To have an all encapsulating, definitive takeaway from the Copenhagen Fashion Summit is impossible. Now in its 10th year, the conference dedicated to raising the fashion industry’s collective conscience when it comes to sustainability gathers an impressive list of industry insiders, journalists, activists and innovators to spread the word—that time is running out. Denmark as a country has faced challenges in terms of land and water pollution, overfishing in the seas, and forest management. To counter these and to keep in tandem with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the Danish government has made major strides in energy efficiency and reducing emissions. Eva Kruse, CEO and founder of Global Fashion Agenda, had the opportunity to look into the programming of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference when she realised that fashion was largely missing from the conversation. “I knew fashion was one of the biggest industries in the world that’s resource intensive and has huge social issues. That’s why we decided to start the summit and it had such a momentum even though not many people could talk or would talk,” said Kruse. Despite the impressive names gathered under one roof, the task at hand is enormous and there’s not enough time to reverse what has happened. Kruse’s early beginnings lie in television and editing; she of all people understands that pedantic is not the strategy to go with. “We try to make this less academic because the more you know the more you’re lost; where do I start? We also want to preach that perfect cannot stand in the way of doing good. It’s important that we get started.”
A change of guards
The two-day summit started with an address by HRH The Crown Princess of Denmark, who stressed on the importance of making clothing that consumers would treasure and looking into industries for partnerships to collaborate. François-Henri Pinault, CEO, Kering, in the midst of a conversation about climate change, announced that Kering will only work with models of legal age, bringing several cheers. He further stated that leadership was crucial to driving change. “In the future, customers will buy from brands they resonate with.” Kering has one of the cleanest track records when it comes to sustainability initiatives, and Pinault spoke about collective intelligence playing a large role ahead to cause change. “Thanks to its business model, the luxury industry has the means to play a crucial role in sustainability. I want our innovative solutions to be open source for the whole industry to implement.”
Paul Polman, chair of the International Chamber of Commerce, The B Team, and vice-chair of the UN Global Compact, had one of the most popular speeches at the summit. That climate change is fast approaching and we need to clean up our acts is common knowledge, but what will it take for action to be taken outside the four walls of a conference? “What we are lacking is human willpower. Do we really care?,” she questioned. Polman strongly felt that a change in the measure of success might drive companies to think differently. “If we don’t change the measures of what we call success, we simply won’t get there. We all have a role to play, we cannot be bystanders,” she said. Anita Dongre, the woman behind one of India’s largest fashion houses that has sustainability at the heart of its production, echoed the sentiment. “Companies today are monitored purely for their material growth; you’re solely measured for the cash profits made. We need audit agencies that also evaluate you for your social and environmental practices,” she said.
Who pays the price?
Fashion may be thought of and imagined in one part of the world, but it is the other half that deals with its impact. The sordid details of the sweatshops behind the fashion everyone partakes in horrifies some, but despite tragedies such as the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Dhaka, Bangladesh, not enough has been done for the factory workers. Companies like H&M were amongs those who looked into setting up guidelines and practises to ensure better treatment of factory workers, but the actual implementation of these has reflected in very little change. Nazma Akter, president at Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, is a Bangladeshi trade unionist who was invited by the Copenhagen Fashion Summit to speak on the ‘Wages – what should fashion brands do?’ panel. And she had an alarming reality to share. “It doesn’t matter if the clothes made are cheap or expensive, my workers are paid the same amount.” Akter’s panel was a reality check to many. “If you’re saying labour is cheap, you’re calling the people who work cheap.”
Anindit Roy Chowdhury, global development management specialist – gender justice and human rights, C&A Foundation, holds governments accountable. “About 11 per cent of India’s export business is from the garment industry and that is humungous. Not once does the government of India say ‘Make In India responsibly’, and that’s a big one. Don’t just say ‘Make In India’ for businesses to flourish; make sure the needs of the workers are also met,” he said. Without necessary laws being put into place, fighting for the rights of workers is a near impossible mission.
Tech innovations and knowledge sharing
With the clock ticking, do we really have time for a competitive edge? Having advanced technology on your side has often resulted in having a market leadership, but if you’ve cracked the code to end a disaster, should you really be keeping it to yourself? Designer Stella McCartney, who has long made efforts to run a sustainable fashion business, has worked with Google to collect the data of her supply chain with the aim of offering better learnings to the larger fashion community. Google is building a tool that uses data analytics and machine learning on Google Cloud to give brands a better understanding of their supply chain, with a focus on raw material production. Ian Pattinson, head of customer engineering – retail, manufacturing and travel at Google, announced the news at the summit.
What will you buy?
So what should you reach out for in a world full of options? Is your designer dress paying a factory worker the same wage as a T-shirt from a high street retailer? Are brands willing to take ownership and not force new collections when there is no real need for a change in wardrobe? Are we, as consumers, going to come to terms with the concept of a sharing a wardrobe, buying pre-loved fashion, and having the will to not shop a new shiny dress to satiate our need for retail therapy?
Vanessa Friedman, fashion director and chief fashion critic at The New York Times, spoke about the evolution of terminology of sustainable fashion. What started out as ‘eco fashion’ and ‘green fashion’ became ‘sustainable fashion’, but perhaps, a better way to term it might be ‘responsible fashion’. The ethical responsibility is after all at both ends of a garment’s life—when it’s being produced, and consumed.
Walk around in Copenhagen and you will realise how deeply bothered the city is by climate change. There are food stalls encouraging people to eat healthy, vegetarian meals. Bjarke Ingels’s waste plant, which doubles up as a ski slope, is a favourite among the city’s inhabitants. But despite the commendable efforts, even a conscientious nation like Denmark has a fairly high ecological footprint, which brings us to the largest, most baffling antithesis of all—are all our collective, well-meaning efforts actually enough?
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