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How Copenhagen Became Fashion’s Sustainability Capital

As regional fashion weeks struggle to stand out, Copenhagen Fashion Week is betting on a radical new approach that will require brands to meet minimum sustainability standards.
Models at Ganni's S/S 20 show in Copenhagen last August | Source: Yuliya Christensen/Getty Images
By
  • Sarah Kent

LONDON, United Kingdom — Copenhagen is rethinking fashion week.

The Danish capital has emerged as an unlikely fashion hub, thanks to the surge in popularity of Scandi-chic brands like Ganni and Saks Potts. But while fashion capitals duke it out for design domination in an increasingly competitive market, Copenhagen is looking to differentiate itself on a different level.

Copenhagen Fashion Week is rethinking its role, setting an agenda to drive industry change, not just showcase the status quo. As the event opens on Tuesday, it is launching a three-year sustainability action plan. Alongside goals to cut its own footprint — including a 50 percent reduction in emissions and a zero-waste target — the event is putting brands on notice that they have three years to meet tough new sustainability requirements, or they won’t be eligible to show at all.

“It’s an immense ambition of a fashion week, because we’re going from being a traditional event to being a platform for advocacy,” said Copenhagen Fashion Week Chief Executive Cecilie Thorsmark. “It’s a very radical new way of thinking about fashion week without actually ditching the existing format.”

It's a very radical new way of thinking about fashion week.

Although fashion weeks represent a fraction of the industry's overall environmental impact, they are facing mounting flak for their high-visibility excess. Last year, environmental activist collective Extinction Rebellion called to cancel London Fashion Week, upstaging many of the shows in September with photogenic protests. But this is the first time any fashion week has taken a hard stance on participating brands' sustainability performance.

It's a savvy move for an event that wants to differentiate itself within an increasingly saturated space, with even fashion's first-tier cities scrambling to maintain relevance.

The rise of social media and the internet have raised questions about the seasonal events' role. Consumers want clothes immediately, not on a pre-ordained seasonal schedule. Editors and buyers have the convenience of online look-books and virtual showrooms, making the biannual fashion week circuit less of a necessity. Both London and New York have lost high-profile designers to Paris, which remains the hub where buyers source their final seasonal edits.

Copenhagen plays into growing consumer demand for ethical and responsible clothes that are also fuelling buyers' interest. Many of fashion's biggest retailers have launched special sustainable edits in recent years. Copenhagen is planting a flag as the place to come to source these brands.

Its new strategy is a long-term bet that sustainability will remain a key issue for the fashion industry, and carving out a leadership role will continue to entice buyers and press for years to come.

“Right now the DNA of Copenhagen Fashion Week is very much focused on Scandinavian fashion,” Thorsmark said. “But I think no matter how you look at it, at some point sustainability is going to be more important for the press to write about and buyers to buy into than Scandinavian fashion.”

But it's not without risk. For instance, down the line, it will mean higher fees for participants to cover the cost of offsetting their emissions. It's also a bold decision to filter brands based on their sustainability strategies. The industry as a whole is sorely lagging on climate issues and efforts to improve worker conditions.

The new strategy is a long-term bet that sustainability will remain a key issue.

Copenhagen’s new requirements set out a baseline of 17 standards that brands must meet by 2023 in order to qualify to participate. For instance, brands will be disqualified if they destroy unsold clothes or can’t demonstrate that at least 50 percent of their garments are made with more sustainable materials.

On top of this, brands will be expected to show they are taking additional steps to build sustainability into their strategies, design, workplace conditions, material choices, marketing and show design in order to score enough points to qualify. Copenhagen Fashion Week will conduct a pilot this year to establish the baseline score. The range of focus areas is intended to account for the fact that fashion brands have a varied approach to sustainability issues.

“We need to set ambitious goals, but we also need to not set overwhelming targets that are impossible to reach,” Thorsmark said. “Then we’ll lose the support of the industry, and then we’ll have absolutely no impact.”

Copenhagen is well positioned to take this bet, because its industry is already highly engaged with the issue of sustainability. The city plays home to the Global Fashion Agenda, an industry forum and advocacy group that has emerged as one of the most high-profile voices on the subject within the sector. Many of Denmark's top brands have already put in place strategies to improve their environmental footprint.

“Sustainable business practises are going to be more important,” Thorsmark said. “There’s a bigger risk in not dealing with sustainability and there’s a bigger risk in not being ambitious.”

Related Articles:
Glitz, Glamour & Garbage: Why Fashion Week Needs to Clean Up Its Act
Fashion Week's Latest Experiment: Charging for Admission

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