Responsible innovation at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit
May in Copenhagen and the sound of the rush hour traffic whizzes by – on just two wheels.
Denmark boasts some of ‘the happiest people’, thanks to their enviable health, education and welfare systems and has set itself the goal of having the first carbon neutral city. And last month, Copenhagen hosted the fourth edition of it's increasingly established Fashion Summit.
Having been warned to expect a certain amount of greenwashing, I readied myself for an onslaught of corporate gibberish.
But it never came.
In fact, I was surprised by the honesty and authenticity of so many of the speakers. That’s not to say I agreed with everything they said, but there was no shortage of passion on the stage.
Delegates ranging from representatives of global brands, trend forecasters, editors-in-chief, educators and students to journalists, politicians, philanthropists and a touch of royalty were brought together to discuss a common theme: Responsible Innovation.
Which means being innovative and responsible at the same time.
Easy to say and yet decidedly more difficult to execute. Below I’ve selected some key thoughts that I took away:
Sustainability should start at the sketchpad
I was not the only one surprised to see Nike, arguably the poster child of sweatshop labour in the 90s, take the stage. The aforementioned portrayal, said Hannah Jones (CSO of the brand), is precisely what kick started Nike’s ‘lean, green, equitable and empowered model’ they now duly employ in their factories.
‘Sustainability should start at the sketchpad’ Jones added, and to achieve this Nike are working on developing a palette of sustainable materials as well as employing young designers who are innovative and keen to use them. They will be the revolutionaries of this industry she says.
'Ethical', 'sustainable' and 'responsible' are not sexy words...
Vanessa Friedman’s (chief fashion critic at The New York Times) speech entitled ‘Sex and Sustainability’ discussed the role of the media in promoting responsible fashion. To put it bluntly, ‘Ethical’ ‘Sustainable’ and ‘Responsible’ are not sexy words and we need to come up with something better if we’re going to have even a slim chance of engaging people on any notable scale. Take inspiration from Margot Robbie explaining the financial crisis in The Big Short was her well-received advice. And her personal hope for the future of the industry? ‘That it learns to be happy making less stuff’.
If passion came in human form, Livia Firth would be it. While I sensed both restraint and a little frustration, her speech titled ‘Cutting Through the Noise’ was a reality check. ‘The current model with a few band aids will not deliver the change that we need’ she said. In other words we, as an industry, simply have not moved on enough from the last time she graced the same stage.
Time is running out for the fashion industry
And time is most certainly not on our side, as Dilys Williams so poignantly indicated when describing Gen Y as ‘The first generation of people who really understand climate change, and the last ones who can really do anything about it’.
So how can we move forward, faster and more efficiently? The answer is surely by government collaboration and co-operation on a global scale. A breakout session entitled ‘Fashion and Politics’ seemed like the very place to find out more. Yet a stage of politicians, a couple of microphones and some questions strangely produced no significant answers. As the moderator of the discussion Lars Fogh Mortensen so poignantly said before the discussion ‘Fashion and Politics is a bit like teenage sex. Everybody’s talking about it but no one is actually doing it.’ So what are they doing about it? Umm, they’re not quite sure.
Fast Fashion at H&M
If there’s a company I try to avoid talking about it’s H&M. Why? Because I don’t really know what to think. They place themselves at the forefront of the fight to achieve a better fashion industry. They do the ad campaigns, they bag the celebs and they sponsor all the events (including this very summit) and yet I remain sceptical, because their business model itself encourages the consumption of trends at an alarming rate.
Anna Gedda, Head of Sustainability at H&M, was a hotly anticipated speaker. ‘In 2050, the global population will reach more than 9 billion’ she said, and they need to be clothed. From H&M’s perspective, producing less is not necessarily the answer. It is in fact, developing a closed loop system allowing 100% of today’s clothing to be deconstructed and then reconstructed to produce tomorrow’s. But how can this be done exactly? Puzzlingly, she offered little explanation.
Then I met someone who had a different perspective. He, along with a group of university friends in San Francisco, is developing technology that would allow precisely this. They pitched their idea to quite a few brands and manufacturers, and the only one who displayed significant interest in collaborating? H&M.
When I asked him why this hadn’t really been mentioned, the answer was fairly simple. H&M are tired of being criticized for not always meeting their goals in the time they set out to achieve them. They get bad press and badmouthed. Not exactly great encouragement to remain truly transparent, were his thoughts.
In the press conference before the summit, Marco Lucietti (global marketing director of ISKO) reminded us that ‘Today, there is no clear global standard around sustainability.’ And if the session on fashion and politics is anything to go by, it’s unlikely to change soon.
Christopher Wright recently wrote
‘Of course personal responses are not sufficient to change an economic system hard-wired for environmental destruction. However, they demonstrate the potential for an individual’s emotional engagement to begin the process of corporate and political change’.
So, for now, it’s down to you and I.
We must decide what value means to us when it comes to buying our clothes.
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This post was also published on The Huffington Post