When outdoor brand Patagonia made the decision in 1992 to use only organic cotton in its products, the industry barely blinked. What could have been a watershed moment for sustainability was instead a decision ahead of its time, with the mainstream largely ambivalent to the global impact of pesticide use.
Instead, change has come more recently, with millennials driving the demand for sustainable luxury. Leading the pack is actress Emma Watson, who has become a spokesperson for the world of ethical fashion. When the Harry Potter actress set out on press tours for her recent movies, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘The Circle’, she turned to her Instagram account – @the_Press_Tour – to promote the sustainable labels she wore at premieres from San Francisco to Shanghai.
In her posts, Watson showcased recycled gold earrings by Monique Péan and a Philip Lim co-ord made from responsibly-sourced viscose. But it was the appearance of fairy-tale gowns made in organic silk by Burberry, Givenchy and Dior, organic cotton shirts and berets alongside organic skincare brand Pai Skincare that touched on ethical fashion’s latest frontier.
As the industry wakes up to the damage pesticides can cause, more brands are turning to organic materials as they try to nurture a more socially conscious image. Cotton, for example, occupies just 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land but it uses 16% of the world’s pesticides, making it one of the planet’s most toxic crops. As well as damaging eco-systems, reliance on pesticides can drive small-scale farmers into debt and has been linked to high suicide rates in rural India.
With millennials and Generation Z projected to make up 45% of luxury shoppers by 2025, experts believe this new wave of luxury consumers is inspiring brands to meet their demands. “Millennials, be it as consumers or as prospective employees, set the bar high and demand more transparency and responsibility from corporations,” said Francois-Henri Pinault, CEO of Kering, which owns Alexander McQueen and Gucci among other brands.
Younger labels are also meeting millennial demand for ethically sourced materials, often using the organic tag to signpost an entirely ethical production process. Veja trainers, for example, use organic cotton and recycled plastics to re-create the classic sneaker. Manufactured in Brazilian factories where 80% of workers are unionised, the sneaker’s social conscious appeals to celebrities including Marion Cotillard.
Start-up Pico Pants is another brand that promotes transparent supply chains through its line of organic cotton underwear. Sourcing their cotton from fair-trade factories in India, Pico’s millennial founders – Phoebe Hunter-McIlveen and Isobel Williams-Ellis – are advocates for fashion’s new future of sustainability.
The duo told the Women’s Environmental Network last month: “We feel increasingly positive about the new wave of young designers who have transparency and an open supply chain as central to their projects and businesses, and are also proving that to be eco-conscious doesn’t mean a need to compromise on design.”
PICO achieves stylish simplicity in their mix of high-waisted and low-rise women’s pants, proving that the new wave of eco-conscious labels has out-grown any hippy connotations from the early noughties.
As millennial influence on the luxury market grows, organic fashion will remain a high-priority – pushing brands to secure sustainability’s future in fashion’s own eco-system.