LONDON — Fashion leaders gathered digitally for this year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit and came ready to have honest conversations about the current state of the industry.
They acknowledged the certain level of hypocrisy in talking about sustainability in relation to fashion, which is deeply engrained in the culture of consumerism and the industry’s shortcomings in relation to climate change, whose current global emissions are higher than those of Germany, France and the U.K. combined.
At the same time, glimmers of hope emerged from the two-day digital event, as young designers spoke about a renewed vision of success that’s more to do with community and less to do with high volumes.
“Value system needs to be redefined before redesigned: It’s taken too long for us to understand that the capitalist definition of success is just not working,” said Indian designer Mriga Kapadiya. “The challenge is not that customers can’t wait, but companies are creating false expectations. Amidst the pandemic, it blew our minds how many people supported our preorder model because they were educated about our process since the beginning.”
Founders and chief executive officers of larger-scale corporations also seemed ready to take action and make the necessary investments to lead their brands, and consequently the industry, towards a more sustainable future.
And it won’t be a free — or straightforward for that matter — ride, according to Nicolaj Reffstrup, ceo of Denmark’s leading fashion label, Ganni.
Reffstrup took the audience through an internal company experiment to create an impact-free collection, in partnership with the business accelerator UNDP.
The results of the experiment? There’s no such thing as 100 percent impact-free clothing and getting anywhere near impact-free territory means big costs.
“You have to be aware that this is going to cost you money, there’s no such thing as a free lunch and you can’t pass on the cost to the consumer, she is not ready to pay it. We spent on webinars, courses, certifications, consultants and more expensive fabrics. It was a total of 150,000 euros of direct expenses for Ganni — this is not a free ride,” said Reffstrup.
The investment however, is already paying off: For its spring 2021 collection, Ganni was able to increase the amount of sustainable fabrics it used, from 4 to 73 percent, using the lessons learned from its impact-free experiment. It has also increased traceability in its supply chain by 75 percent and can now trace up to the raw material stage.
The long-term financial gains companies can make by following through with their sustainable goals was another point of discussion.
Sakis Kotsantonis, cofounder of the consultancy KKS Advisors, pointed to an array of new viable financial solutions for fashion firms, sustainability-linked bonds and the increase of traditional private equity firms becoming more interested in financing sustainable innovations.
“The key is that circularity will bring profitability, otherwise it’s not sustainable at all,” said Helena Helmersson, the new ceo of the H&M group.
“We want to move much faster towards our circular goals, the pace we had in the past cannot be the pace we have in the future. It’s about changing our core business faster and looking at new types of revenue streams like repair or take back schemes,” said Helmersson as part of a conversation with Johan Rockstrom, professor at the Potsdam Institute for climate impact research.
Rockstrom backed Helmersson’s convictions that circularity is the future and stressed the importance of decoupling economic growth and reduced environmental impact.
“Circularity will be the only way to really make net income in the future and decoupling is the holy grail for this new world. The problem is not many succeed: Sweden has decoupled but only because we are importing so much of our consumer goods. COVID-19 is the moment to integrate health, sustainability, economic growth and social justice,” he added.
But for activist and Extinction Rebellion cofounder Clare Farrell, “circularity is not merely enough.”
Farrell spoke about the need to move towards regeneration in fashion, pointing to the industry’s roots in colonialism and pledging to continue “peacefully breaking the law until the risk of life on earth is reduced.”
Fashion’s impact on human lives and the need to talk about the human cost in conjunction with the environmental impact also came up in multiple discussions
“Everyone talks about values or being ‘people first’ when the company is doing well, but you really see whether those values are real or fake during a crisis,” said Gucci ceo Marco Bizzarri, who has been working towards the goals of the Paris agreement, moving Gucci’s supply chain to regenerative agriculture and spearheading the company’s new carbon neutral challenge. “Gucci is a drop in the ocean when you talk about the planet, but we need to find a way to create impact. I’m from a generation when my priority wasn’t the climate or of the world, but I’ve been studying, learning and listening to scientists who know more.”
Helmersson also addressed the issue. “The countries of production have been the hardest hit: When we close, the [workers] have no jobs. How can we come together? We want to walk the talk,” she said, without however addressing allegations that high street retailers, including H&M, have canceled orders amidst the pandemic and are yet to pay their garment workers.
On the subject of human cost, Mostafiz Uddin of the Bangladesh Apparel Exchange highlighted the $3 billion in canceled orders faced by Bangladesh factories amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, with workers taking the biggest hit.
“Within a week everything changed, our lives, our businesses, everything. We should have been considered a partner to these brands, have open conversations about the situation, not just anonymous cancellations,” said Uddin. “There’s no other industry where trust is so important. We do $15 million in business with a client and reserve fabrics for them based on pure trust, but this time it has been broken. The pandemic showed that without real partnership and relationships we can’t do business and brands should understand that we might have different skin color and live in a different part of the world, but we are part of the fashion family.”