Responsible Innovation at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit: An In Depth Review

23/05/2016 10:25 | Updated 23 May 2016

On 12th May 2016, over 1200 people from 52 countries gathered at the fourth edition of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, in a city with the ambition to become "the first carbon-neutral capital in the world" according to the summit's patron, Crown Princess Mary of Denmark. Denmark has one of the most impressive track records when it comes to environmental and social wellbeing, so it's fitting that it acted as an important example of how we can shape our communities and industries, respecting the environment, workers and citizens. The event was preceded by a week of roundtables, discussions and conferences by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), the Youth Fashion Summit, and Planet Textiles, making Copenhagen a hub of discussion and change.

The summit, organized by the Danish Fashion Institute on behalf of the Nordic Fashion Association, focused on 'responsible innovation', moving us to think more deeply about the true meaning of the word sustainability, which is at risk of becoming undervalued or even dismissed through over use. This year illustrated that collaboration, education, and innovation will be absolutely essential to create a better future, moving us closer to reaching the UN's Sustainable Development Goals agreed as part of COP21 in Paris last year, halting the breakneck speed of climate change and moving us closer to social equality. The Youth Fashion Summit, a gathering of over 100 students from 40 nations illustrated this clearly (and incredibly professionally) through their demands to the global fashion industry to act now, using the Sustainable Development Goals as a starting point, no small task. As Dilys Williams, Youth Summit facilitator and mentor said, "This is the first generation of people who really understand climate change, and the last ones who can really do anything about it." It was therefore reassuring to see such a strongly united group of students, although there's still a lot to do to get this generation as a whole on the same page. Image source: Copenhagen Fashion Summit Image source: Copenhagen Fashion Summit

Overall, this year's summit seemed more hopeful than previous editions, through the vulnerability and willingness to collaborate shown by the brands and organisations who presented during the day. Rather than simply declaring victories and achievements, we saw the recognition that whilst important steps have been and are being made, there is still much to be done and challenges to overcome, for which collaboration and openness is essential. Summit host Amber Valetta stressed that "economic growth and sustainable development are not mutually exclusive," and it's hoped this will prove true to the brands which hold growth for investors as a key driver.

The Danish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kristian Jensen, expressed his view that "politically, we must push for common global frameworks... as through unifying efforts and defining a common agenda, a level playing field [will be] established." This is an important issue that we've seen emerge through the growing myriad of complex legislation and certifications emanating from different political, commercial, and social arenas. It's also an incredibly complex issue which will only be remedied through ambitious collaboration, which we recently witnessed slowly budding at the UN COP21 talks. At the end of the day, Jensen's statement that "responsible management and traceable supply chains create a more robust business," was a key and immediate point that was picked up on by brands in attendance and at the podium. The 2015 Nordic Fashion Action plan was cited as an exemplar of how we can take a business driven approach to cleaning up the industry, rewarding sustainable development, creating competitive advantages for responsible businesses.

European commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska also made some strong points when she discussed some of the challenges we're facing, that "too many people don't want to see the negative side of the industry," and that there is much to do when it comes to educating the industry and consumers, and providing transparent information so they can make informed decisions. She said that we must act on three levels - consumers, authorities, and industry, and that we must do it in "a coordinated and complimentary way". Currently, the European Commission is aiming to adopt a circular economy model, therefore pushing the importance of developing high quality recycling systems for textiles, and the EU Garment Initiative will look into transparency, traceability, and supply chains.

A further series of speeches was delivered by leaders in the industry including Rick Ridgeway from Patagonia, Nike's Chief Sustainability Officer Hannah Jones, Eco-Age founder Livia Firth, Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times, and H&M's Head of Sustainability Anna Gedda. The day also included debates and discussions looking at the power of the media, the future of fashion, and philanthropy in the fashion industry among other topics.

We heard diverse examples of approaches to sustainability, from Patagonia's mission statement to make the best product possible, causing no unnecessary harm - importantly recognizing that the creation of new products will always create harm, but that it's our responsibility to limit this as much as we possibly can, to the idea that "durable design most important factor in decreasing impact of product", as environmental impact of products can be seen to decrease as its useable lifetime increases. Hannah Jones, Nike. Image source: Copenhagen Fashion Summit Hannah Jones, Nike. Image source: Copenhagen Fashion Summit

Hannah Jones from Nike shared a range of interesting ideas, starting with the view that "there is nothing with more potential than sustainable innovation," with the Paris agreements moving us from 'if' to 'how'. She went on to say that "we must redesign our industry to reach that 2 degree goal," for which "incrementalism and efficiency measures will not get us there; less bad is not good enough. Innovation and collaboration are needed on an unprecedented scale." She went on to ask "instead of making today less bad, how do we design the future we want? What if we could unlock innovation for the planet and the business as a result of this work?" These were important points to raise, but one question that did sit a bit uneasily was "can we double our business while halving our impact?" She asked how can we reconcile consumption with a 2 degree world, but surely we must agree that reducing consumption and moving away from a growth focused business model is going to be essential to get us there? She shared a several more interesting points, from the need to forget the linear and move towards a circular economy model, to the need to rethink the role of designers, methods of make, and materials, and that "for sustainability to be transformative, it must be built in to what we create and how we design from the very beginning." Nike are developing a new palette of low impact and regenerating materials, in a bid to move away from materials' current dependency on land, water, and oil, and their work with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition's Higg Index acts as an important exemplar to the industry on how we assess and minimise the impact of materials. Regarding performance of materials and manufacturing, and especially human impact, she stated that "together, we have to turn compliance in to a licence to operate, this has to become the norm not the exception."

Another brand leading the industry in both sales and sustainability communication is H&M, represented at the summit by Head of Sustainability, Anna Gedda. Gedda shared H&M's goal to become 100% circular - though exactly how and when this will be achieved remains unclear. H&M, along with Kering, have co-funded Worn Again to develop a recycling technology which would enable entire garments made of mixed fibres and components to be chemically recycled and turned into new fabrics, which H&M hopes will become the norm in its collections - this is an exciting development we have our eye on, but again knowing how and when it could be integrated in to the fashion system as a whole is as yet unknown. This system could go some way to answer Gedda's question regarding 2050's expected global population on 9 billion people - "will there be enough water, land, and resources to create clothes for these people? They'll want to express themselves through fashion too, will they just not be allowed to?" It could certainly help with raw material constraints, however, it still doesn't move us away from a fast fashion system of exponential consumption of products, which should be urgently addressed. The Future of Fashion panel. Image source: Copenhagen Fashion Summit The Future of Fashion panel. Image source: Copenhagen Fashion Summit

From Imran Ahmed of The Business of Fashion we heard that he sees conversations around sustainability taking place between businesses and consumers, but "what's missing is a real understating of the gravity of the situation. The change that we all need to happen won't happen until the consumer, and companies, and government really understand the gravity of situation." The conversation is happening, but it's just not urgent enough. Vogue Australia's Editor-in-Chief Edwina McCann shared her view that "value needs to be redefined - we have a disposable sales culture. Value needs to be about great design, who made this, how does it make you feel?" With a reassessment on how we value products, and a clearer understanding of the impact of our choices, consumption could move to a far more responsible and considered place. To assist this understanding, companies like Selfridges are demanding transparency from their brands, requiring brands to sign up to the supply chain traceability platform Sedex, not to directly tell customers what they think, but to "open up the debate."

A speech which really hit home was given by Livia Firth quite early in the day, who passionately called out fast fashion for its role in fueling the flames of inequality and environmental degradation. She said that ideally two years on from Rana Plaza we would be looking at a reformed industry, and that we cannot and must not draw a veil over the catastrophe, "especially when brands export exactly the same production model to different developing countries. That cannot be the sum-total of our ambition. That was not the intention." Three years after signing the Bangladesh Accord, some signatories still have not acted on their pledges, and according to Firth, "the current model will not get us to the point we want to get to - where producers are in partnership with brands, not in servitude to them." This was echoed by Linda Greer from the National Resources Defense Council when she said that developing countries have no capacity to deal with the issues such as carbon emissions caused by global brands setting up manufacturing hubs. The government of Vietnam itself admitted that 90% of its industrial parks don't treat waste water; the speed at which the industry is jumping between ill-equipped developing countries has put us in "a race to the bottom through globalization." This will hopefully be a wake-up call to all those companies who may or may not be making strides in terms of sustainability improvements, but are still centrally focused on the bottom line.