Stella McCartney speaks to Graydon Carter at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in 2018

COPENHAGEN — H&M threw down its green gauntlet on the second day of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, announcing an ambitious plan to commit to a 100 percent circular business model in the future.

Can they actually achieve it? Fellow businesses said it won’t be easy.

“Why is the circular economy not growing as fast as we hoped? It’s simple, it’s because it’s hard,” said Robby Gu, vice president of investment and innovation at JNBY Group. “But the market is more than ready, Chinese consumers adopt new trends faster than anybody, and the demand is there. The issue lies in the supply.”

Paul Dillinger, vice president and head of global product innovation and premium collection design at Levi Strauss & Co., concurred. “Circularity is going to be the mechanism that will constrain our industry to an appropriate scale. Now, six out of 10 garments we produce end up in a landfill or are incinerated within the first year of production. It will force us to ask how much better the four could have been if the additional six had not been made.”

While speakers said they didn’t have all the answers, the first step toward sustainability in any business is to embed it into the company culture, and to innovate — or support innovations — in digitization and technology.

Stella McCartney said she hopes technology can answer sustainability’s many challenges going forward. “The conversation of circular economy requires an element of technology to be truly meaningful,” she said.

“We use a lot of recycled polyesters and nylons, some made out of plastic bottles for the lining of our Falabella bag, but we are always trying to source better,” said McCartney, adding that innovation will help her company source in a better way.

Speakers also said new technology can change the supply chain from end-to-end and tackle issues of scalability. Small businesses and start-ups are responding by creating sustainable materials and ethical fibers they’re getting attention from the likes of Kering and H&M.

“I always like to mention how microorganisms and mushrooms can substitute traditional dying processes,” said Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs at Kering,

“Two weeks ago, we had start-ups pitch ideas to our brands where they identified key issues in our supply chain, it’s very energetic to work with people who are coming from start-ups,” she said.

Ann-Sofie Johannson, creative adviser at H&M group, agreed that small is often beautiful when it comes to developing new technologies.

“We have a dress made of orange peels. It’s (just one) dress made from orange fibers because the challenge is really being able to scale these small businesses up. We’re a big group and we need a lot of fibers and I think the real challenge is supporting them.”

The summit has been placing pressure on big companies and manufacturers to help speed up systemic change. Panelists agreed: “We need big corporations to truly commit to this, and when they do it, it means I don’t have three types of sustainable sequins available, I have three hundred,”  McCartney said.

Although the focus was on the circular economy, the summit’s organizers made sure that social issues did not take a back seat.

Daveu assured the industry that social responsibility was a top priority for Kering.

Edie Campbell led a discussion and spoke passionately about the ongoing importance of the #MeToo movement. Sara Ziff, founding director of Model Alliance, announced her organization’s newest initiative, the Respect program.

She called it “an industry-wide initiative designed for, and by, models to foster meaningful accountability in this industry.”

While many initiatives are still in their early stages, Dee Poon, managing director for Esquel group, was proud to show off the company’s improving social conditions. “Our average worker is paid as much as a young medical worker in China, a multiple of minimum wage,” she said.

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