For years, American designer Heron Preston has aimed to operate as a sustainable brand, whether he’s producing a low-waste, workwear-inspired collaboration with the New York Department of Sanitation, hand-printing his graphic T-shirts, or introducing materials like recycled nylon and pineapple “leather” into his collections.
That philosophy applies to Preston’s events and marketing, too. The brand has forgone traditional runway shows in recent seasons, in favour of experimenting with different formats. And over the last two years, its in-house production team has been using a tool called inFocus to measure and reduce its overall carbon footprint.
Heron Preston is among a handful of companies including Alexander McQueen, North Six and Rosco Production to have tested inFocus ahead of its official launch this month, working closely with the app’s founders, sisters Emelie Akerbrant and Melinda Akerbrant Gray, to help develop its features and user experience.
The tool is intended to help identify and reduce environmental pain points for production teams that are responsible for fashion’s glossy magazine covers, features, ad campaigns and runway shows. It provides swift and granular emissions estimates based on specific project plans, suggests alternatives to reduce an event’s impact and post-production provides a final assessment that can be used to plan offsets and direct future efforts to reduce impact further. The goal was to create a tool that could be used by teams working on multiple complex projects and tight deadlines.
“We started to realise that what people were focusing on when they thought they were doing more sustainable productions had such a tiny impact [on] the overall shoot,” said Emelie Akerbrant, a fashion communications veteran who, prior to founding her namesake firm Akerbrant Ltd. with her sister, managed sustainability projects at Kering. “At the end of the day, it’s great that you don’t have plastic bottles, but the environmental impact of reducing or taking away plastic bottles is minuscule when it comes down to production.”
While the worst of the industry’s pollution takes place during manufacturing, production and other events can be a particularly high-profile symbol of excess and waste.
I think in our job, the awareness we create is as important as the carbon we spare.
A standard campaign shoot can produce up to 200 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, according to an inFocus estimate based on data from national government bodies, like the UK’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US. (By contrast, the global fashion industry produced 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2019, according to a 2020 report by McKinsey and Global Fashion Agenda.)
At the same time, fashion’s high-octane marketing moments are an opportunity to promote a better way of operating. InFocus is the latest tool aiming to serve a growing appetite to tackle the issue.
“Within the world of fashion, which is so visible, we probably have a great influence [over other] industries that have much bigger carbon-spending events,” said Alexandre de Betak, founder of production agency Bureau Betak, which is known for staging some of the fashion industry’s biggest shows. “I think in our job, the awareness we create is as important as the carbon we spare.”
Bureau Betak operates under a strict framework to ensure productions are more sustainable and is in the process of gaining B-Corp status. Elsewhere, Copenhagen Fashion Week cut the carbon emissions of its operations by half between August 2019 and August 2020, and has laid out environmental requirements for all on-schedule brands to follow by January 2023. Meanwhile, France’s Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (FHCM), the organising body of Paris Fashion Week, announced the launch of a tool called Ecodesign with consulting firm PwC in June, which allows brands to gauge the social and environmental impact of their collections and fashion shows.
But challenges remain. Productions still often use elaborate sets intended to be used once and discarded. And the industry’s penchant for far-flung, flashy locations and global talent to stage its marketing moments means numerous flights and car journeys are required to bring models, photographers, stylists and equipment to the same place. Once on-location, everyone needs to be fed and accommodated. It’s a similar story for international guests for fashion shows. Tight time pressures, complicated logistics and coordinated management of multiple teams and freelancers make pulling off an event’s impact even more complicated.
The creative industry has often turned to carbon offsets to manage the impact of events, paying a fee to plant trees or similar initiatives intended to suck up an equivalent amount of carbon that an event creates. It’s a widespread approach that has attracted criticism for distracting focus from slashing emissions in the first place.
Offsets are often seen as a way “to ensure that the creative [aspect] doesn’t suffer,” said Daniel Worthington, owner and director of Rosco Production, which counts Zara, Bottega Veneta and Netflix among its clients. But offsetting can also be expensive, creating an incentive for production companies to get a better handle on their impact and find ways to reduce it. Rosco Production has trialled inFocus to get a clearer picture of its carbon footprint, a breakdown of where it can improve and how much it would need to offset for remaining emissions associated with its shoots.
While Rosco Production typically absorbs the costs associated with operating better, like biodegradable materials instead of single-use plastics, other, more fundamental changes like curtailing travel could make business sense in the long run. The process of gathering carbon footprint data “really educates you and then forces you to start questioning: Is there a better way?” he said.
It really educates you and then forces you to start questioning: Is there a better way?
But industry-specific tools like inFocus and the FHCM’s Ecodesign require accurate data — a challenge that dogs much of fashion’s green efforts. Providing accuracy at scale, to reflect the global nature of fashion image-making, requires detailed, context-based data from a range of sources to get a deep understanding, for example, of the mix of renewable and fossil fuel-based sources in a country’s energy grid.
“If you’re doing exactly the same shoot [in] New York…as in London, your impact will be different,” said Emelie Akerbrant. She said inFocus faced calls from clients to expand its carbon footprint methodology to include markets beyond the UK and fashion shows and events, not just photo and video shoots. It’s a process that required going back to the drawing board for several months to apply the same methodologies to new regions and new types of equipment. The company now cites data on energy sources from Italy, the UK, France and the US.
A New Model
The growing appetite to produce events with a lower environmental impact has prompted some creative agencies to re-think their entire business model and global footprint, especially following the disruptions to international travel caused by Covid-19.
“It actually encouraged us to think about local offices rather than [sending] people to places to produce,” said Oliver Hicks, founder and president of global production firm North Six, who has used inFocus to gather on-the-ground data and inform clients including Puma, Gap Inc. and cosmetics group Coty of their environmental footprint from creative projects.
For Betak, the industry needs to be more radical and take more risks. That may mean loosening the reins of creative control in favour of pared-back set designs. For instance, this September he ran Tory Burch’s New York Fashion Week show as a block party, turning Mercer Street into an open-air catwalk that required minimal staging or set design.
“The only 100 percent sustainable way of doing an event is to not do it,” said de Betak. In fashion, “light-handedness is never easy…and comes with a lot of risk…[but] most other [industries] would laugh in our faces if they understood what we call risk.”
Disclosure: Bureau Betak has produced multiple events for The Business of Fashion, including its BoF 500 and VOICES gatherings.
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