YOU CAN ALWAYS LEARN SOMETHING FROM A GATHERING OF SUSTAINABLE FASHION’S LEADERS.
The Copenhagen Fashion Summit, hosted by the Global Fashion Agenda, went on this year in a digital format on October 12 and 13. The theme for 2020? Redesigning Value - which was announced before the pandemic but has added resonance now.
HRH Crown Princess Mary of Denmark kicked off the event with some somber words about the effects of the coronavirus. “When crisis strikes, the most poor and vulnerable are disproportionately affected,” she said.
Others noted the opportunity for positive change in the wake of the pandemic. President of CFDA Steven Kolb spoke of “an opportunity for a slower, more thoughtful industry that is about product, craft, and people.” Leslie Johnston, CEO of the Laudes Foundation said, “We need to move from an optimisation of the current system to a transformation of a new system.” All well and good, but will it happen?
Is the fashion industry really up for addressing its very bedrock - the growth model? That would mean dismantling - and rethinking - the entire economic system. Well, it’ll take more than some panel discussions to do that.
But at least the conversation is going mainstream. And it needs to, because we are exceeding planetary boundaries at an alarming pace. A few years ago, only hippie outliers talked about degrowth as a serious economic strategy. Now, it’s the hot topic, with the likes of economists Joseph Stiglitz, Kate Raworth and Tim Jackson looking at the topic from different angles, and this brilliant think piece from the New Yorker wading in.
At the conference, it was left to the smaller designers and the activists to truly go there. Are we surprised the big bosses aren’t super keen to board the post-growth train? Obvs. not, but we did enjoy fashademic Kate Fletcher’s urging that we look that way before it’s too late.
Progress is better than… no progress You know Voltaire said: "Il meglio è l'inimico del bene". (Us neither - we Googled it). Anyway. Perfection stands in the way of good. Or indeed of getting anything done at all. The thing is to start and keep going.
On an insightful panel titled “The journey of creating an impact-free collection” Nicolaj Reffstrup, CEO of Ganni and Stine Kirstein Junge of the UN Development Programme discussed their collaboration to accelerate supply chain transparency and better fabric choices. Ms. Junge encouraged brands to “approach the SDGs as market opportunities” instead of obstacles. Mr. Reffstrup spoke about how hard it is to achieve transparency even with genuine efforts by companies who want to be ethical.
He talked about how Ganni is able to trace 75% of their supply chain, down to the raw materials level, but said it’s difficult to trace recycled materials. He also advised that companies be prepared to spend money to become more sustainable. He said Ganni spends 8-10% more on responsible fabrics compared to conventional ones, and sometimes up to 3x as much.
Ms. Junge commented on how it is important to partner with the private sector to come up with innovative solutions together. She said that the SDG Accelerator program that partners with private-sector businesses is now active in 170 countries, and still growing. Both parties noted that there are many challenges in creating an impact-free collection, but partnerships help both parties on the path to full transparency.
Partnerships have to be mutually beneficial Another major topic discussed was “Moving beyond compliance towards leading practices”. Miran Ali of supplier Tarasima Apparels, and Gustaf Asp of H&M Group spoke on similar themes as Mr. Reffstrup, noting the importance of fair partnerships. The supplier and buyer talked about how their relationship has evolved over the years. Mr. Asp said, “It’s important to share challenges along the way.” Both parties need to have a strategic view and a willingness to grow together. Mr. Ali noted that having visible, achievable targets helps suppliers carve a path forward, along with frameworks such as the ZDHC. It’s imperative to integrate sustainability into all parts of the business and quantify goals and results. Easier said than done? Maybe, but saying it’s a good a start.
Fair labour practices can create social change Previous summits have been criticised for focusing in the ‘easy’ wins of circularity and green initiatives, while conveniently leaving out living wages. In a particularly illuminating session, British peer Baroness Lola Young of Hornsey, Outland Denim’s James Bartle, and Kevin Bales, Research Director of Rights Lab, asked “Can fashion be an agent for positive social change?”
The answer is a resounding yes, if done right.
Mr. Bales opened proceedings with a shocking stat: there are 40 million people today engaged in modern slavery. The largest number but the smallest percentage of the population involved in slavery in history. Because it is - relatively - a smaller problem today, it means it can be solved sooner, he said.
Baroness Young commented on the intersections of gender and race, and how we too easily dismiss layered injustices, and (shamefully) think of slavery as something that only affects Black and brown and “in far-off countries.” Not so. There’s modern slavery next door. And who defines far-off countries anyway?
Mr. Bartle spoke about the need to ensure people have access to fair and dignified work if you want them to thrive, and how poverty is implicated in the story of slavery and its causes. He talked about the “radical transformation” education can spark, and that he himself has witnessed through Outland Denim - which works with survivors of human
trafficking in Cambodia.
By Claire Kalikman & Clare Press
Missed the event? Catch up in full on YouTube.
More on the UN’s efforts in the fashion space.
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