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Sustainability Is Out, Responsible Innovation Is In

At the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, economic growth and social and environmental responsibility were not seen as opposing ideas, reports Imran Amed.
Copenhagen Youth Fashion Summit | Source: Copenhagen Fashion Summit
  • Imran Amed

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Sustainability is out and responsible innovation is in. Or so we learned at the fourth Copenhagen Fashion Summit, held on Thursday to propose new business models and bold thinking for the fashion industry when it comes to respecting the environment, addressing climate change, managing ethics and protecting workers' rights and welfare.

Held under the patronage of HRH Crown Princess Mary of Denmark and spearheaded by Eva Kruse, CEO of the Danish Fashion Institute, the Summit was the culmination of a week of activities bringing together an impressive mix of more than 1,200 people from 52 countries — including senior sustainability leaders from Nike, Patagonia and H&M, as well as BoF 500 members Mario Testino, Suzy Menkes, Bandana Tewari, Shaway Yeh, Steven Kolb, Caroline Rush, Carlo Capasa, Miroslava Duma, Renzo Rosso, Vanessa Friedman, Nadja Swarovski, Derek Blasberg and Julie Gilhart.

At an intimate dinner held on the eve of the Summit at Amalienborg Palace, hosted by The Crown Princess and her husband, HRH Crown Prince Frederik VIII, attendees were welcomed by Kristian Jensen, Danish Minister for Foreign Affairs who noted that in many ways Copenhagen was the perfect place to host such a summit. Denmark, he said, is the world’s most energy efficient nation and has set the explicit goal of becoming the world’s first sustainable fashion nation.

While that may be easier said than done, Jensen asserted that the country had already demonstrated, in other sectors, that economic growth and sustainability are not opposing ideas. Through its windfarms, for example, the country regularly produces more renewable energy than it consumes, with enough to spare to sell to neighbouring countries. The country has regularly topped surveys showing that Danes are the world's happiest people, attributed to a long life expectancy, high GDP per capita, excellent public health care and welfare systems, and one of the world's smallest wealth gaps.

You could see it in the streets of Copenhagen, teeming with stylish, smiling people walking, riding bicycles and generally projecting balanced, healthy lifestyles. This city has also shown a knack for sustainable innovation in other creative sectors: it is known the world over for its cuisine, largely due to NOMA, the food mecca that has spawned countless imitators.

The main summit was preceded by several days of satellite meetings and discussions by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), the Youth Fashion Summit and Planet Textiles — making Copenhagen, at least for a few days, the epicentre for everyone and anyone in the fashion industry who is seriously thinking about our environment, the planet and the people who make our clothes.

But integrating the event with royal, Danish government and European Union involvement means one also needs to respect certain protocols which, while a necessary part of the proceedings, slowed down the early momentum of the day with a series of repetitive speeches. Rather than focusing on actions and solutions, these trotted out similar facts and figures, most of which were already well-known to this audience of sustainability experts who were hankering for more concrete actions and debates.

When things finally got into gear part way through the morning, we heard from senior leaders from Nike and Patagonia, for whom sustainability — and responsible innovation — are already at the core of the very way they think, act and work.

Rick Ridgeway, vice president of public engagement for Patagonia, fired up the audience with the mission that lies at the heart of Patagonia’s business: “Build the best product, and cause no unnecessary harm,” which Ridgeway acknowledged is very hard to do, but an essential part of how Patagonia works.

He made a passionate call for companies to design products in a way that will last. “As the usable lifetime of our products increases, the lifetime environmental footprint decreases,” he explained, describing how the company enables its customers to repair, resell and recycle Patagonia products in order to extend their life. Patagonia has created North America’s largest repair centre and offers mobile repair vehicles that travel around the United States to restore damaged products — free of charge.

Patagonia advertisement | Source: Courtesy

But it was his last R — reduce — that was the most surprising, as Ridgeway explained how Patagonia literally even encouraged its customers to reduce consumption of its products altogether, with an ad campaign that told them: "Don't Buy This Jacket."

"The environmental cost of everything we make is astonishing," reads the advertisement, first released in The New York Times in 2013 on ‘Black Friday,’ possibly the worst day of overconsumption on the planet, when most companies slash prices to drive sales. "Consider the R2 Jacket shown, one of our best sellers. To make it required 135 litres of water, enough to meet the daily needs (three glasses a day) of 45 people. Its journey from its origin as 60 percent recycled polyester to our Reno warehouse generated nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, 24 times the weight of the finished product. This jacket left behind, on its way to Reno, two-thirds its weight in waste."

But Patagonia is a privately held company without pressure to grow. How can a huge publicly-traded company like Nike, which must grow to meet shareholder expectations, make the necessary changes to minimise its environmental and social footprint?

"Whichever way you do the math, incrementalism and efficiency measures won't get you there. Less bad is not good enough," said Hannah Jones, Chief Sustainability Officer and VP, Innovation Accelerator of Nike, explaining that the company has set a "moonshot ambition: 'can we double our business, while halving our impact?'"

As Jones explained to me later in an interview: “We have set ourselves some ambitious targets for 2020, but the difference between those targets — what we know we can do — and the moonshot is innovation and system change. Sustainability is an innovation challenge, that creates business model innovation and product innovation. You have to think about different technologies for how you make your products and you have to think about different materials, right the way down to the molecule.”

It was a refreshing to hear this point of view from one of the world’s leading apparel companies, and to hear how they are embedding innovation and sustainability right into the design process. “We literally picked up our sustainability team and built it into an advanced innovation function. It became part of the larger advanced innovation effort that Nike has.”

But the unexpected — and undoubted — highlight of the day didn't come from companies trotting out their accomplishments, it came from the more-than 100 participants in the Youth Fashion Summit. Students from40 nations had gathered in the days prior to the summit to work together on a clear set of ambitious goals and objectives, connected to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals agreed as part of the COP 21 talks held in Paris last December. They addressed their demands directly to the fashion leaders from around the world gathered in Copenhagen.

It was a moving display with the kind of urgency, clear thinking and concrete actions we need to take if we are to adequately address our environmental and ethical problems in a timely fashion.

As the students’ guide and mentor, Dilys Williams, Director of Centre for Sustainable Fashion, University of the Arts, said to gathered crowd: “This is the first generation of people who really understand climate change, and the last ones who can really do anything about it.”

I am happy to report that if these are the fashion leaders of the future, then we are in very good hands. The full text of their must-read manifesto for change is below.

Imran Amed, Founder and Editor-in-Chief

Youth Fashion Summit Manifesto — 7 Demands for The Fashion Industry, presented at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, 12 May 2016

The manifesto is developed by 116 fashion and business students from 40 different nationalities. For three days, they worked on how to implement the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals in the fashion industry to promote a sustainable future.

1. As a group of CEOs, business and opinion leaders, academics and students, would you be here today without equal access to education? As inheritors of your roles, we demand empowerment and education of workers and consumers.

We realise you are very intelligent and influential. But you are kind of stuck in a system that is not really working anymore. So, we want to present our desired future.

In 2030, the fashion industry will have blended the line between work and education. Government, businesses and media will have created a positive symbiotic partnership that encourages the wellbeing of all it touches. With an online learning platform, we will be able to train employees, allowing them to build their technical and personal skills. It will have a positive effect on employee contentment and overall productivity. This platform will be incentivised by governments and employed by businesses.

Moreover, we believe that education should not just involve the makers but also the wearers. The media has a huge impact and so does technology and innovation!

Government and businesses can, together with the media, educate and cultivate behavioural change amongst consumers through their influence and widespread reach.  This will create a feedback loop that in turn feeds back to the business.

With such an open system, education both within and across cultures will allow empowerment to be possible for all. I hope we have empowered you to join us on this journey!

2. As inheritors of your roles, we demand that the fashion industry takes drastic and immediate action towards implementing closed-loop water systems to ensure that the industry is not dependent on fresh water as a resource.

According to the UN, without immediate action from the fashion industry, clean water will no longer be an accessible resource by 2030 for half of the world’s population.

This is not acceptable. Instead, we imagine a future where the fashion industry is no longer the second biggest water consuming industry. We imagine a world where there is full awareness of the chemicals in our fresh water and their effects on 9 billion people.

We also imagine a drastic shift in how we use and value water, creating a culture that both respects and learns from the value of our resources.

The technology of water recycling is out there, so let us implement it today.

3. As inheritors of your roles, we demand a long-term investment in the well-being of the community as a whole, through: fair wages; improving infrastructure; ensuring food security.

I would like to tell you the story of a man that I am pretty sure you know already. His name? Brunello Cucinelli. Cucinelli is the living proof that creating a corporate culture that encompasses the local community is possible; as a matter of fact, it is happening as we speak — his commitment managed to revitalise an entire Italian village. Now, the community is part of the industry and the industry is part of the community. Working hand in hand and mutually gaining — they have not only increased the quality of the final product but, ultimately, the quality of living.

In this new model that we consider should be the new normal, community and industry thrive together by respecting the hands and hearts involved in the garment's life cycle.

4. What do capital, profit and success mean to you? What if, by 2030, they meant something completely different? As inheritors of your roles, we demand you all to collaborate as active investors in a fashion industry where capital, profit and success are redefined and measured in more than monetary value.

By 2030, these concepts must be measured side-by-side with a holistic view of wellbeing, social security and global health.

The priority must be on collaboration, on knowledge sharing, on rethinking where we place our value and a lowering of the barriers between people, companies and countries which halt the flow of progress.

We want you to imagine a future wherein success can be measured not just through financial gains, but equally through the sharing and increasing of knowledge, technological innovation and social and environmental progress.

5. As inheritors of your roles, we demand that by 2030 fashion is no longer the second-largest polluting industry in the world.

You — global policy makers — must work together with NGOs, brands and corporations to create and implement legislation for no more land abuse. Invest in research and innovation.

It is vital that we take responsibility in restoring the air, water and land that we have altered.

Furthermore, we must create more opportunities for life. To let this world flourish, we must stop taking that which we cannot restore.

We are running out of resources.

6. As the next generation and inheritors of your roles, and our waste, we demand that designers, brands and governments collaboratively invest in the recycling technology and infrastructure that is needed to secure and enable a circular system. 

Products, fabrics and fibres will be infinitely cycled within and across industries. Today’s textile waste is tomorrows textile resource.

We support the concept of mass balance and ask that brands give as much into the system as they take out. This encompasses the continual sourcing of recycled content and active collection of textiles. Government must support this through incentives and regulations, so that early adopters benefit from circular behaviour.

We want an industry that has zero waste practices embedded in its DNA and causes no unnecessary harm. This means a strategic cross-industry roadmap to eliminate post-industrial, pre-consumer and post-consumer waste.

We also demand that brands proactively support the system, by incorporating design for circularity as a driving philosophy in their work.

Our vision is a fashion world in 2030, where circularity is business as usual.

7. As inheritors of your roles, we demand economic consequences in order to reverse standards.

We need to reverse the profitability of being unsustainable. Sustainability should be rewarded. This is why we are addressing you, the companies, the governments, the game changers of tomorrow.

The world happiness report validates the notion that happiness does not increase with financial exponential growth. For this reason, our industry needs to look at other metrics of success.

We need to build a resilient infrastructure in order to create green cities.

In short, we are going to penalise reckless businesses and invest that money in sustainable fashion initiatives.

Through this, sustainability will be the standard in 2030. No one wants to be labelled as something negative, but in the future we want to expose the ones that are. Sustainability is the norm.

Our industry has to reward the people that are making a change.

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