By Yoko Tanimoto and Kensuke Fukushima / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersHigh-end fashion brands are taking another look at their long-term practices by ending the mass disposal of unsold products and the use of fur, among other actions. Amid mounting social criticism, fashion businesses are being urged to change course to preserve their brand value.
The 2019 Spring/Summer Collection in Paris ended on Oct. 2. Popular brand Stella McCartney had an invitation that included an explanation of environmentally conscious materials, presented in the format of comics. The clothing that was shown made use of sustainable materials such as recycled nylon.
Up-and-coming brand Marine Serre created a new dress out of unsold clothing and material. This is called “upcycling,” a method to change discarded products into products with high added value. Designers say that in the current age of clothing abundance, they feel no need to use new materials. For them, it is possible to create outstanding clothing with materials already available.
On Sept. 6, Burberry announced that it would no longer engage in mass disposal of unsold products. The BBC and other media outlets had reported in July that in fiscal 2017 alone Burberry disposed of products such as clothing and perfume worth about ¥4.2 billion, bringing significant criticism.
Burberry CEO Marco Gobbetti has stated that modern luxury means being socially and environmentally responsible. The company will switch to using recyclable and donated materials from this point on.
The LVMH conglomerate, with 70 brands under its umbrella, touts reducing carbon dioxide emissions and raising the use of renewable energy. H&M has said that all of its products will use environmentally conscious materials by 2030.
U.N. warns industry
The background for these actions is mounting criticism of the fashion industry, which is based on mass consumption and disposal.
In March this year, the United Nations held an international event in Switzerland on the topic of fashion and sustainable development goals. The garment industry uses the second-largest volume of water among all industries, and accounts for 20 percent of the world’s wastewater and 10 percent of global carbon emissions. The United Nations warned that the industry needs a course correction.
A research report concerning clothing issued in November of last year by the Britain-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation also pointed out that the recycling rate for clothing falls short of even 1 percent.
Criticized by animal rights groups
The use of fur also receives criticism. In September, during Prada’s show in Milan, not a single piece of clothing used fur. Shortly before the show, animal rights organizations in about 30 countries criticized Prada by name. This spread on social networking services and Prada received thousands of protest emails and phone calls, according to Prada’s public relations division. Prada further clarified that it would gradually scale down the use of fur in its products.
In 2016, Giorgio Armani discontinued the use of mink and other kinds of fur, while in 2017 famous brands such as Gucci and Michael Kors announced that they would no longer use fur.
Preventing loss in brand value
Against the background of a series of course corrections by fashion brands is a sense of urgency that they would lose the trust of consumers and investors, leading to a loss of their brand value, if such criticism spreads on social media.
Mariko Kawaguchi, a chief researcher at Daiwa Institute of Research Ltd., says that ESG (environmental, social and governance) investments have spread, centering around Europe and the United States. This type of investment considers environmental and social issues when investing in a company.
She said: “Recently the perspective of animal welfare has also been added. European and U.S. brands have maintained their value, while taking actions to end mass disposal of products and discontinue the use of fur, as a means to hedge their risk.”
Fashion expert Yoshiko Ikoma said: “The awareness of consumers has changed, and there has been an increased movement toward ethical products. A turning point is coming for the fashion industry, which has expanded through mass production and disposal.”
Focus on Japanese technology
The course correction carried out by European and U.S. brands has also had an effect on the Japanese fashion industry.
Okada Textile Co. in Hashimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, uses acrylic materials developed by Mitsubishi Chemical Corp. to manufacture fake fur that recreates the color, luster and even feel of real fur. After Gucci’s announcement last year that it would no longer use fur, Okada Textile has received continuing inquiries from both domestic and international brands.
Okada Textile President Tsuguhiro Okada said, “Inquiries have doubled compared to this time last year.” Visitors to their sales website once only numbered about 100 a day, but now there are days when the number of visitors surges to 1,000.
Mitsubishi Chemical is enthusiastic and wishes to develop more materials in anticipation of fur-free movements happening among influential U.S. and European brands.
The movement to take another look at mass production and disposal has also begun to expand in Japan.
In October last year, the select shop Beams Co. started its brand Beams Couture that recycles some of the clothing and materials sitting in its inventory.
Designer Romi Mizukami said, “Other brands create clothes by the hundreds. However the select shop company carefully crafts one-of-a-kind items by hand.”
According to Beams public relations, “It is a challenge to change clothing sleeping in the warehouse into unique pieces with value through the power of design.”
There are about 4 billion pieces of clothing circulating in Japan, according to a 2016 Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry survey. The figure is double the number during the economic bubble. The volume of textile garbage, including discarded clothing, increased to about 1.21 million tons, according to a fiscal 2015 Environment Ministry survey.
Prof. Yoshinori Terui of Bunka Fashion Graduate University said: “It is time to consider a framework that uses tools such as artificial intelligence to create clothing without the need for large amounts of stock. Consumers must focus their attention more on the production process on the other side of beautiful clothing.”