Talking Future At The 'Davos of Fashion'
During the days of the world's largest sustainable fashion summit, Copenhagen is all sunshine. A big blue sky and no clouds rest over the city as over 1,200 people from 52 countries gather to listen to speeches, meet, mingle and address the fashion industry's most pressing topics of environmental protection and workers' welfare.
The Copenhagen Fashion Summit marks the climax of a week of activities, meetings and discussions. Bringing together international key players from the fashion industry, as well as experts, NGO's, media and politicians. In 2016, the summit has become, as the CEO of the Danish Fashion Institute - Eva Kruse, puts it, "the Davos of the fashion world".
The summit was first held in Copenhagen during the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference, and again in Spring 2012 and 2014. The 2016 theme title: "Responsible Innovation" can be seen as an indication of where it is headed.
The day starts off busy and stays busy throughout. Equipped with a notebook and camera, I closely follow the tight schedule packed with inspiring speeches and panel discussions. By the time the summit culminates, these are the three topics leading the discussion in 2016:
CAN TECHNOLOGY SAVE FASHION?
As suggested by the summit's theme title, in this year's debate there was a clear focus on the part that technological innovation can play in moving towards a healthy future.
Hannah Jones, Nike's chief sustainability officer regards designers as "future revolutionaries" who need to approach the design process in a way that addresses a products entire life cycle. Designers must be given the tools to create closed loop products which avoid waste and save resources, by being able to choose from innovative materials and intelligent recycling and re-use technologies.
This sentiment was shared by Lewis Perkins, President of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. He explained how the Cradle to Cradle Principles guide designers and manufacturers through a continual improvement process. It looks at a product through five quality categories:
- Material Health
- Material Re-utilisation
- Renewable Energy
- Water Stewardship
- Social Fairness
In his mind we should stop thinking in terms of scarcity and instead focus on the abundance of new technologies and the smart ways of thinking and designing that are now available to us.
One concrete example of smart material innovation was highlighted by Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for the Oceans. By recycling ocean plastics, trash is given a new life by being turned into yarn and fabric for the fashion industry. Whilst at the same time the oceans are cleaned up and freed from harmful plastic pollution. Currently ocean plastics are being used by G-Star in collaboration with Pharell Williams for their "Raw for the Oceans" clothing line.
So, what does this all mean? Can fast fashion exist if we can manage to bring material innovation, recycling technologies and closed loop product design and development to perfection? Can product obsolescence exist without creating harm?
Rick Ridgeway, Vice President of public engagement for Patagonia, takes a more critical stance. Patagonia (still a privately held company) has been one of the pioneers of sustainable clothing since the 1960's and while they embrace the use of smart materials such as Yulex® rubber from guayule trees for their wet-suits and enable its customers to repair, re-sell and recycle their products free of charge as part of their customer service, Ridgeway stresses the importance for companies to design long-lasting products and encourage their customers to buy less and buy better - "As the usable lifetime of our products increases, the lifetime environmental footprint decreases".
According to Ridgeway, and I would agree, there will always be harm in making apparel no matter what, and therefore it is essential to design products of high quality and to cherish them so as to make them last.
Across all the talks and panel discussions there is an underlying understanding that it will take an intense effort to create change. “We can create fantastic technological innovations but we now have to integrate them into our culture” remarks James Carnes of Adidas. He believes that collaborations with sports and pop stars are the key to amplify success. It is them who can turn products into what the consumer demands and that then becomes the new normal.
Vanessa Friedman, fashion director of the New York Times, has a similar take. She believes that “responsible fashion is many things (…) but it’s not sexy” and calls for a new way of engaging an audience with storytelling. She advises to “grab the tools of pop-culture narration” and connect responsible fashion with basic human concerns such as sex, food and life in ways that are equally intelligent, entertaining and seductive.
So is this why there is still a lack of responsibly made fashion being featured in mainstream media? In the panel discussion, “The Power of Media” it becomes apparent that mainstream fashion media has not yet caught up with a new wave of eco-innovative fashion designers and conscious consumers. There is a tendency to present sustainably working designers as “the other” and therefore marginalize them. However, there are exceptions to the rule and forward-thinking voices out there. Imran Amed, founder and CEO of Business of Fashion, simply states matter-of-factly, “Good design is sustainable design” and explains how BoF’s critical series “Seven Issues Facing Fashion Now” was a huge success with its audience.
“What if Nike and Adidas started a collaboration to share their best practices?”, is, I think, a viable question spontaneously raised by fashion business consultant Julie Gilhart. This would indeed be a move highly unusual in an industry running on the principles of competition, but maybe only a truly new form of interaction and exchange could speed up the development of positive solutions.
EDUCATION AS ”THE SPACE TO IMAGINE DIFFERENTLY"
The summit's most hopeful impetus came in the form of a powerful presentation by 116 student from 40 nations who assembled for the Youth Fashion Summit in the days prior to the main event. It could be seen as living proof that visionary thinking and intense collaborations are possible. The students worked together and created '7 concrete demands for the fashion industry', based on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals of last December's COP 21 talks held in Paris (The seven demands can be read in full at the end of this article).
Their demands are clear plans of action, addressing the industry's core ethical and environmental problems. They are directed at the global leaders of fashion gathering in Copenhagen, and presented with an urgency to start acting now.
It is my highlight of the summit and it feels like an antidote and a direct, positive answer to trend forecaster Li Edelkoort's warnings in her "Anti-Fashion Manifesto" published last year:
“Fashion schools and colleges continue to teach young students to become catwalk designers, divas. (...) In other words schools are continuing to teach the principle of unsociable individuality to young people whose environment, in these days of social networks, is based on sharing and creating together. In reality, training in fashion has gone out of fashion."
In contrast to Edelkoort's concerned predictions, Dilys Williams, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the University of the Arts London, and the students' mentor of the preceding days, introduced us to "the first generation of people who really understand climate change, and the last one who can really do anything about it”.
I believe there is huge potential in shifting the mindsets of future designers. By introducing sustainability into the fashion curriculum, a young generation is given the knowledge and tools to find innovative solutions. To design with having the well-being of nature and mankind in mind. For these students, it will become the new norm right from the start and we should welcome them as drivers of change as they enter into the industry.
BEAUTY AND THE POWER OF THE MIND
At the end of the day, I am happy to conclude that the notion of creating positive systemic change in the fashion industry is certainly gaining momentum. The event showed that there is a growing demand to discuss and to act. I am convinced that all participants of the summit would agree on wanting to create a future in which all of us could enjoy fashion in a way that is healthy to the planet and its people.
In critique however, big multinational corporations such as H&M, Nike, Addidas and Isko were given a rather large stage which I am not sure they deserve (quite) yet. I felt there was also a lack of addressing the issues of human rights and fair working conditions in this year's summit - only being brought up by Livia Firth, Linda Greer and Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Mary.
I personally encountered the summit as a sensual experience for vision and mind. The artistic short film critiquing modern day consumer society "Running Through Life" by Danish director Helene Moltke-Leth, opened the event and set the tone for the day. There was a beautiful opera performance which punctuated proceedings, a Design and Denim challenge that showcased exquisitely designed sustainable clothing and considered arrangements of delicious organic food for lunch. The high quality fashion design, art, music and food all added to the spirit and atmosphere of the summit, creating an environment that celebrated beauty as well as the power of the mind.
'7 DEMANDS FOR THE FASHION INDUSTRY'
— presented at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, 12 May 2016
These are the '7 demands' in full detail, developed by 116 students from 40 nations who came together for three days at the Youth Fashion Summit:
1. As a group of CEOs, business and opinion leaders, academics and students, would you be here today without equal access to education? As inheritors of your roles, we demand empowerment and education of workers and consumers.
We realise you are very intelligent and influential. But you are kind of stuck in a system that is not really working anymore. So, we want to present our desired future.
In 2030, the fashion industry will have blended the line between work and education. Government, businesses and media will have created a positive symbiotic partnership that encourages the wellbeing of all it touches. With an online learning platform, we will be able to train employees, allowing them to build their technical and personal skills. It will have a positive effect on employee contentment and overall productivity. This platform will be incentivised by governments and employed by businesses.
Moreover, we believe that education should not just involve the makers but also the wearers. The media has a huge impact and so does technology and innovation!
Government and businesses can, together with the media, educate and cultivate behavioural change amongst consumers through their inﬂuence and widespread reach. This will create a feedback loop that in turn feeds back to the business.
With such an open system, education both within and across cultures will allow empowerment to be possible for all. I hope we have empowered you to join us on this journey!
2. As inheritors of your roles, we demand that the fashion industry takes drastic and immediate action towards implementing closed-loop water systems to ensure that the industry is not dependent on fresh water as a resource.
According to the UN, without immediate action from the fashion industry, clean water will no longer be an accessible resource by 2030 for half of the world’s population.
This is not acceptable. Instead, we imagine a future where the fashion industry is no longer the second biggest water consuming industry. We imagine a world where there is full awareness of the chemicals in our fresh water and their effects on 9 billion people.
We also imagine a drastic shift in how we use and value water, creating a culture that both respects and learns from the value of our resources.
The technology of water recycling is out there, so let us implement it today.
3. As inheritors of your roles, we demand a long-term investment in the well-being of the community as a whole, through: fair wages; improving infrastructure; ensuring food security.
I would like to tell you the story of a man that I am pretty sure you know already. His name? Brunello Cucinelli. Cucinelli is the living proof that creating a corporate culture that encompasses the local community is possible; as a matter of fact, it is happening as we speak — his commitment managed to revitalise an entire Italian village. Now, the community is part of the industry and the industry is part of the community. Working hand in hand and mutually gaining — they have not only increased the quality of the ﬁnal product but, ultimately, the quality of living.
In this new model that we consider should be the new normal, community and industry thrive together by respecting the hands and hearts involved in the garment's life cycle.
4. What do capital, profit and success mean to you? What if, by 2030, they meant something completely different? As inheritors of your roles, we demand you all to collaborate as active investors in a fashion industry where capital, profit and success are redefined and measured in more than monetary value.
By 2030, these concepts must be measured side-by-side with a holistic view of wellbeing, social security and global health.
The priority must be on collaboration, on knowledge sharing, on rethinking where we place our value and a lowering of the barriers between people, companies and countries which halt the flow of progress.
We want you to imagine a future wherein success can be measured not just through financial gains, but equally through the sharing and increasing of knowledge, technological innovation and social and environmental progress.
5. As inheritors of your roles, we demand that by 2030 fashion is no longer the second-largest polluting industry in the world.
You — global policy makers — must work together with NGOs, brands and corporations to create and implement legislation for no more land abuse. Invest in research and innovation.
It is vital that we take responsibility in restoring the air, water and land that we have altered.
Furthermore, we must create more opportunities for life. To let this world flourish, we must stop taking that which we cannot restore.
We are running out of resources.
6. As the next generation and inheritors of your roles, and our waste, we demand that designers, brands and governments collaboratively invest in the recycling technology and infrastructure that is needed to secure and enable a circular system.
Products, fabrics and fibres will be infinitely cycled within and across industries. Today’s textile waste is tomorrows textile resource.
We support the concept of mass balance and ask that brands give as much into the system as they take out. This encompasses the continual sourcing of recycled content and active collection of textiles. Government must support this through incentives and regulations, so that early adopters benefit from circular behaviour.
We want an industry that has zero waste practices embedded in its DNA and causes no unnecessary harm. This means a strategic cross-industry roadmap to eliminate post-industrial, pre-consumer and post-consumer waste.
We also demand that brands proactively support the system, by incorporating design for circularity as a driving philosophy in their work.
Our vision is a fashion world in 2030, where circularity is business as usual.
7. As inheritors of your roles, we demand economic consequences in order to reverse standards.
We need to reverse the profitability of being unsustainable. Sustainability should be rewarded. This is why we are addressing you, the companies, the governments, the game changers of tomorrow.
The world happiness report validates the notion that happiness does not increase with financial exponential growth. For this reason, our industry needs to look at other metrics of success.
We need to build a resilient infrastructure in order to create green cities.
In short, we are going to penalise reckless businesses and invest that money in sustainable fashion initiatives.
Through this, sustainability will be the standard in 2030. No one wants to be labelled as something negative, but in the future we want to expose the ones that are. Sustainability is the norm.
Our industry has to reward the people that are making a change.
Follow the link to find out more about the Youth Fashion Summit.