I finally got a chance to watch the sequel that was always going to be car-crash, strictly-for-plane-viewing, fodder of ridicule – Zoolander 2. Not even the number of A-list cameos could save it. But one line did stick out as the sort of truth, that made the original film so spot on in its spoofing. Just as Mugatu is about to launch his explosive device to kill the upper echelons of the fashion industry, he yells, “Fashion has killed itself already.” It’s a sentiment that has been ricocheting around the industry, but it is through the lens of sustainability, where you can see concrete evidence of this self-destruction.
Last month saw Fashion Revolution roll out from just being a singular day into a week, with more brands being taken to task over who made their clothes, and last week, Copenhagen played host to what has been described as the “Davos of sustainability” as the fourth Copenhagen Fashion Summit took place, preceded by the gatherings of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and Planet Textiles. For the first time, Copenhagen Fashion Summit managed to pre-sell out their tickets for attendance. “For the first time, I sense that people are here to get ‘shit’ done”, said Hannah Jones, Chief Sustainability Officer and VP, Innovation Accelerator of Nike, who is finally making action happen.
Over the last few weeks, I have myself, been thinking about the alternatives, the altruistic and the fundamental changes that the fashion industry can action, to not only… and I’m throwing a reference to the HBO show Silicon Valley here… “make the world a better place” but to really SHIFT an industry that in my mind has been resting on its creative laurels for far too long, and yes, to some extent slowly killing its core values.
At Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the framing of the conversation has changed. The call to action is stronger, even if there’s still huge swathes of the industry that haven’t efficiently dealt with the problems at hand or even acknowledge that transparency is an issue (in Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index, the average score for 40 brands surveyed was just 42% on their scale of transparency). I’m glad that throughout Copenhagen Fashion Summit, there seemed to be a shirking away from the word “sustainable”. Livia Firth, in her speech said that the word was in danger of becoming “meaningless”. On the panel about the media’s role in communicating to consumers about sustainable fashion, Imran Amed of Business of Fashion said, “Our responsibility in the media to educate people that good design is sustainable design.” Last year, Orsola de Castro also gave an interview with 1Granary, where she implored people to stop tagging what is essentially the true essence of fashion with the onerous and heavy-handed label of “sustainable”: “‘New fashion’? ‘Alternative fashion’? Anything but sustainable fashion. Call it ‘Anything-but-sustainable fashion’.”
De Castro further hits nail on the head with her delineation of sustainable fashion from what should be fashion at large. “The reality is that the industry completely lost touch with its main values ever since it’s only been about rapid growth, mass production, fast fashion, and disposable luxury. It so detached from its origin that it then had to go and create a shit name so that people could be stigmatised. The reality is that sustainable fashion really is fashion. It’s everything else that isn’t sustainable that should be called as such.”
As such, the beginning of the summit had speakers that laid out more tangible ways of combating the status quo – or “everything else that isn’t sustainable”. Statements such as outdoor wear company Patagonia’s attention-grabbing advert placed in The New York Times on Black Friday in 2013 that read “Don’t Buy This Jacket” got rousing applause. According to vice president of public engagement Rick Ridgeway, it’s not enough just to repair, resell and recycle, but to also encourage customers to ultimately reduce consumption. This was a strand of conversation that I would loved to have seen more of at the summit. Fixing the processes and product in order to retain or grow existing levels of consumption is one way of looking at what we’re facing, but is there a deeper-rooted issue within our culture that can somehow be tackled?
At Nike, the word “sustainable” has been put aside in favour of innovation. Jones was applauded throughout her speech because her words got to the heart of the matter, even if you don’t necessarily agree with the thinking behind the need for growth as Nike aims to halve their environmental/human impact, whilst doubling their business. “Whichever way you do the math, incrementalism and efficiency measures won’t get you there,” said Jones in her speech. “Less bad is not good enough. The difference between what we can do and what we must do is innovation on an unprecedented scale.” For Jones, the innovation starts in the materials as 60% of the environmental impact of a pair of shoes is found in the materials and so Nike now currently have a palette of more than twenty materials made of recycled waste such as the plastic bottle polyester used in their football kits. This shift from sustainable to innovating is an exciting one, and something that can be adopted by fashion brands at all levels to really kick this industry’s arse into finally seeing significant change in the 21st century – something that will be remembered as monumentally as Mary Quant’s mini skirt or Coco Chanel’s use of black jersey.
One of the other themes of the summit was collaboration. Together, this movement is stronger when companies work together, co-operate with each other and share information. Jones also pointed to the possibility of an industry uniting in their code of conduct and pooling resources to assess and audit supply chains. This to me felt like sound, but idealistic, targets to combat the issue of transparency, which currently companies get involved in, as much, or as little as they wish. “We need to get to a place where we have one code, common assessment tools and common protocols on monitoring and we all disclose our supply chain locations to enable us to work together more effectively. Some of these factories have 200 audits, to comply with so many different buyers and we could all be sharing audits and help the factories move forward. Right now, it’s too fragmented. At the end of the day, we’re all sharing the same suppliers so it makes sense.”
Perhaps the most powerful call to action came, not from established companies or people with fancy titles. Led by Dilys Williams, director of Centre for Sustainable Fashion, 100 fashion students from 40 countries gathered at the Youth Fashion Summit, to set out a vision for the future that comes from their position as the “first generation of people who really understand climate change, and the last ones who can really do anything about it.” The full manifesto can be read here. One of the points that really resonated with me was the one that I think sets the industry back from truly innovating and creating as it should be in a responsible way. “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.”
In other words, success should not be measured purely by financial gain. Success should be to judge the wellbeing of their workers and the ability to implement circular systems (another buzz word of the summit meaning, resources and energy being recycled/reused in the process of production). Making this full manifesto come true, is a “moonshot” target, to borrow vocabulary from Jones’ Nike speech, but still achievable. Especially if these young minds somehow come to the fore of the industry.
The role of the media is something that I was also interested in probing into and Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times gave a short and sharp speech on the power of sex in communicating about “responsible” fashion. Factories, supply chains and the overuse of water in the making of garments, aren’t “sexy” subjects. Well, at least for most people. Me? I love a good laser cutting jigsaw mechanism. Or a CAD programme that does pattern piece placement efficiency. Friedman’s point is a salient one though. Using Michael Burry’s film The Big Short as a reference, Friedman suggests that sustainability needs the equivalent of Margot Robbie in a bath tub explaining about sub-prime mortgages. Is that the equivalent of dumbing things down, in order to reach the masses? Perhaps, but for mainstream media, the need for culturally-relevant hooks and potential traffic-drivers, means that what has been discussed at the summit is in danger of slipping into a niche ravine. It will be interesting to see how that conversation swerves for instance, when hopefully the tables start to flip and it’s the advertisers that make responsible fashion their main agenda.
Those positives aside, there was still a lot of needless self-congratulating going around at the summit. Brands trumpeting their mini victories of doing “less bad” and using philanthropy to detract attention away from their other less savoury practises. H&M, who have been involved with the summit from the very beginning, had Anna Gedda, their head of sustainability, come and speak about their own ways of closing the loop with schemes such as their garment collecting programme, but perhaps failed to address the fundamental problem with the basic model of fast fashion, that impacts on labour and resources. Is there a way of slowing down the drops of collections and still be a source of affordable fashion for consumers? Are we exploring alternative ways of on-demand production with the help of smarter use of technology? And are the changes really dramatic or innovative enough as opposed to just being small ‘make-good’ gestures?
I had meant to post these images earlier to time in with Fashion Revolution Week but they’re pertinent all the same. These photos were taken at a workshop at Edmonton’s Building Bloqs, conducted by de Castro to encourage fashion students to partake in upcycling, with the expertise of Dr Noki and Alex Noble, who know what to do with a surplus of clothing labels and old t-shirts. I’ve been thinking about the words: “Get Angry”, “High Cost, Low Price”. On this scale, perhaps these appliqued forms of protest, are certainly more vocal than the resulting actions. If my biggest takeaway from the summit was that the overall vision was still perhaps grander than the actual actions, then it’s also because the protest from the public isn’t really loud or pressured enough. And whilst I’m not the right person to galvanise people to “get angry”, I will carry on being curious and finding out the why’s and the how’s. Sustainable, alternative, responsible… call it what you want. What I’m after is what’s good. I mean, really good. The people, their hands and their clothes, that got me excited about this industry in the first place.
Image courtesy of Fashion Revolution and Novel Beings
Image courtesy of Fashion Revolution and Novel Beings