ESG In The Festival Space

by Margaret Bishop


I n early May, I had the honour to be part of a panel at the American Chamber of Commerce of Trinidad and Tobago’s “ESG in the Creative Sector” conference. AMCHAM organised an outstanding lineup of speakers and topics in the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) space, especially as it relates to the country’s festival culture.


Festival ESG Unpacked. Environmental, Social, and Governance as a topic and a goal have finally captured overdue attention across many industries, including the festival space. Opportunities abound to reduce negative environmental impact, help ensure a positive social impact, and to accomplish it, with the help of good governance. Festival areas touched by ESG include the costumes, floats, party attire, travel, food, beverages, and trash. As a textile engineer and a university professor of textiles, fashion supply chain management, and global professional practices, I’ll focus my comments on the impact and opportunities of festival attire. Specifically, I will address the raw materials, production, purchase, and discarding of costumes and party clothes through the lens of ESG.


Concept to Consumer . I wish I could say it’s easy to choose more ESG-responsible festival costumes and party clothes, but it’s not. Consumers, designers, and event managers make a variety of ESG choices throughout the journey from concept to consumer, whether they realise it or not . These choices impact what, who, how, and how much we make, transport, use, and discard in the quest for creative, colourful costumes and comfortable, attractive party clothes. In the coming paragraphs, I’ll unpack many of the ESG choices we collectively or individually face. If we want to make a positive ESG difference, a multitude of decisions need to be made differently by the event organisers, costume designers, party planners, sourcing personnel, government officials, and the partygoers or consumers, alike. No one is exempt .


Concept . Better ESG decisions begin at the concept stage by redefining what’s important. If spectacle reigns, it’s hard to avoid use of forever fibres, harsh dyes and processing chemicals, metallic finishes, sequins, and feathers. Opting instead for all-ivory costuming and attire could create an amazing, dramatic look, but admittedly, it is a seismic departure from the cacophony of colour we expect today with Carnival.


Materials . Some environmentalists suggest using natural fibers are best for costumes and party wear. I say, not so fast . Each fibre has its unique environmental and/or social cost. On the environmental and social fronts, water and land required to farm natural fibres and food are increasingly scarce. This is particularly critical in the major cotton-producing countries of India, Egypt, and China, with their growing populations and increasing need for drinking water and food. Heavy chemicals are often still used to farm natural fibres to increase yields. Sustainably farmed cotton such as Better Cotton Initiative - certified fibre and regenerative cotton are far better choices, but farming cotton still diverts land and water from producing food.

On the social front, conflict cotton from Syria has funded violent, armed conflict and terrorism. Cotton from Turkmenistan is still alleged to be harvested by forced labour and child labour. Cotton from the Xinjiang region of northwestern China carries serious allegations of abuse of the region’s Uighur Moslem minority population. Cotton from Syria, Turkmenistan, and the Xinjiang region of China has been banned in the US, EU, UK, and Canada; its use anywhere calls into question the social dimension in ESG. If you select cotton, know where it comes from, how it is farmed, how and by whom it is picked.


Polyester and Nylon . Easy care, inexpensive, synthetic nylon and polyester made from non-renewable fossil fuel allow us to create the vibrant festival colours rarely achievable with natural fibres. These materials do not break down easily, nor quickly; if discarded today, they will sit in landfills for many generations to come. Their production, use, and disposal contribute directly to energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and solid waste.


Recycled Polyester and Nylon . Increasingly popular among consumers and brands, recycled polyester or nylon might seem like good options in the quest to reduce environmental harm. Converting used plastic into recycled fibre requires significant quantities of energy, and with some methods, chemicals as well. Raw materials for recycled nylon are in global short supply. Recycled polyester sheds polluting microfibres more readily than its virgin counterpart. The demand for recycled polyester fibre has climbed so high in recent years that at least one manufacturer recycled new, unused PET bottles to meet its recycled fibre demand – an egregious environmental practice.


Elastomeric Fibres Allow Body-Hugging Stretch . Who doesn’t love the stretch and recovery that defines modern swimwear and form-fitting party clothes? They depend upon elastomeric LYCRA®, spandex, or elastane – petroleum-based fibre that does not biodegrade. Stretch fabrics using these fibres are difficult to recycle. The low melting temperature of elastomeric fibres also make them very difficult shred for secondary use, except with the latest technology that very few recyclers globally have. Environmentally, they are a very poor choice.


The Best ESG Fibre Choice . An environmentally friendly, plant-based, biodegradable alternative to other fibres is manufactured lyocell. TENCEL™, Lenzing’s certified-sustainable lyocell, is made in an environmentally friendly way, from the pulp of sustainably farmed trees. TENCEL™ is perhaps the most environmentally friendly textile fibre available at scale today. It lacks the high lustre of nylon and polyester but offers a wonderfully soft feel and biodegrades easily at end-of-life. It’s a great fibre with a dramatically reduced environmental footprint. When it comes to body-hugging fabrics, a more environmentally friendly alternative is the light, breezy, sheer textiles that lend themselves to pretty party wear. They lack the stretch and recovery necessary for those very tight fits but offer a wonderful, comfortable, special occasion option with a much lower environmental cost.


Dyes, Processing Chemicals . Another critical touchpoint in textile’s environmental impact is the use of colourants and processing chemicals. There is no skipping the bleaches, dyes, and processing chemicals necessary to achieve bright colours, or evenly toned natural fibres. Even natural dyes can be problematic, due to the chemical agents required to complete the dyeing operation. Manufactured fibres, both synthetic and plant-based, skip the need for bleach, but colours still come at an environmental price, with some dyes banned in the US, Canada, EU, and elsewhere due to their toxicity for workers and the environment. OEKO-TEX® certification allows confidence that fabrics meet stringent environmental standards to reduce overall environmental impact. When possible, choose fabrics that have been OEKO-TEX®- certified.


Feathers and Sequins . Feathers and shiny sequins contribute greatly to the grand spectacle and allure of festival costumes and party wear. However, they’re not so attractive when it comes to ESG. Animal rights activists rightly point out the trauma birds experience when feathers are plucked; doing so for festival adornment raises ethical questions. Domestic and wild birds both carry illnesses easily transmissible to humans – including their handlers, factory workers, and consumers as well. Using feathers traumatises the birds and puts workers and consumers at risk.

Sequins add sparkle that we all love in festival attire, but they too come at an environmental cost. As tiny bits of plastic, they don’t biodegrade. While Stella McCartney and others are backing efforts to create biodegradable sequins, none are yet at commercial scale.


Cut, Make, and Trim . How, where, and by whom the costumes and party clothes are made touches all three aspects of ESG. What waste is generated when the garments are cut, and where does that waste go? Creating waste with sustainable inputs is still unsustainable. Are underage workers sewing the clothes? Are they appropriately paid? Under what conditions do they work? Unless you travel regularly to the factories you use, it is difficult to ascertain the working conditions under which your clothing is being made. Oversight visits are much more feasible and affordable when you produce close to home. Selecting domestic factories promotes local employment; it allows visibility on the product and the production. Regardless of where in the world you choose to produce or source your festival costumes and party clothes, choosing a WRAP-certified factory is a great step to meeting good ESG social norms. Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production certifies sewing factories around the globe according to twelve generally accepted international workplace standards.


Governance – The G in ESG . Governance relates to the leadership and behaviour of an individual firm; it also refers to the leadership and decisions of a country. In an ideal world, those making decisions about festival costumes and party clothes would have the information, motivation, and ability to choose those options that produce the least negative environmental and social impacts. The sad truth is that even the most highly motivated face one impediment after another in their quest to reduce the fallout from festival costumes and party clothes.

Good governance encourages and aids efforts of individual designers, factories, and firms to improve their environmental and social practices. Governments have the ability to strongly influence where, how, and by whom products imported into their country are made. Setting high import tariffs favours domestic production. Import tariffs that favour products made from more sustainable fibres incentivise importers to choose environmentally friendlier options. Import regulations that ban goods which are dyed or processed with the most toxic chemicals, reduce social and environmental harm they would otherwise cause. Regulations banning fibre farmed, harvested, and/or sold using forced labour, child labour, or funding violence and terror significantly reduce social cost. 

Incentivising festival producers to rethink the basic concept of festivals and party clothes could lead to creative ways to reduce the use of forever fibres, harsh dyes, chemicals for brightly coloured clothes and feathers. Offering prizes for the costumes and party clothes that have the smallest ESG footprint encourages everyone to get involved. The government has a great opportunity to lead the way to a reimagined, environmentally friendlier festival space.


Consumers’ Role. There is no easy answer to reducing the environmental impact of the materials used for festival costumes and party clothes. Every fabric, dye, processing chemical, feather, leather, and sequin has an environmental and/or social cost. But perhaps the easiest, most affordable way to make an immediate positive ESG impact, is for every consumer to reduce the number of new party clothes they purchase, reuse the clothing and accessories and costumes they already have, to trade with their family and friends when they want a new look, and to recycle their clothing, when possible, when it has finally lived its best and fullest and longest possible life. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. 


Margaret Bishop is a global consultant to the textile and apparel industry worldwide, and an adjunct professor at New York City’s leading fashion universities: Fashion Institute of Technology, Parsons New School for Design, and LIM College. She is a member of the Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP)’s International Working Group. She receives no compensation from any of the companies or organisations she has recommended in this article.