From textile recycling to sustainable luxury, the Covid-19 pandemic has scripted a turning point for fashion players. Photo: Ashmita Tamta

As the Covid-19 pandemic has turned the spotlight on sustainable fashion, two powerful tastemakers in the fashion industry share their insights into eco-friendly clothing, changing consumer sentiments, and how brands have started embracing a sustainable attitude in their business models. 

Professor Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas

Professor Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas, who is in her fifties, teaches sustainable luxury at the British School of Fashion, GCU London. An advocate for globally responsible education, she won the prestigious Case Centre 2020 Award for Ethics and Social Responsibility. She shines a light on sustainable luxury, circular fashion, and why Generation Z feel more strongly about sustainable fashion than their predecessors.

Professor Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas is the Vice-Chair of PRME UK&I Chapter and Vice-Chair of The Costume Society. Photo: Professor Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas

Would you please tell us about your fashion journey?

Fashion has always been part of my life. When I was a teenager, I started to make my own clothes because I could not find the kind of clothes that I wanted to wear. I have always loved fashion history, so I wanted to have more 60s-style clothes. I used to either buy secondhand at charity stores or make my clothes myself. 

I have had various startup businesses as a teenager and then got into having a children’s luxury brand with a few friends. So I worked in the industry and then got into fashion education. Now, I am a marketing and sustainable business professor at the British School of Fashion in London. 

Luxury labels often face criticism for not being environmentally friendly. What is your take on it?

Whilst there has been a lot of focus on fast fashion and its negative impacts now, in the past, the luxury industry was not analysed or looked at in terms of sustainability. Many linear processes that are extractive and exploitative business models for fast fashion can be seen across the luxury industry.

A changemaker, Stella McCartney enacted her values, such as animal rights, through her luxury fashion label. When she was working with the luxury group Kering, they started looking at environmental profit and loss and how they can take account of the ecological damage they cause through the use of materials. It was a real catalyst for the luxury industry to start embracing sustainable practices. 

Luxury has a lot to do with heritage craft longevity. So, it is a natural bedfellow for sustainability. It has been a real lightbulb moment for luxury brands to realise that the values at the heart of the luxury industry should and can align with those of sustainability. 

It is becoming much more of a USP for luxury brands, and the claims they can make about quality materials and processes have more credibility than those of a fast-fashion label.

What can be done differently in the sustainability space?

Headlines have turned from hemlines to human rights. For brands, there are two angles. One is respecting the craft and respecting the people all along the supply chain. 

Even though the luxury model is more inclined towards sustainability, there are still significant inequalities in income distribution. The industry is trying to make that more equitable. 

We still have a linear, extractive model. What’s next is a circular economy. Businesses are thinking about how to design out waste because that is crucial. 

The 2015 documentary The True Cost asked an excellent question – who’s paying the cost of cheap fashion? But who’s paying the price for any of our textiles and fashion production? There is a great imbalance between the Global North and the Global South in terms of development and wealth. 

So, it is the brands facing up to their missions to value all of those involved in their production, distribution, and even consumption. The government needs to support them with tangible incentives and transition towards more sustainable fashion and luxury practices.

What do you foresee for the future of fashion?

Consumers, particularly younger consumers, are demanding more from brands. They not only want to wear clothes from brands with purpose but also work for businesses with purpose or found their own. They have a more global mindset and are more aware of social and environmental justice issues.

Fashion always reflects culture. It wants to be the zeitgeist. It wants to be the next thing. What we are seeing now is the industry picking that up and running with it for a more positive future.

Bhawna Sharma

Residing in Paris, Bhawna Sharma, 43, is an ex-supermodel, leading celebrity stylist and runway regular. An advocate for ethical and sustainable practices, Sharma talks about textile recycling, the shift in buying patterns, and how the pandemic has affected the global fashion industry.

sustainable fashion
A champion of sustainable fashion, Paris-based celebrity stylist Bhawna Sharma recently appeared on GQ India’s 100 best-dressed list. Photo: Bhawna Sharma

How did your journey start as a stylist?

When I was in school, I wanted to shorten the length of my skirt. It was then I started realising a longer skirt looks this way, and a shorter skirt looks that way. Soon, I bought myself a pair of high-waisted jeans in the early 90s. That was my first encounter with fashion — trying different clothes on myself and creating various looks. After that, I began to enjoy it.

I began my career as a model in 1996. A few years later, I was offered to style a campaign for Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli’s fashion brand Wrogn. I saw that as a challenge and a different avenue. So I took it up. Since then, there has been no looking back. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the global fashion industry?

It has been quite challenging in terms of sales and operations. Many humongous brands, as well as startups, have either closed down or are cutting costs like never before. 

Buyers all over the world are no longer travelling. The impact will be harsher next year. Lots of fashion weeks are now going digital, leading to a significant loss in revenue. I hope things become better soon.

Has there been a shift in consumer behaviour? 

People have become more conscious of the environmental impacts of their choices and want brands to maintain ethical commitments and act responsibly. So there is certainly more dialogue about it. 

More and more brands, including many high street staples, are embracing ethical and sustainable practices. Fashion players like Adidas and Fair Harbor are using ocean plastic to make their products.

In addition, the pandemic has accelerated the shift to online shopping, which would have otherwise taken several years.

How can we make fashion sustainable?

We must become conscious of sustainable fashion, which is slow fashion. You do not need to constantly buy new clothes as it is terrible for the environment. More and more brands are becoming conscious, and there is certainly more dialogue about it.

It is best to spend more money that goes to artisans and skilful craftsmen and pay a higher price on something timeless and sustainable, which can last you for a good 15 years. I am all for sustainable fashion and not fast fashion.

What COVID-19 pandemic affected the global fashion industry?

We have a long way to go. Companies need to strive for longevity, eliminate the use of virgin material, and support textile recycling. 

Brands need to be more transparent about their supply chains, so customers can make informed decisions, whereas consumers need to be mindful of the clothes they are purchasing. For example, finding out where they are manufactured, who is making them, what they are made from, and if there are any ethical and environmental implications.

What do you predict for the future of the fashion industry?

In terms of clothing, comfort wear is here to stay. On the work front, the fashion industry will be more accessible and inclusive. I am confident that fashion will be much more environmentally friendly and affordable in the years to come. 

Click on the video to learn more about the significance of sustainable fashion.