The Unsustainable Unsustainability of Fashion Trade Shows

Examine the paradox of sustainability in fashion trade shows and what can be done to truly make them eco-friendly.
Updated on
June 7, 2024
Fashion Trade Shows & The Sustainability Question
Table of Contents

[Author’s note before we start: The original premise of this article was to look at the sustainability agendas of fashion trade shows. We wanted to see how they plan to reduce their impact, and if the shift from the virtual shows of the pandemic have changed their overall strategy. But in researching various shows we were aghast to find out that the majority of the biggest shows failed to mention sustainability, climate change, or environmental impact in any capacity.

On the socio-sustainability side, there is a general buzz when it comes to increasing diversity and representation within the show framework but nothing about the overarching racism, human rights issues, and labour disaster of the global fashion supply chain.

This will be a two part series. This is part one. Part two will be an investigation of the shows themselves where we speak to retailers, insiders, and brands, about the industry. And you bet we will be holding the worst offenders accountable.]

Welcome to 2022 where representation is a basic human right and not a marketable commodity, our meta avatars wear organic cotton and yeezys, and governments penalize fashion brands who cause harm by insufficient due diligence in their supply chains, fair wages are paid, and the environment is protected.

Unfortunately the only truth here is how hype our avatars are.

This is why the Arbor blog is still going strong this new year with the resolution to always roast corporations for greenwashing, question government sustainability agendas, and expose the truth through quantitative data and dad jokes.

So let’s get into it.

New Year, New Sustainability Shift

Ariana Grande said it best: when it comes to sustainability, consumers see it, they like it, they want it, but are brands ready to give it?

From Environmental experts to Tik Tokers, everyone is sounding the alarm about the need to radically shift business models away from linear growth as the best path forward in addressing fashion’s overproduction and climate impacts.⁠ And shoppers, brands and retailers need to start responding to this.

There is an intention-action gap that brands and retailers are failing to close. Consumers are shopping with sustainability in mind and an awareness of the social and environmental impact of their purchases. Brands and retailers need to work together to communicate their environmental commitments to create a progressive version of the industry.

But there is a disconnect happening. Retailers often look to the brands they carry, for the how-to’s on initiating sustainability, while the brands aren’t making the necessary changes unless they are prodded by their retailers. Sustainability is routinely discussed by the heads of brands or their boards, but this conversation rarely, if at all, is the focus of meetings between sales teams and retail buyers.

Where is the disconnect between brands and retailers happening? A good place to start is at the trade shows.

How Fashion Trade Shows Work:

If you are a retailer, this is where you would go to source new brands, find inspiration, and build up your collections to stock your shelves. Right now –if you are reading this in January– shops and buyers from around the world are gearing up to fill massive warehouses and convention centres for the Spring/Summer 2023 buying season.

Wait, did we say summer 2023? While the ink still hasn’t dried on 2022, fashion is already a year into the future. Not because they are all as forward-thinking as they would like you to imagine, it’s just a part of the long lead times required in the manufacturing process.

There are a few major shows that the majority of retailers across the globe attend and they happen twice a year. Some of the biggest being in Las Vegas, Paris, and New York. They coincide with runway shows and are all a part of the fashion world's busiest time of the year.

Paris fashion week show

Givenchy, Paris Fashion Week -2021

Trade shows had to shapely adapt in the pandemic to virtual shows and buying appointments were held on Zoom, while ordering platforms became fully automated – believe it or not, many brands still took orders with pen and paper! As they were forced to modernize to entice buyers and stores in a financially turbulent and digitally driven age, the once relatively stable business model –more on that later–  could no longer rely upon physical events to generate a significantly hefty chunk of their revenue.

How Buying Works

Like Comic-con but with jeans instead of Chewbacca suits, retailers and buyers wander the rows of brands and pick their choices from the samples they display. Heard of sample sales? That is when all the garments left from the tradeshows are resold at a discounted price. Next, the buyers place their orders with the brand or wholesalers (agencies that represent multiple brands on their behalf), and the designs with the most orders placed by retailers get sent to the garment factories for production.

From there, all the finished garments are shipped –in a lot of plastic– around the world to warehouses, wholesalers, and distributors where they are repacked –in more plastic– and shipped to the stores. This garment shuffle is where the majority of the carbon emissions from the fashion industry are released. Also known as the Scope 3 emissions of the 3-stage emission classification by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol.

A quick summary of the Scope 1,2, 3 emissions:

  • Scope 1 emissions are the direct emissions, which means everything that is under the companies control such as heating, cooling, gas use, etc.
  • Scope 2 emissions are the indirect emissions produced like electricity purchased from a power grid.
  • Scope 3 emissions are typically the trickiest to reduce. They are the remaining indirect emissions, and like we mentioned, the source of most of the carbon released. They take place throughout a company's supply chain including the manufacturers, global transportation and distribution, and waste generated from these processes.

The Old Trade Show Model

Trade shows are the perfect go-between where fashion brands and manufacturers can work with retailers to strengthen compliance, create mechanisms for transparency and fight for the prosperity of the people that make up their supply chains. But are they ready to change?

Premiere Vision, the biannual textile manufacturing trade show in Paris where brands and designers go to pick the fabric for their collections, pivoted online during the pandemic. But according to a piece by Business of Fashion, they are ready to switch back to the old model.

“Our business model is in having physical trade shows ... We feel our strategy is not to replace them. Yes, it is a loss-making [season] … because we commit ourselves to our exhibitors.”

- Gilles Lasbordes, Première Vision GM

There is a huge opportunity here to start a cohesive conversation about the fashion industry's impact. But instead, the multiple designers, brands, fashion houses, retailers, and buyers are just plugging back into the Matrix. They are maintaining their positions as integral players in the industry-wide perpetuation of the overconsumption and lack of accountability for their social and environmental impact.

fashion trade show in Paris

Trade show in Paris

A Shift in Buying:

We are firm believers that there is something to be said about face-to-face communication and do not devalue the benefits of brands and retailers having the opportunity to see each other in person, but most orders that retailers place from brands aren’t actually placed at these shows anymore. Long before the pandemic, these shows became a place for brands and buyers to just meet and catch up.

The shift to online during the pandemic radically changed how buying is conducted. The need for travel is greatly reduced and is now no longer seen as needed by many businesses - but for those that still travel and have their reasons, are these shows doing anything to reduce their impact?

According to a survey in McKinsey's State of Fashion 2020 Report, 55 percent of brands and retailers saw trade shows as having little to no relevance to securing orders.

We spoke to Graham Newmarch, owner of Calculus, an independent multi-brand clothing store about his choice to stop travelling to shows.

“Typically, buyers such as myself [totalling in the thousands], would see themselves flying around the world two to four times a year – simply to see what the designers they carry in their respective stores have cooked up for the following selling season,” says Newmarch, “For a micro-store such as my own, the minimum ~4,000.00 CAD to $6,000.00 CAD expense of flying to Paris and New York is a big ask, when that money is much better spent building out my inventory and assets."

Sustainability holds an important position in the Calculus brand, as all of their products are from smaller and progressive brands that weave intentionality and quality into the ethos of their designs. We asked him how the environmental impact of trade shows factors into his decision to stick with virtual buying.

Images of clothing from Calculus

Images via @_calculus

“Sure, this forced [potentially ephemeral] change in how seasonal fashion is shown & ordered in my industry is probably saving a measurable amount of carbon from being released into the atmosphere – and that’s fantastic.

But ultimately, what matters most to struggling and/or growing capitalists such as myself? The bottom-line [read: money]. And, I’m saving just that – making my business easier to sustain, and providing new potential for growth.”

A Shift in Regulations

2022 may be the year of legislation, forcing the industry to take responsibility for its actions. With governments monitoring how fashion businesses operate, unsustainable practices will come with legal and financial consequences.

From Business in Fashion:

"In March this year, members of the European Parliament voted by a landslide to press ahead with proposed legislation that would make companies more accountable for ensuring environmental and social standards are upheld across their supply chains. Fashion brands typically outsource their manufacturing, often to complex and opaque networks of suppliers outside the jurisdictions that govern their corporate headquarters, but now regulators are looking to strengthen due diligence requirements."

These stricter regulations will not only drive greater transparency throughout the industries, but this will also require those companies and trade shows to stop dragging their feet. And as these requirements could come into force within the next four years, and given the long lead times of the traditional fashion design and manufacturing cycle, brands should brace for these changes as if they are around the corner.

We mentioned in our last post that it is projected that green technology and the sustainability market are set to be worth over 40 billion USD in the next 5 years - and if these brands and tradeshows don’t make the necessary changes, they are losing out on a ton of potential revenue after an already turbulent financial year.

A Shift in Power

Over 60% of consumers around the world are prioritizing ethical and environmental issues in their purchasing decisions. And according to Business of Fashion’s 2022 State of Fashion Report, digitalization and sustainability will offer the fashion industry’s biggest opportunities for growth in 2022. And it’s Millennials and Gen Z who are leading the way.

The often underestimated generations grew up in very different social and economic environments than previous generations. Collectively they are a highly empathetic and socially conscious cohort whose education included the normalization of diversity and climate change curriculum. Ignoring what drives them would be a huge mistake as global protests and climate campaigns are proof that they are more than willing to do whatever it takes to enact radical change.

Hands of Gen Z protestors at a march in Belgium in 2019

Climate march on February 21, 2019 in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

According to Fashion CEO Agenda by the Global Fashion alliance, “up to 87% of Millennials and a staggering 94% of Gen Z expect companies to address a plethora of pressing social and environmental issues, including poverty and hunger, economic development and an array of human rights issues, such as racial equality and women’s and LGBTQ+ rights”

The same source states that 91% of millennials and 90% of Gen Z are more willing to purchase products with a social or environmental benefit. And with more of them opening their own stores and starting brands, trade shows need to start catering to the demand. If not, rest assured, these generations will create their own versions that will quickly outpace the old ones.

The longer the industry waits on enacting change and developing sustainability initiatives, the higher the chances of losing their retailers goes up while their revenue goes down.

“This is precisely how sustainability in [the fashion] industry will begin, and this is precisely how sustainability in our industry will thrive, and this is the only way sustainability in our industry will last,” continues Newmarch, “It has to save businesses time, conserve them energy –figuratively, and literally. So, this is the first, of hopefully many, changes in our industry which sees us moving towards a more sustainable way of doing things. It’s good for me, it’s good for my vendors, it’s good for my home.”

Fashion and design is based on the ability to bring to life projected trends through creatively disrupting the status quo, and rebellious ingenuity.  But its old model of rapid commercial growth & production over sustainability is officially out of style. The narrative is changing and the trade show industry better catch up.

Thanks for reading!
The Unsustainable Unsustainability of Fashion Trade Shows