Copenhagen Fashion Summit
Reality with a dose of heartbreak, optimism, and some dancing
By Festival General Manager Yolanda Finch
The Copenhagen Fashion Summit is the seminal gathering of industry leaders discussing matters of sustainability in fashion and the premier place to shed light on global problems while unearthing solutions. It brings together a concert hall full of people in positions of influence to make a difference on such vital matters as the ethical and ecological impact of the fashion industry globally.
The 1300 delegates present were exposed to some harsh truths about that impact of our glamorous industry on some of the most vulnerable workers in the world, and on the earth’s precious, dwindling resources. And shocking as those truths were, they were by no means new to anyone in the room.
Many of the delegates have been coming to the Summit for several years; some of the presenters have been in attendance since the first, including its Patron HRH The Crown Princess of Denmark. And so, in this, the 10th anniversary year of the gathering, a reflection on the scale and pace of progress was forefront in the conversation, and in both fact and reflection, there was a resounding conclusion that progress has been by no means fast enough.
“We must own up to the reality that progress is really lagging. The entire fashion industry must take action and implement sustainability at its core.” – HRH The Crown Princess of Denmark
The fact that there were representatives from so many global industry leaders at the Summit (with a wait list of a further 800), and that each of their businesses invested the resources to be in attendance is surely an indicator of willingness to effect positive change, from within, by the people that can. Not as Julia Ormond (Actress and Founder, Asset) put it, “shaking your fist from the sidelines,” but truly spending the year ahead implementing greener and kinder policies and processes that would mean that in 2020, at the 11th Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the now-disastrous indicators of how we’re progressing will have turned.
The important thing to define in talking about what progress looks like, what success for the sustainable fashion movement is, is that it’s not intangible. It’s defined by facts that are measurable, scientific and frankly, in the state they are in, horrifying.
Among other stark reminders to the Summit’s delegates, in the context of knowing that we work in the world’s second largest polluting industry, we were confronted with the knowledge that humans are extracting 3 times the resources from the earth than in the 1970s, and are on the verge of destroying an unprecedented number of species from the planet (a recent report from the United Nations stated one in four species is at risk of extinction). The world’s temperature will continue to rise and hit critical levels within a decade if drastic measures are not taken. And that’s just the tip of the ecologically terrifying reasons why the Copenhagen Fashion Summit exists, an annual gathering to take stock and put the immediacy of the need for solutions into the business plans of those that can make a difference.
The European Commission is a key organisation that has put central intelligence around the issues, that has now completed its first action plan to turn the European economy from linear to circular. According to speaker Emmanuelle Maire (Head of Unit, Sustainable Production, Products and Consumption, DG Environment, European Commission), it was first in the world to look at people, planet and prosperity as a fundamental, constructing a wholistic approach to a healthy economy. And the Commission identifies fashion as powerful, not just because of its negative impacts, but because of its immense potential to influence consumers in a positive way.
To boldly go from linear to circular economic models
Multiple speakers pointed to the fact that financial greed and linear systems only focus on growth, but there is indeed a limit, because those profits are taken directly or indirectly from the earth’s resources, which are finite. It is nothing short of incredible to hear genuine industry leaders coming together to try to rewrite not only the rules of sustainable fashion but the rules of business itself, which I couldn’t help but reflect were written by white men for white men to prosper; it’s no damn wonder it needs some diversity to grow up and around it (but more on that shortly).
Breaking that linear model is the notion of circularity; it’s not just a buzz word, but a concept that surely will grow in the everyday consciousness as we all reconsider our relationship to the earth’s resources. It is a principle that makes as much sense in the shopping habits and wardrobe management of individuals, as in the governance of nations.
From an individual consumer point of view, the rise of new models that create value in the secondary retail market opens an exciting new way to acquire and repurpose our garments. Businesses in this space are using technology to keep fashion items in circulation much longer than their traditional life-span. And businesses are reaping the rewards of taking their products back from customers for incentives, that the materials may be repurposed into new, innovative products. The smart ones are using customers’ interest in circularity, the secondary market, and even repair services and classes, into an experiential marketing zone and winning customer trust and respect.
Turning threat into opportunity
The power of the consumer was much discussed over many sessions at the Summit, as it’s clear that we as individual consumers have a key role to play in accelerating the pace of change. Vanessa Friedman (Fashion Director, The New York Times) reminded us that we all have a responsibility for the systems the next generation inherit. We ask our children to be responsible, it’s only fair to ask ourselves and our businesses. And again, circularity must become second nature, as we take responsibility for what we buy, as well as where it goes after its life in our wardrobes.
Anna Gedda (H&M Group) declared that by 2030 consumers will acquire and enjoy fashion in a completely new way, so businesses with the foresight to think in new ways about processes, structures and ways of conducting business will be ready for those consumer behaviour shifts.
All good business operators know that every threat is an opportunity, and there were so many reminders through the Summit’s conversations, that this is one opportunity that isn’t about putting ‘icing on the cake’ but rather to urgently accelerate each business’s sustainability agenda in order to survive what’s coming from both the availability of raw materials and other resources, and particularly, what’s coming from an increasingly educated, aware and caring consumer.
“Right now, nobody can say they can guarantee their clothes are made by workers that have been paid properly.” - Jenny Holdcroft, Assistant General Secretary, Industrial Global Union
The scale of human misery associated with the garment industry is heartbreaking. 1 in 6 people in the world work in this industry, and a large proportion of them count as the world’s poorest. Child forced labour is a topic that once you hear, you can’t un-hear, and the communities that exist at the end of the value chain of most of the garments that each one of us has in our wardrobes, live with conditions that not one of we lucky ones would genuinely wish for them.
And yet we buy. And buy, and discard, and buy again. Wilfully or blindly choosing to ignore our part in the cycle of human misery that’s stitched in to our new ‘this or that’. At least we (as consumers) were, but now? And next?
Listening to the fashion students that were selected from around the world to take part in the Youth Fashion Summit, undertaking projects and presenting to industry on the main stage, fashion brands should be aware that their customers are interested, actively seeking information, and using their purchasing power to let brands know whether their sustainability efforts are good enough for them.
I wanted to pause here to try to describe what I found to be a very emotional moment. Nazma Akter (President, Sommiliot Garments Sramik Federation) was a panellist on the topic of wages, so brought to the forum the voice of the workers that were much discussed throughout the Summit. She reported that there has been progress in raising wages in the past 10 years, and the number of factories with better working conditions is improving. Despite this, an overwhelming number of Bangladeshi garment business’ clients choose cheap products, and aggressively drive prices down. And what’s the cost? “Respect and dignity,” was Nazma’s succinct and powerful response. As she described, “profits go to the multinational, but our workers are suffering.” And the singularly powerful truth that needed to be said, “gender inequality means women.”
“Our employees expect us to do the right thing.” - Noel Kinder, Chief Sustainability Officer, Nike
Using diversity and values to change the system
One of the Summit’s power-house moderators, Sandrine Dixson-Decleve (Co-President, Club of Rome), emphasised that we need more women in decision making, in order to break down the redundant and destructive systems that have hindered innovation in the economic system. It was obvious through the course of the Summit that gender equality is not only a crucial component to progress but an absolute demand of the future generations.
And those future employees will not be so easily attracted by companies that don’t put their values were their policies are. Marissa McGowan (PVH Corp) lent a future-focused clarity to the understanding that a company’s greatest asset are its people, and that talent retention and business continuity through knowledge are critical, by reinforcing that propelling these values conversations through the business will help build a culture of aligned personal visions.
There was a strong luxury contingent among the voices on-stage, and as the most visible segment of the industry this show of leadership is important. Francois-Henri Pinault (Chair and CEO, Kering) was the Summit’s first keynote speaker and he is as impressive and decisive as his position would suggest. As the parent company for brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, one decision by Pinault can effect seismic change, and indeed has.
Pinault has implemented a robust set of values-lead policies and processes that is admirably progressive. It is notable because it breaks down the long-entrenched, traditional imperative of business to deliver continual growth through profits to shareholders, with the implied by-line, ‘whatever the cost’. There are very few non-independent businesses over a certain size that could consider sacrificing financial outcomes to begin to incorporate social and environmental outcomes. Or could they, if they were at the Summit and started to realise that they will be left behind in an age where sustainability will disrupt those harmful, antiquated fundamentals?
I couldn’t help but observe that Kering’s leadership on these issues is powerful because in top-line statement terms, the stance appears simple and logical to future-generational thinkers. Positivity and optimism are too often relegated to the innocence of youth, before optimism is smashed by the complexities of reality. It happens to each of us every day in our working lives, and the word ‘compromise’ starts to become a lot more prevalent than any of us would have set out to accept. Pinault’s leadership style is impressive because he has been clear in his commitments, despite those complexities, and without compromise.
“There are so many innovators here ready to stick together, and potentially save the world.” – Gemma Cairney, Copenhagen Fashion Summit Host, Television and Radio Presenter
Saving fashion and the world – together
A consistent theme, indeed a plea, among presenters was the need for collective action and collaboration. People in positions spanning all sectors of the fashion industry, government, social enterprise, corporations and beyond were clear in their insistence that no one entity can make an impact as meaningful as what is required. Collaboration is another concept that destroys traditional business practice; the thought of sharing knowledge, information and support with competitors is usually seen as a threat.
Mike Barry (Director of Sustainable Business, Marks & Spencer) cited the food industry as an invaluable example for the fashion industry to look to. Challenges requiring a new approach to sustainability hit food well before fashion, so there are invaluable learnings from their action trajectory that can be directly applied. One of which is the fact that food industry CEOs come together regularly to make commitments, share learnings, and hold each other accountable.
Because if businesses are truly invested in the sustainability values they espouse, knowledge that could improve outcomes on a greater scale must be shared.
“Sustainability can look innovative, and technical and beautiful.” - John Hoke, Chief Design Officer, Nike
Sustainable is the new normal
There’s a lot of doom and gloom in looking clearly into sustainable fashion, a term many argue is an oxymoron, and we need to start using much more specific language so we can really get a handle on what needs to be done. But semantics aside, there were some truly exciting innovations discussed at the Summit, showing that when something gets too difficult, it’s the true innovator that will create something new and brilliant that smashes through.
The possibilities are immense for businesses that are willing to look for and implement the sustainable innovations that are already out in market. Businesses such as Levi’s, Nike, Everlane and so many more that were on-stage at the Summit acted as spokespeople for the unbelievably exciting technologies already in existence that can slash eco-impact, improving the bottom line through efficiencies, lowering of waste, increasing levels of trust with consumers, and the long-term benefit of putting people first all the way along the supply chain.
“Beyond a vision, what I have to offer is a willingness to act.” - Francois-Henri Pinault, Chairman and CEO, Kering
It’s only fitting to end with optimism in looking at the big picture of sustainable fashion. To look at the business opportunities, the outrageously exciting prospect of building a community of customers through shared values, and the possibility of transforming so many aspects of human existence across small and large corners of our world for the better.
As a consumer it is my genuine belief that it’s straight-up more stylish to stop buying then discarding dirty fashion at a frantic pace, and instead pause to consider meaningful acquisition and eventual repurposing of our garments. I also don’t believe that sustainable fashion should exist in an elite zone, but everyone, at every level of economic situation, should be able to clothe themselves and their families at any price point without doing so at the expense of the living conditions of poorest workers in the world. That’s just a cycle of tragedy I do not believe any consumer wants to accept. And that’s the challenge – an incredible and exciting one - to all garment creators that want to be a part of the wardrobes of the future generations.
I did promise to end on optimism, as did the 2019 Copenhagen Fashion Summit. The Summit’s indefatigable CEO, Eva Kruse, closed the event with a rally cry for action and collaboration and then inspired everyone to stand up… and dance. Because we’re the lucky ones. And because we’re human. Which is what purposeful creative endeavour is really there to celebrate. And when we’re done dancing, let’s get to work.