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We Finally Know the Environmental Impact of New York Fashion Week

How much pollution does New York Fashion Week (NYFW) generate? The answer, as it turns out, is between 40,000 tons to 48,000 tons of carbon dioxide, a “small portion” if not insignificant share of the 1.2 billion tons of emissions annually generated by the global fashion industry.

The number, while not unexpected or particularly industry rattling, was nonetheless hard won. While fashion brands increasingly extoll their sustainability credentials, the catwalks they produce rarely get more than a passing consideration. But earlier this year, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) announced it was partnering with strategy firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to investigate and elucidate NYFW’s environmental footprint—the impact of event production, logistics, transportation and public relations, included—as part of efforts to create a “playbook for positive change” that would offer easily implementable guidelines to hone the event’s sustainability profile and reposition it for a “viable future.”

Though Covid-19 erupted soon after, throwing everyone in the business of making clothes and footwear into disarray, the effort continued, even taking on new significance as current circumstances called into question the future of capital-F fashion. With buyers, editors, influencers and other front-row fixtures largely hunkered down at home, most runway presentations either took place digitally or were supplanted by virtual showrooms, short films and music videos.

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“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, CEO of the CFDA, said in a statement. “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. 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.”

To develop the report, published Thursday, CFDA and BCG interviewed a slew of NYFW stakeholders, including designers, event planners, production houses and public relations agencies, to glean a better sense of their attitudes toward sustainability. Overall, the responses were “encouraging”: More than half of respondents said they viewed sustainability as a social responsibility that fashion show organizers must fulfill, rather than mostly a means to stay relevant to consumers or create value.

Nearly three-quarters of those 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. Almost 40 percent of those with such targets, however, said they view them only as a consideration in their planning strategies, not as a guiding principle. Among those without targets, 38 percent said that other issues lead decisions about their NYFW operations, and almost one-quarter expressed difficulty setting useful targets without the help of standards or measurement guidelines.

Roughly half—45 percent—of respondents cited the cost of sustainable improvements as the greatest obstacle to greening their NYFW operations. “We’re working on being more energy efficient,” one production house said. “Backstage, we use LED lights everywhere, but we’re not using LED lights on the runway yet because it is very expensive.”

NYFW’s biggest environmental pain points

Among the six key impact areas, transportation and logistics rated the worst, scoring 36 out of a possible 100 points. Most of the carbon emissions generated during NYFW stem from moving people and equipment to and from multiple locations across the city, including travel by air. While some participants have tried to reduce these emissions through carbon offsets (“controversial,” the report described) or by consolidating travel between events or offering shuttles, ferries and other ride-sharing options, only a handful of stakeholders have sought partnerships with sustainable hotels and car fleets to squash their carbon footprint. “Driving NYFW toward sustainability requires a united effort from the fashion community and the City of New York,” one IMG executive said.

The next biggest area of impact is venues, which scored 45 points. Some venues, the report noted, have higher sustainable standards than others, notably when it comes to energy efficiency. The good news is many participants have taken steps to reduce waste in venues by encouraging recycling or ditching single-use plastic water bottles. The bad? Few use their runway locations for other events they might stage during NYFW, share venues with other brands to pool resources or work with other brands to minimize the distance between venues.

Public relations, with 54 points, is the third most polluting category, primarily due to the waste that PR activities generate, though agencies can help mitigate their impact by switching to digital invitations, providing recyclable gift bags or eschewing gift bags altogether. Content, an impact area that includes all still and video assets, literature and other materials created for the show and used afterward, performed “fairly well” with a score of 56, but the report identified an opportunity for partnerships between stakeholders to create content that promotes sustainability.

Samples received a “relatively well” 61 points, likely due to the fact that many NYFW participants are small brands that already employ sustainable practices in their design rooms and material sourcing that minimizes waste. Show and event production achieved the highest score of 67 points. Both brands and production houses are working to cut waste by repurposing and reusing set materials, props and decor during and after the show, the report said. In addition, most stakeholders are conscious of how they source their catering and materials, “actively pursuing” organic, natural and locally acquired options.

On average, NYFW scraped by with a just-passing sustainability grade of 53 points—not completely hopeless, but with significant room for improvement.

All this may seem moot; who is even holding in-person fashion shows anymore? Yet running through the recommendations is a clear vein of optimism that Covid-19 can be conquered and that NYFW—and fashion itself—will reemerge, if not stronger, then at least not overly bruised.

“The new, post-Covid reality accelerates the need for the fashion industry to take transformative strides towards sustainability. The BCG X CFDA study lays out findings and a practical set of recommendations to be used as a guide by fashion stakeholders in the industry,” said Sarah Willersdorf, BCG’s global head of luxury. “We recognize 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, not only for the many other fashion weeks held worldwide, but also for the entire fashion industry.”

And therein lies the crux of the report: a recognition that for fashion to survive, the environment must, too.

“Sustainability is not a nice-to-have anymore,” Willersdorf added. “It is essential both for our planet and for the long-term prosperity of the fashion industry.”