09 March 2023

Does red carpet fashion contribute to climate change?

09 March 2023

Throughout awards season, hundreds of actors, music stars and industry insiders take to the red carpet at glitzy ceremonies, going all-out with their black tie attire.

Many of the glamorous designer gowns and suave suits donned by celebrities are high-quality garments, on loan and returned later – so they might avoid the fate of falling apart after a few wears and ending up in a landfill.

But have you ever considered how the annual parade of A-listers splashed all over the internet and dissected by fans might have an indirect impact on climate change?

Hidden costs?

“It’s very, very complicated, in terms of sustainability and the fashion industry, because there are so many elements that contribute to it,” says Lynne Hugill, principal lecturer in international fashion at Teesside University.

“A red carpet dress maybe wouldn’t be worn once by one person [unless it’s a custom-made, one-of-a-kind outfit]… But then is that better? Because you’ve got to maybe dry clean it, which can be quite damaging to the environment, and you have to ship it.”

Globally, UNECE estimates the fashion industry is responsible for between 2% and 8% of all carbon emissions.

Every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truck load of clothes is burnt or buried in landfill, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

While high-end garments might be built to last, the popularity of plastic sequins in eveningwear designs – which can take hundreds of years to decompose – is another cause for concern.

“There are a number of companies that are working on the alternative to sequins,” says Vicky Wake, lecturer in fashion alongside Hugill at Teesside.

“Recycled materials, for instance, that are made into sequins, or sequins that are biodegradable or can be maybe melted down and used for something else.”

Vintage alternatives

On the other hand, there’s a growing trend for celebrities delving into the archives of their favourite brands and sporting vintage pieces on the red carpet.

Celebrities such as Zendaya, Jennifer Aniston, Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian have all worn vintage dresses at high profile events recently.

Does this have a positive impact in terms of encouraging consumers to wear secondhand? “Anything that Kim Kardashian’s in, yes,” says Wake.

Hugill agrees: “It’s very much more accepted for people to wear vintage and secondhand clothing.

“At London Fashion Week [in February] we had Oxfam showing a collection of vintage clothes. It’s becoming much more on trend.”

The recent explosion of fashion rental sites such as HURR Collective, By Rotation and Hire Street gives consumers a taste of the red carpet experience – an appealing prospect for those don’t want to be pictured in the same outfit twice on social media.

Yet, as with Hollywood stylists borrowing dresses, hiring isn’t entirely carbon neutral.

“With everything, there are pluses and minuses,” Wake says.

“You’ve got the pluses with the fact of [the garment] not going to landfill, it’s being worn more times, but then you do have the fact that you’re going to be shipping it around, you’ve got the fact it might need dry cleaning.”

Recycling outfits

Some celebrities wouldn’t dream of wearing the same outfit twice on the red carpet, but there are notable exceptions.

Cate Blanchett appeared at the 2023 SAG awards in a black sequinned gown made with lace repurposed from a dress she wore in 2014 and again in 2018, and she attended the 2023 EE Bafta Film Awards in a reworked version of a black Maison Margiela gown, first worn to the 2015 Oscars.

The Princess of Wales often rewears outfits.

Most recently she attended this year’s Baftas in a modified Alexander McQueen gown, first worn in 2019.

“They changed the neckline on it and she put black gloves on,” says Hugill, who commends the royal for her sustainable stance.

“She’s being seen visibly promoting [that] outfits can be worn many, many times.”

Ultimately, it’s virtually impossible to accurately assess whether red carpet fashion has a net positive or negative impact on the environment.

Looking on the bright side, celebrities can encourage consumers to make more sustainable choices and drive the development of eco-friendly materials.

“It’s a change of culture,” that’s needed, Wake says, moving away from “always having to have something new and being acceptable to buy lots of garments and then not wear them or throw them away”.

“It’s hard to be perfect,” she concludes. “But I think people should strive to be better.”

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