REJIG, RE-PURPOSE OR RETURN

Colombo Fashion Week is promoting a counterintuitive strategy for designers that partner with it: sell fewer clothes

Similar to airline KLM’s recent campaign suggesting customers consider flying less to limit the environmental impacts of long haul flights, Colombo Fashion Week (CFW) is encouraging the designers it partners with to put sustainable practices ahead of commercial sales. CFW, founded over a decade ago by Ajai Vir Singh, has grown to an avant-guard fashion eco-system including several annual shows. It is known for its links with design and manufacturing companies, its nurturing and supporting of young and established designers, and for building links with the global fashion supply chain.

In February 2020, Colombo Fashion Week introduced what it calls the Responsibility Meter to increase sustainability and transparency in the fashion supply chain under its influence. For the 14 designers involved, it demands a mindset change. They now take responsibility for clothes beyond the sale, in some cases for the lifespan of their pieces.

Engagement could take one of three forms: garment enhancement, where a designer upgrades a piece that’s been worn several times; disposal, in which the designer, at the point of sale, suggests how the item may be repurposed; and return, where a customer receives a discount or other benefit for returning the item to the designer. Vir Singh says from now on, each garment shown in CFW will be tagged with a rating out of ten for sustainability, taking into account its environmental, societal and organisational impact. Instead of purchasing new every season, fashionista’s can have existing pieces upgraded and will be encouraged to re-wear items at special Renew & Repeat shows, he says. CFW’s initiative is striking for discouraging consumers from one of the critical tenants of the fashion industry; buying new clothes every season.

To be successful, such initiatives tap into a broader current in consumerism – shame. As consumer trend trackers Trend Watching put it, “eco-consumption is becoming less about the status of opting in, and more about the shame of failing to do so”. As consumers become increasingly aware of the impact of their choices, brands need to take steps to increase transparency and reduce the shame attached to their offerings, or risk being side-lined. Fashion is a polluting industry.

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It takes 2,700 litres of water to make one cotton shirt. That’s enough water for one person to drink for two and a half years. Combined, the global apparel and footwear industries account for 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to the total carbon impact of the European Union. It’s estimated that by 2030, this could increase by 50%, roughly equal to the carbon impact of the USA today. Designers are also encouraged by CFW to use sustainable fabrics, recycled material accessories, biodegradable packaging and responsible production processes. An additional consideration is given to the use of craft and community in production and positive workforce policies such as up-skilling and wellness.

Initially, the Responsibility Meter will be self-assessed with support and oversight from a CFW panel. The intention is to ease designers into a new way of thinking, and then gradually extend the scheme. Will Colombo’s fashionistas’ jump at the chance to be photographed in the same outfit twice? Maybe not at first. But with prominent designers in Sri Lanka leading by example, there is hope sustainable fashion will become the new norm.