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BoF VOICES Day 1: Fashion Confronts a Challenging Future

The industry is grappling with an uncertain outlook amid projections for slowing growth and mounting socio-political unrest, but new technology and business models offer hope for innovative solutions.
Imran Amed speaks during BoF's VOICES conference | Source: Getty Images for The Business of Fashion

OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — BoF’s annual VOICES conference kicked off Thursday with a series of charged, and sometimes contentious, conversations about fashion’s role in a time of intense disruption and global unrest.

Speakers including Extinction Rebellion’s Clare Farrell, investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr and Iranian-American activist Hoda Katebi outlined the systemic challenges and ethical conundrums facing the industry, raising tough questions about the future of fashion and its responsibilities in a rapidly-changing world.

A Challenging Environment

Extinction Rebellion's Farrell set the tone in her opening keynote, pulling no punches in laying out the climate crisis at hand and the fashion industry's role in contributing to it. The clothing and textile industry is responsible for 8 to 10 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions and 20 percent of industrial wastewater pollution, according to the UN.

“Everyone knows the fashion industry’s really, really bad,” Farrell told the gathering of senior executives and creatives. “What is glamorous about living in a dying world, and what is fashion doing to the planet, and is it really worth it?”

A growing number of fashion companies are grappling with the thorny issues raised by Farrell. Roughly a third of the industry has signed on to a Fashion Pact launched by Kering SA's François-Henri Pinault in August, but tangible and systemic change has been slow.

What is glamorous about living in a dying world, and what is fashion doing to the planet, and is it really worth it?

The pressure to change is coming at a difficult time for the industry. According to BoF and McKinsey & Company's annual State of Fashion report, which was released at VOICES, executives in the fashion industry are looking forward to 2020 with anxiety and concern. Only 9 percent of the executives surveyed for the report believe conditions in the industry will improve next year and the McKinsey Global Fashion Index forecasts that global growth in the sector will continue to slow.

The tension between sustainable business models and responsible operations emerged as a key challenge for the industry in the years ahead, and was a flashpoint for debate Thursday. H&M Group's Christopher Wylie pushed back against criticism by Extinction Rebellion of comments made by CEO Karl-Johan Persson about the need to protect jobs.

“How do we accommodate for people who are employed in the industry?” Wylie asked. “How do we avoid a disproportionate impact on women of colour in the global south in terms of striving for sustainable means of production?”

Beyond climate concerns, Thursday’s talks made it plain that the fashion industry is operating in an uncertain world that requires careful navigation. Consumers are angry, with protests sweeping global markets. They want brands to advocate for and embody their values, but answering this call has never been more complex for companies.

Many of the social media platforms that are becoming increasingly important to the industry are themselves facing harsh criticism. Brands should be asking whether Facebook and Instagram are safe spaces for their labels to exist in our age of disinformation, warned Cadwalladr, The Guardian and Observer journalist whose 2018 investigation into data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica revealed the company was using Facebook data to influence politics in a massive data breach.

"The advertising industry and fashion brands are completely complicit in this ecosystem [of misinformation on Facebook]," she said. "The cavalry isn't coming. It's on us as individuals."

It's an issue that's only likely to become more pressing as brands and retailers look to capitalise on the power of social platforms by building their own communities in the future. A recent feature by BoF's Chavie Lieber investigated allegations of widespread sexual harassment and other inappropriate messages on the resale platform Depop. The company's success in building out an engaged community of Gen Z consumers has driven rapid growth, but CEO Maria Raga acknowledged there was a need for moderation on the platform.

The cavalry isn't coming. It's on us as individuals.

“There’s always room for things to go wrong,” she said. “For us, trust, it’s a critical thing that we need to maintain on the platform and we have absolutely zero tolerance for bad behaviour … This needs to be policed.”

Another aspect of this era of protest that has proved challenging for the industry is inclusivity. A plethora of brands have suffered as a result of ill-advised comments or products even as they publicly championed diversity and inclusion.

Katebi, the Iranian-American activist who founded the Blue Tin Production co-op — known as America's first apparel manufacturing co-op run by refugee women — condemned the fashion industry for tokenistic action on this front. She argued it has boiled Muslim identity down to the occasional hijab sent down the runway or sold in stores. She labelled this "revolution-washing," similar to corporate "greenwashing," the embrace of the language, but not the practice, of sustainability.

“Every brand wants to be sexy and part of the revolution," she said, citing Nike's "sports hijab" as an example. "But you’re taking away the significance of being Muslim … fashion should not be in the business of simplifying things."

What became clear from Thursday’s discussions is that the industry is at a crossroads, and many inside are conflicted on how to combat the issues while continuing to build their businesses. But there are solutions.

Innovative Solutions

Innovative technologies that provide more sustainable fabric options and open up the possibilities to recycle a wider array of clothes are gradually beginning to scale, offering new opportunities for companies to change the way they operate.

For instance, Bolt Threads CEO Dan Widmaier announced that the company — which produces a lab-grown leather alternative — is scaling up production to meet orders for 1 million square feet. The company has worked with Stella McCartney in the past and plans to grow further near term.

Predictions are interesting, but most predictions are traps because the future is unpredictable.

Veteran fashion journalist Dana Thomas highlighted a host of female entrepreneurs who are also driving change within the industry. Thomas met with many of them during research for her latest book, "Fashionopolis," which examines the damage fashion is doing to the earth. It's an issue that women like Sarah Bellos, founder of natural indigo dye company Stony Creek Colors, are making strides to combat. Thomas also called out Stacy Flynn, whose company Evrnu is working on recycling technologies; Sally Fox, the "mother of organic cotton"; and former VOICES speaker and BoF cover star Kalpona Akter, who continues to fight for workers' rights in Bangladesh.

Discussions of potential solutions veered outside the fashion world to energy and mobility, but came with some warnings about the uncertainty ahead.

“Well here’s a spoiler: I don’t know and nobody knows,” said Andrew Blau, US leader of signature issues at Deloitte Consulting. “Predictions are interesting, but most predictions are traps because the future is unpredictable. I’m more interested in how and why the future will surprise us. Because it does.”

Meanwhile, new business models like resale are showing strong growth despite the sluggishness in the broader market. According to GlobalData, the second-hand market will exceed $50 billion in 2023 — up from $24 billion last year.

“When you think about the activity that’s on Depop, you see super young, creative people building businesses and creating trends,” the platform’s Raga said. They’re thinking about “what needs to be created in the first place — whether that’s through [a lens] of sustainability or these very trends.”

To learn more about VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details on our invitation-only global gathering.

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