François-Henri Pinault giving the keynote speech at Copenhagen Fashion Summit

COPENHAGEN Action, speed and collaboration were keywords that drove discussions at this year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit, with companies now feeling a sense of urgency to turn ideas into results.

“In the field of sustainability, a critical mass of key players can create a terrific momentum. We need to guarantee that our long-term progress prevails over short-term priorities,” said François Henri-Pinault, chairman and chief executive officer of Kering, who made headlines when he revealed that Kering will now only be working with models over the age of 18, as he addressed summit attendees on Tuesday.

Among the 1,300 attendees, key players include Nike, H&M Group, PVH and Kering, which all called for increased collaboration within the industry; the support of policymakers, and a complete banning of plastic in favor of new, sustainable materials.

“It’s so much more comfortable staying in our bubble, where we speak in our own language. You’re surrounded by people that think and talk like you, but we’ve got to break out of that because we’re not going to do it on our own as individual sectors,” said Dr. Helen Crowley, head of sustainable sourcing initiatives at Kering.

Katharine Hamnett also spoke about creating sustainable change on an individual level and chastised the industry for its profligate trade shows and buying sessions. She also had a lot to say to the organizers of the summit, criticizing them for not broadcasting the panel and having so many people travel to Copenhagen. “Imagine the carbon footprint,” she said to applause (organizers later confirmed that the event was live-streamed).

The effects of fabrics on the environment was a much-discussed topic, with some attendees going so far as to say “textiles are the new plastic.”

Miles Socha, Editor in Chief, WWD, Samuel Ross, Founder and Designer, A-Cold-Wall, and John Hoke, Chief Design Officer, Nike, in a panel discussion at Copenhagen Fashion Summit

Miles Socha, Editor in Chief, WWD, Samuel Ross, Founder and Designer, A-Cold-Wall, and John Hoke, Chief Design Officer, Nike, in a panel discussion at Copenhagen Fashion Summit  Getty Images

Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for Oceans, said he wants to have replacements for all toxic substances by 2024: “I want plastic to be gone, it’s not fitting into any circular economy. The act of removing it is an example of successful collaboration. How can we do this with other materials that need change?”

Companies such as Naia, which makes cellulosic yarn from sustainably sourced wood pulp, and Lenzing, which creates fibers from pre-consumer cotton waste, are pioneering sustainable fibers.

But these remain a small niche of the market, said Robert van de Kerkhof, chief commercial officer of Lenzing: “We’re facing a lot of barriers. It’s 40 cents more expensive to produce a pair of jeans with our fiber so we need companies to take a holistic look at their economies. We also need help with legislation to reclassify waste as raw materials so we face less friction importing it.”

But when it comes to working with new, innovative textiles, scalability is an issue, especially for a fast-fashion player like H&M, which has been working toward becoming fully circular and experimenting with new materials.

“We work with re:newcell [a company that recycles used fibers into sustainable alternatives], which is another way to close the loop, so we have proof on a smaller scale. It’s a journey; there is progress, but we need innovations to test and to see how they are scalable,” said Helena Helmersson, chief operating officer of H&M Group.

The solution goes beyond collaboration here and needs to involve the support of policymakers, too, panelists said.

“We need something to rally around, such as the Fashion Pact that Pinault mentioned yesterday, and the big brands need to start because if we wait for governments to put regulations through, it will be too late,” said Roger Lee, ceo of TAL Group.

Eva Kruse, president and ceo of Global Fashion Agenda and Copenhagen Fashion Summit, and her team are working with other organizations to draft a sustainable manifesto for the European Union to shape new policies. “They’ve had such a successful approach to plastics so they’ve asked us and others to put forward a manifesto when the new parliament gets into place [in September], there is actual policy being shaped in this space.

“Companies like H&M are really ambitious; they’d love to be working with innovative materials only but they are hard to find at scale. They’d take up all the organic cotton in the world if that’s what they were going to go into. So policymakers need to support these scalable solutions such as circular fibers,” Kruse said.

The summit also recognized the need to dive deeper into the value chain and pay more attention to the creative process – where many key decisions are being taken. That’s why for its 10-year anniversary, the summit introduced the Design Studio, a platform to provide sustainable solutions in design, alongside the Innovation Forum, a platform of solution providers with designers such as Prabal Gurung and Peter Copping on the advisory board.

“The summit has always been geared to ceo’s over the years and creative directors have always been the minority. From my experience, a lot of important decisions are in the hands of creative directors and designers and they can be a hard bunch to be swayed,” said Copping, who admits to sometimes choosing the less sustainable option.

“Sometimes I’d be presented with two similar fabrics, one sustainable, one that isn’t and sometimes the one that’s not is better. So it’s a real dilemma, but if creative directors were included in discussions and if sustainable materials weren’t just geared toward sportswear and the lower end of the market, there can be real change,” he added.

Kruse echoed his thoughts. “How a product is made is determined by a design team’s choice. You can have a ceo decide if they’re going to be sustainable, but if the design team isn’t backing it then you’re going nowhere,” she said.

John Hoke, chief design officer at Nike, hopes that future designers will embed sustainability into all touch points of their discipline. “I just believe that the future designer will be a citizen designer, very thoughtful of the project they are designing in the context of ecologies they live in. To embed sustainability, which used to be a side course, and embed it in everything,” he said.

Nike Flyleather

Nike Flyleather  Courtesy

Companies such as Avery Dennison and Parley for the Oceans are also tackling transparency in the design process — an area in which blockchain is starting to have major influence.

Avery Dennison, in collaboration with Alyx’s Matthew Williams, unveiled a blockchain solution that allows consumers to scan a product’s label and view its entire journey from creation to point of sale.

Parley for the Oceans, a partner of Adidas, is also set to introduce Parley ID later this year, which aims to attach an identification system to each material in a product.

“It’s important to us to prove that there is a family tree around the material, that means knowing everything about it. Did a kid for a bowl of soup collect the plastic or a fisherman who is an activist?” Gutsch said.

For Emanuel Chirico, chairman and ceo of PVH Corp., data is becoming the key currency.

“Data gives us the opportunity of value creation and that could come from the digitization of the supply chain, which has huge impacts, ultimately, it can make us more efficient,” he said.

Earlier in the week, PVH set out 15 targets to become completely circular in three categories — men’s underwear, men’s dress and dress shirts — by 2025, dubbed Forward Fashion. This includes cutting waste, eliminating hazardous chemicals and carbon emissions, and upcycling.

“We want to go to a cradle-to-cradle approach, where something we produce, we can take back and reproduce into a new product. We’re working with key suppliers to get that technology better so we can become more traceable and use better products,” Chirico said.

The ceo is moving PVH’s brands into digital design, which will help reduce the amount of samples produced and take down lead times, overall shortening the supply cycle.

In a call to arms, retailers such as Nike and Vestiaire Collective drew up open source tool guides and educational resources. Nike’s Circular Design Guide, unveiled at the summit, outlined 10 core principles needed to close the loop such as waste avoidance, green chemistry and versatility.

“We are endeavoring to create a common language between designers, suppliers and manufacturers to communicate effectively. It’s a shared commitment. Design plays a big role in helping to push sustainability beyond function. It needs to be functional, sustainable and beautiful simultaneously,” Hoke said.

Nike’s sustainability efforts have been driven by consumer demand for products that perform, feel and look like Nike while being sustainable.

Seventy-seven percent of Vestiaire Collective’s consumers have a high interest in sustainable fashion, yet only 29 percent of them understood the concept behind circular fashion — so education is another crucial factor.

In a bid to make their consumer and the industry at large more familiar with circularity, the resale company created a guide detailing the environmental benefits of pre-owned fashion, how to resell and where consumes can donate their clothes around the world.

Ahead of the summit, Center for Sustainable Fashion also unveiled a fashion futures tool guide that portrays four extreme cases of climate change to prompt critical thinking.

Google and Current Global, in partnership with Stella McCartney, also launched a cloud tool that provides brands better visibility into their supply chains, the aim being to enable them to make better sourcing decisions with a focus on raw materials, a hot topic at the summit.