Six Important Messages on Fashion Sustainability from Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2019

Copenhagen Fashion Summit took place from 15th – 16th May at DR Koncerthuset in southern Copenhagen. Launched by Global Fashion Agenda in 2009, the Copenhagen Fashion Summit (CPHFS) is an industry-led event that focuses on sustainability issues in fashion. Opened by patron HRH Princess Mary of Denmark and Global Fashion Agenda CEO Eva Kruse, and hosted by British television and radio presenter Gemma Cairney, the summit began with a series of keynotes and dialogues. There were panel discussions, presentations, performances, and an innovation lab that showcased emerging textile solutions. The summit felt, in equal parts, hopeful and full of gaps; similar to the global sustainability discussion more generally.

Here are the messages we took away with from Copenhagen Fashion Summit this year:

List Marker: Number 1In his keynote speech at the beginning of the summit, CEO of Kering Francoise-Henri Pinault made a point of mentioning that profits won’t be harmed in the pursuit of ethical and sustainable solutions. “The business case for this exists,” he proclaimed.

While we understand that businesses need to maintain certain revenue in order to exist, employ people, and grow, the constant industry focus on profits in the context of something as important as climate change and harm to human life is unacceptable. What we really need is someone to say: you may actually lose money.

Not all of it, but some, maybe even a lot, and you know what? We still need to do it. And in fact, our profits have been built on this harm, so therefore reversing it will necessarily change the nature of our business model! Changing this industry’s deeply harmful impact on humans and the planet is more important than money, and it’s certainly more important than paying exorbitant salaries to executive-level employees.

List Marker: Number 2The truth is that we simply need to produce less. A lot less. Yes, there are ways to make production more sustainable and ethical. But now the question is bigger than that: is producing in and of itself an ethical act?

There will likely never be a time when we aren’t producing more items, but there’s no need for the scale of clothing and accessory production we currently have. Most fashion houses produce a minimum of four collections per year, with fast fashion working hard to catch trends and maximise consumer interest based on the breakneck pace.

What if we started by cutting production by half, or even a quarter? If every major fashion house and brand committed to producing significantly less, we would at least stop adding to the problem at the rate we do today while still maintaining the jobs of those involved at all levels of the supply chain. This is an issue that was addressed during Paul Polman’s day one speech and more generally on day two of the summit; it was exciting to hear people begin to pick up this point.

List Marker: Number 3Speaking down to consumers is not the way to go, but neither is putting undue responsibility on them. This is an industry problem. Keynote speaker Simon Collins set the tone for the first day when he intoned, “don’t speak to stupid people.” His point was that we shouldn’t try to convince people who have already made up their minds against sustainability, but we disagree with both the message and the way he expressed it. This is not only ableist rhetoric, it speaks to a larger issue in the fashion industry regarding how we treat consumers. This issue is twofold: first, we should neither assume that consumers know everything about sustainability, nor treat them as though they can’t understand the complexities of this issue.

Second, we certainly can’t talk this way about consumers and then blame them for rampant overconsumption. Every single brand that talked about overconsumption also employs a marketing and public relations staff; they have entire branches of their companies devoted to making sure people desire their products. When we discuss overconsumption, we are remiss to leave out the business model that is designed to create that overconsumption in the first place.

List Marker: Number 4We need to be more inclusive with who is involved in these summits.

There was not one factory worker, garment worker, or farmer speaking. There were no small businesses represented.

Day two saw a more balanced schedule than day one, with the important voice of Nazma Akter, President of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF) in Bangladesh. She was, however, the only representative of garment workers in the entire summit; truly a failing for what is meant to be an industry-wide event.

We simply need to invite more people to the table – more people of color, more of those doing the jobs we claim to be trying to improve, more activists, more young people, more people who are going to call out the bullshit. It’s wonderful to walk away feeling excited and hopeful, but we should also walk away feeling that the dark corners had light shed upon them, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable for having stayed in darkness for so long.

List Marker: Number 5 The future is bright because of the young people working on this problem! On day two of the summit, leaders from the Youth Summit, which had taken place on the 14th and 15th of May, presented their work on solutions towards the UN Global Compact Sustainable Development Goals.

They demanded “new methodologies built on empathy and implemented by decision makers who prioritize the health and well-being of all members of the value chain,” and that CEOs “put people before profit.” These straightforward statements were exactly what we needed to hear. The next generation is ready to tackle this problem with a blend of anger and empathy currently missing from the industry on a large scale.

We are so grateful for their passion and excited to see how we can support them as they begin to work towards their goals.

See more on the Youth Summit here.

List Marker: Number 6Summits are interesting and enjoyable way to bring the industry together and share knowledge, obstacles, and triumphs, but they are not enough. There needs to be actionable resources between summits that take the immense amount of knowledge displayed at this event and makes it accessible on a wider scale. Global Fashion Agenda does produce guidelines for CEOs, but this is a rarefied group and not necessarily useful for everyone. While the summit does provide video of their talks, which is wonderful, we wonder what kinds of resources, events, and actions can be taken between summits to keep the energy high year-round.

We are so grateful to have been able to attend this year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit; we understand that there are many who wanted to but could not. The summit only hosted 1,300 people; CEO Eva Kruse noted in her opening remarks that there were 800 people on the waiting list. Many more, of course, were not even on that list. As Paul Polman noted in his speech, “those of you sitting here, you are the lucky ones.” Yes, and in more ways than one.

Issues of sustainability and ethical production are not abstract – they are harming people and the planet every day. The summit was not perfect, but its intentions are noble. Obviously intention and outcome are different, but we believe the desire for change and the chance to actually implement it really does exist here; it’s just about opening up the discussion to a far wider group of people. Perhaps asking an industry-based organisation to focus less on the business model of sustainability is a pipe dream, but perhaps it’s also time to recognise that the industry that caused the problem in the first place can’t be the only one to fix it.

There was an immense amount of experience, knowledge, and ambition to change the industry at this year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit. Now let’s move forward; there’s a lot of work to do.

Find out more about Global Fashion Agenda.

Header image: The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel © Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium/WikiCommons

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Rebecca Thandi Norman

Rebecca Thandi Norman is a co-founder and Editor-in-Chief at Scandinavia Standard.