Two weeks ago, the world’s largest conference on sustainability and fashion – the Copenhagen Fashion Summit (CFS) – was held in the beautiful Opera house of Copenhagen, Denmark. It was the third CF summit since its inception in 2009. Over the years, the CFS has come to attract a growing number of participants, from business leaders, government representatives and designers, to researchers, consultants, journalists and students. At this year’s summit on April 24, more than 1 000 people active in the field were gathered to listen to an impressive selection of speakers, and follow vivid panel debates, as well as enjoy a special fashion show. According to the official list, the participants this year covered most parts of the world, from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland in Northern Europe, to Germany, Holland, Italy, UK, France, Belgium, Spain, Turkey and Poland in the European Central and South, to the United States, Sri Lanka, China, Japan and South Korea from West and East. African representatives, however, shone with their absence, as well as individuals from South and Central America and Russia, maybe due in part to long distances of travelling (except for western Russia). Nevertheless, the issues being discussed clearly had global relevance and prevalence.
With the growing magnitude of the Summit, it should now be apparent to all that sustainability issues of the fashion industry can no longer be regarded as a “side track”. Rather, sustainability has become a priority challenge for the fashion industry at large, as well as a key concern for many fashion and clothing companies. The Summit helps to further raise the issues on the international agenda, by spreading awareness, stimulating engagement and promoting networking among various stakeholders. These factors can together help drive developments forward towards increased sustainability at all levels and in all forms. I will here share some of my personal reflections and notes from the event.
One of the very first speakers at the Summit was Justin Keeble, Managing director of Sustainability services (EALA) at Accenture. In his speech, he presented five key strategies that can drive the fashion industry towards increased sustainability, namely:
- New consumption models, involving the development and provision of services – not just products – to customers;
- Transparency and consumer engagement, e.g. through the use of certification labels and scanning codes, the latter which can give comprehensive information about the item’s origin etc.;
- Resource efficiency, i.e. using water, energy and land resources more efficiently so as to “create more with less”, for example supported by the Better Cotton Initiative;
- Circular economy, i.e. how to create circular models in society, and thus revert the wasteful flow of thousands of garments ending up in landfills every year in different parts of the world; and
- Shared values, i.e. how to create ways of social sharing in society that would reduce the demand for new products.
The next speaker was Marie-Claire Daveu, Chief Sustainability Officer and Head of International institution affairs at Kering. One of her central questions was: “How do we walk the talk?”, i.e. how do large companies such as Kering spread engagement and commitment from the executive level down to the shop floor. She emphasized that all phases of production, from sourcing, design, and packaging, to marketing and sale, need to be addressed with regards to sustainability. “Sustainability is our business imperative” (in Kering), she concluded. Kering uses primarily “natural” materials such as wool, cashmere, cotton, python and crocodile, but also new innovative alternatives, which they identify and refine in their material innovation laboratory.
Thereafter we listened to Marco Bizzarri, President and CEO, Bottega Veneta. He talked about his company Bottega Veneta and how it recently has built a “sustainable” garment factory in the form of a beautiful mansion (in Montebello Vicentino) in the middle of a scenic natural park of Italy, by using discarded building materials, solar panels, earth heat etc. Their ambition has been to create a work place which is both environmentally and socially sustainable, i.e. more stimulating, healthy and pleasant for their tailors/employees. “Craftsmanship and people are the keys to our industry”, Bizarri concluded. The building has been awarded the U.S. Green Building’s Platinum.
The third speaker was Livia Firth, the Creative Director of Eco Age and founder of the Green Carpet challenge. She was possibly the most inspirational of all speakers, and definitely the most courageous. Livia started off by reminding us that the fashion industry is made up of over 60 million people. Speaking the voice of the industry’s workers, she said “We want respect and dignity, freedom of association, collective bargaining, and fundamentally to NOT feel afraid or scared at work”. Like many other speakers, she also talked of the dreadful tragedy at Rana Plaza one year ago, when over 1 100 persons were killed and many more injured, as the eight-story factory building suddenly (but not without warning) collapsed (read more here and here). She continued by calling for “a new age” with a “Declaration of dependence” as opposed to independence. Also, she proudly told of the ongoing work of Eco Age, which connects artisans/craft workers in different parts of the world with the consumers, thus creating beautiful stories.
At the panel debate in the morning session, moderator Vanessa Friedman (Fashion Editor for the Financial Times) was another inspirational speaker. Her questions and comments were clear sharp and easy to associate with. She spoke open heartedly and seemingly from the general consumer’s perspective, although herself being an esteemed expert in the fashion world. Personally, the question that got me most mentally active was her question “What is a sustainable material?”. Not being fully satisfied with the answers she got from the panel representatives, Vanessa sighed and called out “But it is still not clear to me what a sustainable material is!” Later, in her own presentation, she claimed that there is no meaning in referring to sustainable fashion, as the phrase by its very nature is an oxymoron. She proceeded by giving various examples of things in daily life that similarly are each other’s opposites, i.e. paradoxes, and cannot be combined semantically. Rather, she preferred to talk about the “sustainable wardrobe”, and described her own grandmother’s behavior in relation to clothes. In the old times, when her grandmother grew up, women learned how to slowly build their personal wardrobes of carefully selected and beloved pieces, which were also taken meticulously care of through special washing, folding and storing practices etc. Her grandmother was today her true inspiration in creating a more sustainable wardrobe and also, in her opinion, a concrete example of how to put the concept “sustainable fashion” into practice as a consumer.
There were other highlights during the day. One particular incident occurred in the afternoon panel debate, when Livia Firth confronted H&M’s Head of Sustainability Helena Helmersson with a series of critical questions. One of Livia’s questions was “Do you really need to produce so many collections?”. Helmersson responded by explaining H&M’s overall production strategy: “Fashion has changed over the years; today fashion is more about personal style and how to put together an outfit with pieces from different trends and seasons” (confirmed through personal comm., Helmersson). For this reason, H&M wants to provide a broad range of different styles in order to enable customers to find their favorite pieces regardless of trend and season; this is the primary reason why new collections are designed and marketed continuously over the year. In my opinion, Helmersson managed to answer Livia Firth’s questions with both honesty and calmness. When Firth provokingly asked: “Did it have to take a Rana Plaza for H&M to react?”, Helmersson answered – noticeably disappointed – that she was sad to hear one could believe that to be the case, because they have been work actively with workers’ rights for many years. The dialogue between Helmersson and Firth is perhaps the most widely referred sequence of the entire Summit.
Another special part of the Summit was the official launch of the Clevercare label. The initiative of the Clevercare label was initially taken by H&M, but is a collaboration between H&M and Ginitex. (Ginitex is the International Association for Textile Care Labeling and the owner of the Clevercare label.) For H&M, the initiative will be one of the company’s key strategies to spread awareness among consumers on how to better care for clothes and thus help consumers reduce their environmental footprints during the user phase. Catarina Midby (Head of Sustainable fashion at H&M) motivated the initiative by explaining the significant environmental impact caused during the consumer use. The symbol, she told, will be featured on the wash care label of all H&M’s products by the end of year 2014. However, according to some participants (and I would in fact agree), H&M’s present focus on the consumers’ role (through washing and other care practices) may risk turning the focus away from the pre-user phase and the responsibilities of the producers. H&M still has no officially stated ambition to reduce their enormous annual volumes of production (which are responsible for the greatest environmental impacts in my own opinion). And although H&M works actively with workers’ rights and conditions, e.g in Bangladesh, there is still issues to be resolved in that area too. Ideally, all areas should be targeted in parallel, with greatest effort put into the most significant and urgent issues.
One of the last sessions of the Summit was “The Voice of the Next Generation”; this was a presentation by 120 design and business school students from the Youth Fashion Summit. Divided in groups, the students presented strong messages and calls of action on how the industry should progress in the years ahead, and what they wish to see for the future. Among the calls were “Create a critical consumer”, “Education from primary school to higher levels”, “We demand the industry to reorganize into collaborating competence clusters”, “We demand a fashion democracy, a United Nations of Fashion”, and “We want industry to produce trustworthy experiences instead of just mere garments.” Industry responsibility and consumer engagement were key topics among the messages.
Overall, the Summit was an inspirational and engaging event. New contacts were made, knowledge gained, and ideas formed. Now at home base, we can foster our new contacts, explore new issues, and look forward to the next Summit (expected in spring 2016). Or we can enjoy other CFS review articles, for example in the Guardian, on the Nordic Fashion Association homepage, or one by a friend and founder of Future Threads Project.