Last Tuesday, us and other punchy startups, luxury giants, manufacturers, innovators, NGOs and government representatives descended on Denmark for the sixth edition of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit to tackle sustainability in one of the dirtiest industries on the planet. The event promised to get to core issues and deliver practical solutions for businesses to take away and create meaningful, positive change; turning words into action was the buzz phrase of the week. But did the event deliver?
Taking fashion’s pulse
The Copenhagen Fashion Summit kicked off with a deep dive session on the recently published Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report. The report (published by the Boston Consulting Group and The Global Fashion Agenda) examines environmental and social impact areas to track and measure the industry, finally giving a score between 1 – 100. This year’s result was 36/100 which, although shows an uplift from the previous year’s score, is a weak performance. According to the report, the sustainability of a brand is driven by its size and not, as one might logically think, its operating model. So essentially a fast fashion giant (ie. H&M) has more sustainable integrity than a conscious boutique brand with embedded practices. We’re not so sure…
Consumption is critical
According to Sebastian Boger of The Boston Consulting Group, “a return to slow fashion is not the answer….” He went on to say that the power of fashion is transformative – it’s a creative force that empowers individuality and identity. I could not agree with this more wholeheartedly. I don’t agree, however, that to enable this, we must be bombarded with thousands of new, shoddily made styles each season. Volume production and consumption must be addressed. It is not enough for the Goliaths of the industry to re-think how they power their stores and swap to LED light bulbs. A significant uplift in quality and longevity is what’s needed. Encouragingly, Boger seemed to be alone in thinking that maintaining fast fashion was the answer. The Head of Sustainability at H&M Cecilia Strömblad Brännsten asserted that product quality should and is given due consideration back at their HQ. We welcome this statement and await this commitment to quality with anticipation.
A coming together of like-minded souls?
It is encouraging to hear that industry heavyweights are talking about and prioritising sustainability – particularly concerning labour practice. However, for all the talk of greater transparency (of which there was a huge amount), we couldn’t help but notice the elephant quietly curled up in the corner of the conference hall. Aren’t some of these brands guilty of destroying excess stock (we’re talking multiple container loads of the stuff here, not a handful of dodgy jumpers)? Only a couple of months back, after the furore of the ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’ campaign, we know that this was the case for H&M.
We repeatedly tried to put our questions to the panels. Among other things, we wanted to know if any thought was being given to transparency at the end of life for fast fashion brands and which brands were destroying stock or contributing the most to landfill. Our question didn’t get through the moderators.
Where have all the policy makers gone?
For real change to happen, legislation needs to lead. We listened hopefully to a panel discussion on The Impacts and Opportunities of Purchasing Practices where Arne Lietz, member of the Social Democratic Party in Germany and Member of the European Parliament, agreed that transparency is paramount. He reminded the audience that the European Parliament voted for Binding Due Diligence, an EU legal framework to put in place due diligence obligations for supply chain transparency and traceability; this is legislation that would protect the human and labour rights of garment workers. It sounds promising; however, the resolution was de-prioritised and has not yet been adopted. In our view, as well as binding legislation on human and labour rights and environmental practices, hard targets to limit volume production and benchmarking for minimum quality standards are essential. This would be revolutionary in the fast fashion space and only then could fast fashion as an operating model ever truly be considered sustainable.
Simon Collins, the founder of Fashion Culture Design, put it brilliantly in his opening remarks on day one: “Stop with the shoulds and sending thoughts and prayers… do something.” We couldn’t agree more. There were many self-congratulatory “we’re not perfect, but…” statements from big business players; however, there were also disruptors, innovators and revolutionaries to be found at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. Here’s our shortlist:
Linda Greer, Senior Scientist, Natural Resources Defence Council challenged big brands repeatedly to know their suppliers across the entire supply chain. She created the Clean By Design program which supports brands dramatically reduce their environmental impact at the production points where the most harm is happening.
Jeff Denby, Co-Founder, The Renewal Workshop works with brands to repair and refurbish damaged stock at their own facility in Portland, Oregon. Products that would otherwise go to landfill are given renewed value and brands are enabled to own the re-commerce of their products.
Paul Dillinger, Vice President Product Innovation, Levi’s spoke of the responsibility of big brands to consider product end of life and disassembly to promote circularity; The Levi’s Wellthread program creates products from single fibre cotton designed to be recycled and close the loop.
The future is circular
If fashion is to be truly sustainable, circularity is the way forward. For us, the panel session that made the Copenhagen Fashion Summit was The New Textiles Economy moderated by Ellen MacArthur. We know that of the 53 million tonnes of clothing produced each year, 87% is either sent to landfill or incinerated – a staggering statistic. Clothing production has more than doubled in the last 15 years and the system is still for the most part linear; this system needs a dramatic re-think. The three main ways to challenge the system are:
- Build an industry where materials are safe, non-toxic and renewable
- Keep clothing in the system for longer
- Consider the product’s end of life and stem the flow of needless waste to landfill
This is where BuyMeOnce comes in – our work sits at the top of the circular economy system. As a consumer, when you buy an item that is made to last, you are actively keeping it functioning and in use in the system. It is such a simple, accessible, satisfying way to promote circularity. Buy less, choose well, make it last.
What are we going to do?
Our mission is to bring our audience the best brands with products that are made to last. It’s our job to showcase the value of the brands that we work with. There’s no denying the higher prices that alienate some of our audience. Please know that we’re doing the best we can to bring a range of price points to you. Ultimately, a product will always cost more when the people who made it are fairly paid, the cloth it’s cut from is of a high quality and it’s constructed with proper attention to craftsmanship. If you’re buying a top for under £10, for the most part, you can assume that there has been a human and environmental cost.
Lily Courtauld is the Content Director at BuyMeOnce. After ten years in the luxury fashion industry, Lily now dedicates her time to finding innovative, long-lasting brands for the site and brings her penchant for neoprene capes, jazzy prints and peanut butter into BuyMeOnce HQ.