COPENHAGEN — Corporate Social Responsibility has a fashionable future.
Fashion executives and Corporate Social Responsibility experts explored the challenges of adopting socially responsible policies, which include the ethical treatment of workers and the protection of the environment, at a conference held here by the Danish Fashion Institute last month.
With representatives of more than 100 Danish companies in attendance, the industry sent a strong signal that it aims to be a frontrunner in sustainable fashion. Connie Hedegaard, the country's minister for the environment, unveiled an industry-wide initiative to brand Denmark as a responsible nation, which includes plans for Danish designers to work together to audit suppliers.
Meanwhile, Jan Busch Carlsen, organizer of the CPH Vision trade show, hinted at plans to include an eco-friendly section at next year's exhibition. He also said CSR courses in fashion schools could be in the cards.
Such moves and CSR's general momentum are driven by consumer demand, according to speakers at the event.
A recent Goldman Sachs report stated a company's social responsibility is the top influencer when creating consumer loyalty, said Rasmus Bech Hansen, a brand consultant and co-managing director of Scandinavian design consultancy Kontrapunkt. Similarly, a McKinsey study showed the environment will be the most important issue for executives and consumers over the next five years.
Despite those findings, Bech Hansen said companies have to offer more than just good intentions.
"Consumers lie about the importance of CSR," he said. "What a consumer says and does, their attitudes and actions are often two different things.
"Show me the CSR blockbuster in the fashion industry," he continued. "Show me the $1 billion brand who's made it on a CSR platform."
To back up his argument that aesthetics and ethics conflict, he quoted a post from a so-called "honest and representative fashion consumer," on green Web site lime.com.
"Let's say that you're trying on two pairs of jeans. One pair is 100 percent organic and fits OK. The other is not so organic but — whoa! — it does something spectacular to your rear view. Which do buy? I'd sacrifice the greater good of the planet for the perfect pair of jeans. In a heartbeat."The central brand challenge, concluded Bech Hansen, is transforming attitudes into actions.
Peter Ingwersen, chief executive officer and founder of Danish brand Noir, said the key is to make CSR appealing. "I don't want to wear any fabrics so thick I can smoke them," he joked, adding his mission is to be known as the first brand to make CSR sexy.
Bech Hansen highlighted American Apparel as an example of successful CSR branding.
"Its advertising is not boring," he said. "It has even been criticized for being too sexy."
Equally important is making CSR transparent for consumers.
"Why should the consumer have to search for all the information on the companies they're buying from?" asked Ali Hewson, founder of Edun, who was in town to promote the apparel brand's introduction in Denmark. Hewson had called on friend and Copenhagen native Helena Christensen to model its One T-shirt, sales of which go to fighting AIDS in Africa.
To make sure consumers know exactly where their money is going, Edun features labels by Dutch organization Made-by on its clothing. By typing a code online, consumers can see in seconds exactly where the item was made and by whom.
Danish brand Jackpot has also introduced the system.
"It would be great to get to a point where it's a given: that a company is environmentally friendly and good for the community where the product is being produced," Hewson said.
Speakers sought to reassure executives' fears of a backlash if CSR policies are found to be lacking.
"No one expects you to be perfect from Day One," said Soren Mandrup Petersen, head of participant relations and partnerships for U.N. Global Compact, the world's largest voluntary corporate responsibility initiative. "We're working with some of the most advanced CSR companies and none are 100 percent in compliance with Global Compact principles. A lot of them are very close, but it's a neverending process."
For brands to fully integrate successful codes of conduct, they need to communicate both with their employees and business partners, Mandrup Petersen said.
Getting the message right can pay dividends, according to speakers."Leading companies for CSR outperform other companies by 25 percent," said Mandrup Petersen.
Further, executives suggested companies not adopting CSR principles stand to lose out.
"We now talk about the third bottom line," said Noir's Ingwersen. "Consumers will punish the brands or company if they're really bad."
Though the conference focused on ways to alter attitudes to CSR in the industry, Hedegaard reminded attendees that each step in the chain has a role to play in making the fashion business more ethically sound. "When a designer lends his or her name to a product, they are lending their reputation to the entire supply chain."
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