How Sustainable is Luxury Fashion?

environmental impacts social impacts sustainable fashion Jul 03, 2023

For those of you who work in the apparel industry, what first attracted you to the industry? Was it the creative element that comes with working with fashion? Did it seem like a lucrative field to get involved in? Did you just stumble into it along your career journey?

For me, it all started when I saw images of a well-known designer’s latest runway show in a magazine. I remember the enlightening moment of realizing that these clothes were created as a piece of art and not as a functional piece of someone’s wardrobe. 

However, I went through another eye-opening experience: luxury fashion had traditionally been exclusionary (both in price and representation) and did little to nothing to address environmental and social issues. 

For years I turned my back on the major fashion houses. I felt like they represented everything I was against, but as time has gone on, the luxury fashion industry seems to have been making steps in the right direction. But is it really all that it seems to be?

Stella McCartney

Stella McCartney is arguably one of the most innovative high fashion brands out there. From materials, to packaging, to social responsibility, they have dedicated efforts to sustainability since 2001.

Their commitments are centered around animal welfare (no leather, fur, or skins), human health and well-being (no cotton from Uzbekistan, Syria, or Turkmenistan), and environmental health (no PFCs, FSC-certified wood, paper, and packaging). They aren’t stopping there - Stella McCartney is continuing to perfect their supply chains and materials choices.

Stella McCartney uses a huge array of preferred materials. Some of the standouts include Regenerative-sourced, Cradle to Cradle certified and vegan wool, and recycled cashmere. Plus, check out their Eco Impact Report to learn more about the impacts of the materials and how they plan to counteract them. 

The brand’s biggest focus is on circularity where they have partnered with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to help direct them on how to embrace the circular economy and create products designed to last. However, one key element is still missing from their circularity agenda: recommerce! They have yet to create a program to collect used items and re-sell them, but we’re sure this is on the horizon. 

All of this is great, but what could Stella McCartney be doing better? We would love to see:

  • Recommerce program - this would push their circularity initiative forward and help open the brand to new customers who may not be able to afford brand-new items. 


  • Social Impact & Supply Chain Transparency - there is some information available about their social impacts, we would be stoked if they would release a traceability map and get a labor certification like Fair Trade.


All in all, Stella McCartney has made great strides in the high fashion market and it seems like they are committed to keeping the momentum going. The next brand on our list has been making headlines lately and has been innovating faster than the majority of companies out there.


Probably one of the most well-known luxury brands out there, Gucci (a Kering brand), has started to take sustainability seriously. With the launch of Gucci Equilibrium, the brand has shifted its focus to embracing diversity and reducing environmental impacts.

In recent years, Gucci has done some exciting things under the guidance of CEO Marco Bizzarri including emissions reductions, implementation of preferred materials, and creation of a resale program. However, there’s much more for us to talk about, so let’s dive into some of their most exciting endeavors.

When it comes to their materials, Gucci has taken a keen interest in using better materials, and just this week they announced that they will be investing more in organic and regenerative agriculture. They also have an interesting “sustainable leather” program that focuses heavily on full traceability back to the farm. That’s something you don’t see often.

Something really cool that sets Gucci apart from other brands is the EP&L Impact Map (2019-2021) thanks to the work that Kering has done. If you’re in finance or you’re interested in true cost accounting, check it out and make sure you read the methodology. There’s great information in there and this is a great example of transparency

Emissions are another impact area that Gucci is looking to tackle. In 2019, they launched the CEO Carbon Neutral Challenge and the very first step that brands must take is accounting for GHG emissions. It’s great to see such a major brand trying to find a way to account for and reduce emissions, while also collaborating with other brands.

Lastly, Gucci has a great Impact Report that looks at both social and environmental impacts. The 2021 report goes into great detail about what the brand has done and what they plan to do in the coming years. At 42 pages long, it’s heavier than most sustainability reports, but that’s a good thing! Sustainability reports should have as much detail as possible in order to create the highest level of transparency with stakeholders. 

Once again, nobody’s perfect… What would we like to see Gucci do better? For starters:

  • Transparency around tanneries and wastewater - although they have information about leather and water use, it would be great to see more certifications associated with the leather and more information on how/if the wastewater is being treated and released
  • Emissions -  it’s great they have the Carbon Neutral Challenge, but there is little information on what their emissions goals are, what data they currently have on their emissions, and how they will be accounting for GHGs

While both Stella McCartney and Gucci are leading the pack in making luxury fashion more sustainable, there are still many more obstacles to overcome. In this episode of Hot Buttons, the luxury market is examined. Is sustainability in high fashion merely a marketing ploy or can the fashion houses drive real change?

The space is met with a “two steps forward, one step back” problem. For example, Copenhagen Fashion Week updated its requirements for brands to showcase their designs. With 18 requirements, Copenhagen is putting sustainability as the highest priority, and rightfully so. 

However, as the high fashion industry makes big moves forward, they suddenly make a questionable decision to name Karl Lagerfeld as the theme for the Met Gala 2023. The Met Gala has already left many consumers sickened by the amount of waste that is produced for one night of fashion, but with the latest theme, announced many people are outraged. Should we do a separate post covering the Met Gala and how it relates to sustainability? Leave us a comment below!

All in all, luxury fashion still has a long way to go. However, don’t we all? Every brand at every scale has sustainability issues that need to be resolved and there are some things we can learn from high fashion to implement at all brand levels:

  • Implement technology where you can - traceability maps, EP&L maps, emissions tracking, and more should be implemented at your brand. Not only to create more transparency but to also help you understand where your biggest impacts lie and how you can correct the current course
  • Think outside the box - creative problem-solving is a huge part of addressing sustainability, and your brand will face a number of roadblocks, but don’t let this hold you back. Collaborate with other brands, connect with NGOs and non-profits, and always keep an eye out for the latest developments in sustainable fashion 
  • Create a strategy - nothing comes easy, but you can lighten the load by coming up with a game plan. The biggest part of this is coming up with time-bound, goal-oriented initiatives. You don’t have to tackle everything at once, so start with one impact area and build from

While these are just a couple of examples of how luxury brands can and do prioritize sustainability, there are countless other labels out there that are doing good work as well. If you're in the market for a luxury item, be sure to do your research on their sustainability efforts, and don't be afraid to ask questions. One of the preferred ways to buy luxury items is through the secondhand market, such as The RealReal.

However you choose to shop, remember to vote with your dollar - your decision to support sustainability sends a powerful message to brands to keep investing in preferred materials, emissions reduction, and social protections for garment workers. 

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