Tati Gabrielle wore bio-couture to the 94th Academy Awards. Courtesy of Red Carpet Green Dress.

The Carbon Footprint of an Oscars Dress

From the extraction and production of materials to international atelier visits and fittings, the environmental cost of creating a purpose-made couture gown does not come cheap.

This year’s Oscars saw a lot of glamor. Everything was bejeweled and sparkling. There was Lupita Nyongo’s golden Prada gown, which was embellished with thousands of paillettes and beads, and Jessica Chastain’s multi-colored, all-sequin Gucci gown. Timothée Chalamet’s cropped Louis Vuitton jacket was also adorned with black sequins. And, of course, there was Zendaya who wore a white silk crop top and long silver skirt by Valentino.

 

What was largely missing from the event, however, was climate action. In years past, a handful of eco-conscious celebrities have looked to the red carpet as an opportunity to turn words into action through statement looks. This year, not so much.

 

Sure, there were a few vintage ensembles. Kirsten Dunst walked the red carpet in a red Lacroix  gown from 2002 complete with tiered ruffles. Kourtney Kardashian showed up with Travis Barker in a pre-owned Mugler dress. And Billie Eilish wore a Fred Leighton antique diamond star tiara, which had been repurposed as earrings and rings. It’s safe to say, then, that while the Oscars’ viewership has been on the decline (last year saw ratings halve from 23.6 million viewers in 2020 to 10.4 million people in 2021), show-stopping looks have clearly remained a permanent red carpet fixture. So much so, that designers continue to pay celebrities hundreds of thousands of dollars to wear one-off couture gowns to the high-profile event. After all, it’s fashion history in the making.

 

But with more excess also comes more waste.

Enter: Red Carpet Green Dress (RCGD), a change-making organization founded by environmentalist Suzy Amis Cameron in 2009 in a bid to promote sustainable practices in fashion. For RCGD, this means pairing with emerging eco-designers and textile innovators to put their expertise into practice at high-profile, global events. RCGD, then, brings this knowledge to luxury fashion houses such as Vivienne Westwood, Louis Vuitton, and Ermenegildo Zegna, in order to dress celebrities—like Naomie Harris, Emma Roberts, and LaKeith Stanfield—in sustainably-made ensembles that reduce the carbon footprint of their red carpet moments.

 

This year, RCGD partnered with You star Tati Gabrielle, who wore a custom-made Hellessy dress made from botanic-origin and biodegradable fabrics.

 

“Our vision has always been to have conversations in spaces they are not typically held,” said Samata Pattinson, chief executive of RCDG. “To develop accessible design solutions, to be part of developing a more socially equitable and representative industry and also, to have more realistic and honest conversations about sustainability.”

That’s particularly important at events like the Oscars, where sustainability has for so long taken a backseat in favor of opulence. Although there’s not much data available regarding the specific carbon footprint of a couture gown, we do know that dresses are some of the most carbon-intensive items to produce. Especially if, as is so often the case at awards shows, a gown is made for a single-use purpose. In an open letter addressed to the Oscars attendees of 2020, ThreadUp claimed that 40 billion pounds of greenhouse gasses could be saved annually if everyone in the U.S. committed to wearing the clothes already in their wardrobes five times more often.

 

It’s true that the carbon footprint of one-off items can’t be equated to the environmental damage of designing and manufacturing an entire collection. Even so, the ecological cost of creating a purpose-made couture gown does not come cheap. “​​In the case of many red carpet looks, there will be transportation to the wearer and back to the brand or designer,” said a representative from nonprofit Textile Exchange. Travel is also usually a necessary part of the creative process due to repeated atelier visits and fittings in the lead up to the event. “[That’s on top of the] emissions generated through transporting the garments at each step of the production process.”

 

Also, of the fashion industry’s overall greenhouse gas footprint, the vast majority of its carbon footprint—52%—comes from material production: the weaving, coloration, and finishing, according to a report by the Apparel Impact Institute. That’s why RCGD has focused its time and resources on establishing dry production processes, expanding the use of renewable energy to all stages of the value chain, and optimizing the efficiency of the spinning, weaving, and knitting stages of manufacturing.

“Coaxing celebrities to wear something they have worn before will tremendously influence a culture that continues to worship newness at the expense of humans and the environment.”

Rachael Wang

“For us our focus on materials has been to ensure we can focus on more cellulose fibers like Tencel which produce around half the emissions of conventional fibers due to closed-loop production methods,” said Pattinson. “After that we think about that final stage, and how these pieces can go into other cycles like for rental, so that they can be repaired and refurbished.”

 

Stylists, too, are becoming more mindful of the looks they pull for celebrities to wear. “I have always tried to limit excess—I don’t have a fitting filled with multiple racks of dresses and shoes because I feel it is wasteful,” said celebrity stylist Danielle Golderg, whose client list includes Greta Lee, Laura Harrier, and Adria Arjona. Harrier is a previous RCGD collaborator, having worn eco-responsible Louis Vuitton couture to attend the 2019 Academy Awards. “I like to think that a small gesture like this, done repeatedly, can lessen my environmental impact,” Goldberg added.

 

One of the most efficient ways to reduce the carbon footprint of an Oscars look is simply to rewear it. For example: during the 2020 award season, Joaquin Phoenix rewore the same Stella MCartney tuxedo to the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice Awards, the SAG Awards, and the BAFTAs. It was a move that could have saved 344.4 pounds of carbon, The Business of Fashion reports. That’s roughly equivalent to the burning of 173 pounds of coal or about the same amount of energy required to produce a new suit.

 

The environmental impact of these gestures is not yet substantive, but their effect on wider cultural trends should not be underestimated. “Celebrities are hugely influential in impacting the behavior of us all,” said stylist Rachael Wang. “Coaxing celebrities to buck tradition and wear something they already own or that they have worn before will also tremendously influence a culture that continues to worship newness at the expense of humans and the environment.”

“If we don’t educate about what is possible and show [that it can be done]—then how can we actually create the landslide moment of change?”

Samata Pattinson

Some efforts have been made by celebrities and brands to change the rules of the high-profile events. It’s worth noting that Joaquin is not alone in repeating looks on the red carpet; Cate Blanchett and Julia Roberts have also made headlines for rewearing their couture gowns years later. But such practices remain an anomaly.

 

“Most celebrities don’t want to compromise on the aesthetics of the outfits they wear and therefore don’t want to be limited by the carbon footprint impact of a particular garment,” Wang told Atmos. “And the major brands that dress celebrities for red carpet events, for the most part, haven’t yet significantly shifted their design and manufacturing processes to become more localized and low impact. I am looking forward to this becoming a topic that is championed by the fashion industry in a bigger way.”

 

It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by Pattinson, who stresses the importance of hope within the climate movement. The industry may be slow to change, but the small wins are what will eventually pave the way for a new fashion system.

 

“A single, sustainable gown might have saved several hundred pounds of carbon just through its rewearing,” she said. “But then those stats will be stacked against the huge [amount of] emissions created by burning hundreds of pounds of coal and people think, What is the point? But if we don’t educate about what is possible and show [that it can be done]—then how can we actually create the landslide moment of change?”

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