Sarah Kent

Global Journalism Seminar: How fashion journalism drives industry evolution

Journalist Sarah Kent discusses the fashion industry’s long and winding road to sustainability.

The fashion industry was not built for sustainability. Very much the opposite, in fact, as its central premise is the importance of wearing the latest item and discarding anything that came before.

Its emissions impact is substantial; its record on ethical labour practices patchy at best; and its approach to minimising waste non-existent. Yet the vast majority of the media coverage of this multi-trillion-dollar industry remains focused on glitz, glamour, and ‘what’s new’. Sarah Kent, Chief Sustainability Correspondent of The Business of Fashion, is one of the few journalists to look behind the fashion industry’s glossy façade and investigate the serious issues confronting it. In a conversation with Mitali Mukherjee from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, she unpacks some of the complexities and contradictions inherent in the industry itself and in how it is reported.

Impact of geopolitics 

Fashion is a global business. Geopolitical developments have significant impacts on supply chains as well as on consumer sentiment and buying power. Conflicts in the Red Sea region have affected shipment routes, while the US ban on imports from China’s Xinjiang region has fractured cotton supplies. The EU’s Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive will force brands to pay more attention to where their products come from.

Challenges of sustainability reporting 

The fashion industry is gloriously frivolous: its summary of the top current trends puts ‘climate urgency’ only just ahead of 'vacation mood'. The day-to-day functioning of the industry is completely divorced from climate goals. And while fast fashion is widely acknowledged to be a sustainability challenge, the luxury end of the market is perceived more generously, thanks more to its sophisticated communications than to greater commitment to sustainable action.

Continuing contradictions 

Shein is the poster child for fast fashion and a brand that the responsible consumer ‘should’ avoid. But the cost-of-living crisis has driven demand for cheap goods: is caring about sustainability something that is unaffordable for many? Waste is a major problem in the industry, with no meaningful way to recycle textiles. The export of old clothes is effectively exporting our waste – but it is also a thriving trade. And how much waste is hidden in the books of companies that produce more than they sell? Is Shein’s model of short runs, that are repeated if they sell well, actually more sustainable?  

Watch a video of the event