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This story is part of The Hollywood Reporter’s 2023 Sustainability Issue (click here to read more).
Luxury brands often detail the effort required to create a red carpet outfit. Take Zendaya’s strapless rose Valentino confection, orchestrated by now-retired stylist Law Roach, for the SAG Awards last month. As Valentino designer Pierpaolo Piccioli noted in a recent Instagram post: “1230 Hours of global work, 190 hand embroidered roses, 5 hours of sewing for each one, 42 people involved in the making, 1 catch up in Rome with Z and Law and a final stunning red carpet.”
But what we don’t hear about — and what stars are rarely asked about — is a look’s environmental impact. And in the age of climate change, we should. Fashion is one of the world’s largest polluters. According to the United Nations, the fashion industry is responsible for 8 to 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Conventional cotton farming uses 4 percent of the world’s pesticides and 10 percent of the herbicides. And fashion accounts for roughly one-fifth of the 300 million tons of plastic produced globally each year.
What is that plastic? Mainly petroleum-based synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon, elastane (i.e., Spandex), neoprene and fleece. Two-thirds of our clothes contain petrochemical fibers. Like plastic, these synthetics don’t biodegrade, and each time we do a load of laundry, nearly one million plastic microfibers are released from those fabrics and flushed into our waterways. While most petrochemical fabrics are used for fast fashion — think Zara, H&M and Forever 21 — there are a fair amount in red carpet dressing, especially elastane, which gives gowns and undergarments, like Spanx, their stretch.
And then there is PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, which Greenpeace calls “the poison plastic,” and has been linked to cancer and infertility. PVC is used for all sorts of things in fashion, including sequins, vinyl, shoe heels, and the plastic tubing in handbag handles.
Yes, couture keeps gifted artisans employed, and carries on traditional, and beautiful, handwork that, without red-carpet orders, could easily be lost, and they produce pieces that live on in archives or museums. But how many luxury brands are calculating their red carpet carbon footprint as carefully as they are logging — and boasting about — hours invested in craftsmanship? Based on the number of plastic sequins shimmering in the Oscars spotlight this year, I’d wager not too many.
“The fashion economy is not ready yet to be fully sustainable,” says stylist Elizabeth Stewart, whose clients include Cate Blanchett and Julia Roberts. “We just have to point in the right direction, and move that way.”
Here are some ways red carpet dressing can be more eco-responsible:
Cate Blanchett — who made previously worn outfits a centerpiece of her 2023 awards season appearances — has been championing event-dressing rewear for years. She shopped her closet rather than call in new clothes when she served as president of the Venice Film Festival jury in 2020, and at Cannes last year, she cleverly reworked an embroidered Alexander McQueen gown she wore to the 2016 BAFTAs, swapping out the long, feathered skirt for pants.
Catherine, Princess of Wales, also trots out pieces in her wardrobe, restyled — what I call the Royal Rewear. Take this year’s BAFTAs look: a white one-shoulder McQueen gown with long black gloves; she originally donned it for the same event in 2019, bare-armed, with a floral shoulder appliqué and diamond bracelet. Same goes for accessories: Viola Davis has a pair of Stuart Weitzman pumps she has worn on countless carpets.
“When you learn that consumers are buying 80 billion fashion items a year, which is up 400 percent from just 10 years ago, you realize the system is not good for planet or humanity,” Blanchett tells THR. “Rewearing what you already own is one easy solution.”
According to the United Nations, 85 percent of all clothes end up in the dump; the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reports that a truckload is sent to landfill or incinerated every second. How best to combat that? Wear secondhand.
For the Academy Awards this year, Blanchett pulled a sapphire-blue statement blouse from the Louis Vuitton archives, rather than ordering up a new creation. And Everything Everywhere All at Once co-director Daniel Scheinert bought his Academy Awards tux at Unclaimed Baggage, a retailer in Scottsboro, Alabama, that sells items from luggage that was never reunited with its owners. (Scheinert hails from Birmingham, a two-hour drive from Scottsboro.)
“The guaranteed best way to offset your carbon footprint the most is to buy something preloved locally, rather than shipping it across the world,” says Cameron Silver, owner of Decades, the vintage couture boutique in Los Angeles. “You have the advantage of getting something that is likely one of a kind, and is embedded with great energy, since it was probably worn to a festive event. So it’s not only good for the environment; it’s also good for your juju.”
Shop Eco-Conscious Designers
Heidi Klum turned to sustainably minded Dutch designer Ronald van der Kamp for her Green Carpet Fashion Awards look in March: a cropped Prince of Wales jacket, an upcycled denim miniskirt, and heels made out of re-purposed American flags.
“Ronald’s been doing this for years,” says Green Carpet Fashion Awards head Livia Firth, co-founder and creative director of Eco-Age consultancy and the Green Carpet Challenge Style Handbook. “It’s so important to support independents who are trying to make a difference.”
Eschew Plastic Sequins
Along with being made of toxic PVC, they never, ever biodegrade. Happily, fashion tech startups are coming up with alternatives. On the April cover of Vogue, Cara Delevingne wears a Stella McCartney jumpsuit made with Radiant Matter’s BioSequins, plant-based cellulose sequins that are plastic-free, nontoxic and biodegradable.
BioSequins “are even more stunning than conventional options,” McCartney explained. “Who says sustainability can’t be sexy?”
Go for Planet-Friendly Fabrics
Linen is rain-fed, organic cotton is pesticide-free. And there is Tencel, a silk-like bio-based synthetic. For the Oscars, RCGD Global ambassadors Bailey Bass and Chloe East opted for Tencel — Bass in a Zac Posen white column, and East in a Monique Lhuillier black strapless ballgown.
“So many celebrities are embracing a more sustainable lifestyle,” says Suzy Amis Cameron, co-founder of RCGD Global, which has put together a free Style Guide to eco-dressing. “It is a journey for all of us.”
Dana Thomas is the author of Fashionopolis: Why What We Wear Matters and The Green Dream podcast and newsletter, which are about stylish sustainability.
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