show1 and much discussion in subsequent press coverage.2
A red carpet outfit is often the antithesis of a sustainable fashion choice. They are often impractical for day to day use, with little consideration for the material used and its sustainability profile.3 Additionally, red carpet outfits will typically be used only for the one event, with re-wearing an outfit historically a potential source of criticism from fashion commentators. Sometimes attendees will use more than one outfit during the event, changing from their red carpet outfit to a second ensemble before moving on to various after-parties.
The mindset of fashion as a disposable good has helped drive up consumption of clothing. According to analysis by McKinsey, the number of garments purchased per capita increased 60% between 2000 and 2014.4 Work by the European Environment Agency estimates EU citizens consume approximately 15kg of textiles per year and dispose of 3.8kg.5 These discarded textiles are often exported to other countries and many may end up in landfill or discarded in the environment. This level of waste and overconsumption is unsustainable and is a key challenge for industry change.
An important driver for changing the way fashion is consumed will be changing focus away from focusing on novelty in attire and instead lauding more sustainable choices such as vintage items or those made from recycled fabrics. The influence of popular culture in driving such a mindset shift is an important consideration.
Fashion brands see events such as the Oscars as highly rewarding showcases for their styles, with actors often paid substantial sums to wear particular designers.6 Although the high-end couture worn at these events will typically be well out of the price range of most consumers, the styles chosen are quickly picked-up and pushed by cheaper fast fashion names keen to cash in on the buzz by bringing new lines to market in a matter of weeks7 or even days.8
The widespread media coverage and buzz around certain styles and designs makes such events important points of influence for the next big trend or designer. However, the attention paid to the outfits worn at events like the Oscars provides a potentially important point of leverage for changing the discussion around fashion. Imagine if the next day, discussion of the best (and worst!) dressed attendees focused as much on the sustainability characteristics of their choices as it did on how they looked. A focus on the sustainability characteristics of the “best” dressed would likely also pressure the fast fashion names to try and follow in any imitative outfits they produce.
Happily, there are already some efforts being made to make red carpet events greener. Individual actors have made notable sustainable choices in recent years. For instance, Lady Gaga wearing a dress made from upcycled coffee filters.9 Some have also pushed back against the need for novelty by re-wearing outfits from previous events.10 There are also broader efforts such as The Red Carpet Green Dress11 initiative which looks to work with designers and actors to promote more sustainable fashion choices at the academy awards.
We hope to see the trend towards more sustainable fashion choices on the red carpet continue and that this starts to receive as much coverage as does “best” or “worst” dressed opinion.
2 Red carpet fashion | Fashion | The Guardian