Fast fashion: the paradox of Emily in Paris

Written by Claire Jervis on 5th Apr 2023

Netflix show Emily in Paris sees marketing exec Emily go through 43 different outfits in Season 3 alone, while at the same time pushing the benefits of sustainability. This, says Claire Jervis of positive impact investors WHEB, reflects a wider paradox in the fashion industry. How can it be both profitable and sustainable, when it’s inherently reliant on ever-changing trends?

Why most brands’ commitments to ‘Sustainable Fashion’ are as empty and vapid as this show’s storyline

Like a lot of millennials, I spent a sizeable chunk of my Christmas break hate-watching Emily in Paris while staring listlessly at the contents of my wardrobe.

The show follows 30-something marketing exec Emily1. Emily spends her time pottering around Paris wearing designer clothes, posting videos of herself on Instagram, and effortlessly ascending the career ladder by coming up with edgy new concepts like… Zoom filters.

Over the course of Season 3, which documents a few weeks in Emily’s life, she’s estimated to have worn 43 different outfits. Her style manifesto has three simple commands:

  1. Always bright.
  2. Rarely practical.
  3. Never worn more than once.

Not a great example of responsible consumerism, Netflix.

But wait – the show’s costume designer talks about sustainability all the time! She loves to pair second-hand pieces with high street fashion! She’s been ‘pushing upcycling’ for years!

Like this show’s conflicted costume designer, the fashion industry has been suffering an identity crisis for years. They want to promote sustainability. They want their customers to feel good about buying their clothes.

But this creates a paradox – how can the fashion industry be both profitable and sustainable, when it’s inherently reliant on ever-changing trends?


Fashion companies’ climate pledges need a sustainability makeover

In an attempt to put their best foot forward, 100 fashion brands have committed to a range of climate pledges under the UN Fashion Charter for Climate Action. This includes a pledge to become ‘Net Zero’ by 2050. This is one way clothing retailers can promote sustainable consumption without completely overhauling consumer behaviour.

During COP27, the UN released new guidance on what that Net Zero commitment should look like. Unfortunately, this has unearthed major gaps in many signatories’ pledges.

One gap looms larger than others. 80 per cent of the fashion companies analysed by the charity have failed to set targets to halve their scope 3 (supply chain) emissions by 2030 – one of the UN’s requirements. This is a huge fail, since scope 3 emissions typically make up over 90 per cent of a clothing company’s greenhouse gas emissions. So in most cases, fashion companies’ climate pledges look like a bunch of empty promises.

But we believe this will change. A combination of investor pressure, regulation, and – perhaps most importantly – the rise in consumer awareness will force the fashion industry to undergo a sustainable makeover.

Because consumers care about this stuff – a lot. A survey by Fashion Revolution found that 80 per cent of respondents want fashion brands to provide detailed information about product environmental impacts. McKinsey, a consultant, surveyed 2,000 people about sustainable fashion in 2020. They found that nearly 70 per cent of consumers consider the use of sustainable materials to be an important factor when purchasing clothes.

WHEB’s investment in Lenzing is more than a fashion statement

At our Annual Investor Conference in November, Seb Beloe and I spoke about how almost 40 per cent of supply chain emissions for the apparel and footwear sector come from material production. This is why WHEB has invested in Lenzing, in our European strategy.

Lenzing manufactures clothing fibres from dissolved wood pulp. These fibres generate around 25-30 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions, and use 90-95 per cent less water, than organic cotton2.

We don’t know what those numbers look like against fibres derived from fossil-based feedstocks. This is because Lenzing chose to conduct their lifecycle analysis against a more rigorous baseline. But it’s fair to assume the sustainability benefits will be even greater than those already impressive numbers.

Using Lenzing’s fibres, like Tencel, instead of cotton and polyester can generate huge savings in scope 3 emissions.

They’ve already made their way into stores like H&M, Asos, and Zara, but only in small quantities. They even helped propel the real-life Emily in Paris, influencer Xenia Adonts, to the Forbes ’30 Under 30′ list with her sustainable fashion brand, Attire.

A sustainable trend

We believe that the fashion industry, driven by consumer and investor pressure, will generate huge demand for Lenzing’s sustainable fibres over the long-term.

This isn’t just good for the environment – it’s also good for business.

Until the disruption caused by the pandemic, Lenzing was commanding a price premium to cotton. We expect this trend to reappear once supply chains have normalised.

The truth is, ‘sustainable fashion’ mostly relies on behavioural change from consumers – buy less, buy better. But even still, there are actions clothing retailers can take to massively reduce the carbon footprint of fashion.

And if you want to do your part, next time you go clothes shopping, check the labels for Tencel.

Find out more about WHEB in our Directory here.

1 Incidentally, and perhaps of more interest to some readers than the show itself, Emily is played by Lily Collins the daughter of 80’s crooner Phil Collins.

9 Sourced from Lenzing’s Investor Relations team.

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