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CFDA reveals the environmental impact of NYFW

By Danielle Wightman-Stone


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Have you ever wonder how bad New York Fashion Week is for the environment? Well, a new report from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) is trying to find out.

In partnership with Boston Consulting Group (BCG), the CFDA released ‘Sustainability by Design: Rethinking New York Fashion Week’ described as a focused study with a two-fold purpose, to offer a “comprehensive executive summary” on the environmental impact of NYFW as well as a “playbook for positive change”.

The report includes an assessment and analysis of NYFW’s current ecosystem, including event production, logistics, transportation, and public relations, while identifying priorities and opportunities to transform the season of fashion shows and presentations.

“In February, when the CFDA and BCG launched the focused study, nobody could have anticipated the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Steven Kolb, chief executive of the CFDA said. “The new reality demanded we all radically rethink and reset every aspect of the fashion system, and are resilient and innovative in the way we address the urgent climate change and pollution-related impacts of our industry.”

Kolb added: “The study’s findings and recommendations provide useful guidance to fashion stakeholder New York and are also intended to also serve the global fashion industry.”

It reveals that a typical NYFW, pre-Covid-19, generates 40,000 to 48,000 tons of carbon dioxide, with a large proportion of that down to 10,000 people who fly into New York for the event, as well as the additional emissions coming from the many trips they take from venue to venue once in New York. Then there are also greenhouse gas emissions from accommodating guests, the production of the collection itself, as well as set production.

The manufacture of samples and other goods, as well as of sets and props used during shows, produces large amounts of waste, adds the report, as do the many venues where the shows are held.

Boston Consulting Group and CFDA release ‘Sustainability by Design: Rethinking New York Fashion Week’ report

“We recognise that making NYFW more sustainable is but a mere drop in the bucket compared to the fashion industry as a whole, but it can serve as a bellwether for changes,” said Sarah Willersdorf, Boston Consulting Group’s global head of luxury, in a statement. “Sustainability is not a nice-to-have anymore. It is essential both for our planet and for the long term prosperity of the fashion industry.”

The report adds that the amount of waste and excess built into the fashion calendar lies at the heart of the fashion industry’s lack of sustainability. The industry currently releases about 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases every year, close to 10 percent of total annual global emissions. Currently, only 8 percent of stakeholders offset the greenhouse gas emissions they produce during NYFW.

While adding that people will consume more than 102 million tons of clothing over the next decade, up 60 percent from 2020, and 80 percent of it will end up in landfills. With research indicating that a single cotton T-shirt takes 2,700 litres of water to produce.

However, it does add that consumers are calling for the industry to change, with Google searches for “sustainable fashion” increasing by a factor of more than 12 from 2010 through to the first half of 2020. With a recent Boston Consulting Group survey revealing that consumers would choose a more sustainable fashion and luxury brand over a less sustainable one.

It does reveal that some progress has been made towards greater sustainability. In 2017, the fashion and luxury industry’s Pulse Score, developed by Boston Consulting Group and the Global Fashion Agenda, which measures environmental and social performance on a 100-point scale, stood at just 32; by 2019, it had risen to 42.

When it came to the survey of various NYFW stakeholders, including designers, event planners, production houses, and public relations agencies about their attitudes toward and perceptions of sustainability, the report found that more than half of all respondents said that they viewed sustainability as a social responsibility that fashion show organisers should fulfil, rather than as simply a means to stay relevant to consumers or to create value.

Almost three-quarters of NYFW stakeholders surveyed said that the companies they work for have sustainability targets for the materials they use, waste reduction, partnering with others dedicated to sustainability, and energy use. But almost 40 percent of those with such targets view them only as a consideration in their planning strategies, not as a guiding principle.

Among those without targets, 38 percent say that other issues drive decisions about their NYFW operations and almost one-quarter note that it is difficult to set useful targets without having standards or measurement guidelines.

CFDA report identifies areas for sustainability improvement

There is no easy solution, as NYFW contributes 600 million US dollars to New York City’s economy through local businesses and city tax income. To help brands to fully understand and measure their environmental impact, Boston Consulting Group analysed six impact areas across content, sample, production, venue, public relations and transportation/logistics to create a framework to reduce NYFW’s environmental footprint.

Currently, NYFW scores 53 out of 100 on sustainability overall, but the scores for the individual impact areas vary considerably, from a score of 36 for transportation to 67 for production.

Strategic changes that could help included embracing digital livestream, moving from catwalk to presentation, as well as venues creating partnerships with other brands to reduce the distance between shows, and reducing events outside of the main show. Other changes include using digital invitations, recycled paper in lookbooks as well as compostable and recycled materials in production, no use of single-use garment bags or hangers, and encouraging or providing ride-sharing for attendees, which it adds would “go a long way toward increasing NYFW’s sustainability”.

The report explains that when it comes to production of shows and events, NYFW achieves its highest sustainability score and that fashion brands and production houses alike are endeavouring to reduce waste by repurposing and reusing set materials, props, and décor during and after the show. Most stakeholders it adds are also “conscious of the sourcing” of their catering and materials, actively pursuing organic, natural, and locally sourced options.

However, as with the other impact areas, reducing energy use remains a challenge, with the reporting noting that most participants are working with local partners to minimise their carbon footprint, rather than flying in artisans and other vendors from far away. But Boston Consulting Group states that more efforts could be made to use renewable and clean energy sources on set, and they should compensate for any unavoidable emissions they create during the week.

When the survey asked respondents what other ways NYFW could become more sustainable they stated: Centralising locations to minimise guest travel; Venue sharing; Incorporating digital formats and experiences; Government support; Sponsors need to get on board since they fund the shows; and finally, by tightening the calendar with fewer days and shows.

NYFW unveils sustainability playbook

To support the NYFW community from fashion brands to production houses, event planners, PR agencies, and others, in their efforts to move toward a more sustainable NYFW the CFDA and the Boston Consulting Group have designed an NYFW Sustainability Playbook for Positive Change to serve as a guide and a resource.

It provides “need-to-know guidelines and strategies for change” covering the six sustainability impact areas and four sustainability dimensions - waste, energy, materials and partnerships, and ranks each suggestion on ease to achieve - easy, moderate and hard. In part, NYFW’s sustainability strategy has been inspired by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the UN, not just with regard to their encouragement of responsible consumption and their determination to take action on climate change but also in their commitment to promote job growth and make cities more sustainable.

To assist fashion week stakeholders in preparation for next February’s NYFW, the CFDA added that it is planning a series of virtual engagements via education and collaboration.

“Driving NYFW toward sustainability requires a united effort from the fashion community and the City of New York,” explains one IMG executive in the report.

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Image: CFDA website - Jason Wu SS21

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