Copenhagen Fashion Summit began in 2009 with a handful of brands that were beginning to connect the dots between sustainability and fashion. At the time it was very much a niche, with connotations of beige hemp tunics and a widely held view that this would never be a core part of the fashion industry.
Ten years later and the 2019 summit was represented by fashion’s key players such as PVH, Kering, and H&M, as well as cutting edge designers and companies such as A-Cold-Wall, Christopher Raeburn, and Parley For The Oceans. Murmurings about bamboo accessories have been replaced with debates over blockchain, and a star-studded red carpet and Instagram backdrops galore showed just how integral this event has become not just to the fashion calendar, but also to the reputations of the industry’s biggest brands and personalities.
Abundant ideas and new technologies were on show at the summit, and here are four notable talking points that emerged during the week.
1. Blockchain and New Tools For Traceability
An irresistible buzzword, blockchain is gaining traction despite still being a new idea in fashion circles. Whilst it has been used in finance for some time as a digital security tool, it also has potential to be used in monitoring the fashion supply chain. Using a blockchain, each purchase or transaction can be logged and this information is then fixed and cannot be amended. When traceability is such a crucial issue, this has the potential to be a really valuable tool in fashion production.
While it may sound lofty, blockchain technology is already in use in the fashion industry, for example PVH (Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger) are using it to map and verify their organic cotton supply chains. Developing systems such as this will hopefully increase efficiency and integrity of supply chain information, leading to increased sustainability and ethical standards.
Taking a more tangible approach, physical tracking systems are also appearing. For instance, Parley For The Oceans are developing materials to physically integrate unique ID information into the very fabric of the product, so that the end customer can take real ownership and know that that pair of trainers is unique and attributed to them. This is one take on addressing the issue of disposable fast fashion.
How these technologies develop is yet to be seen, but there is real potential for building fixed and trackable information into the product from the source either physically or digitally, addressing the murky traceability issues faced by the industry daily.
2. Future Generation of Employees
2019 has highlighted the concern of younger generations towards climate change, with Greta Thunberg leading the School Strike For Climate. Not only are they the customers of the future, they are also the future employees and companies are beginning to become aware of how they will need to attract them. Numerous studies have shown that a large majority of young people would take a company’s sustainability policy into consideration before applying for a job. This was reiterated by leading brands such as Nike and M&S, as well as Danish finance minister Kristian Jenson. To attract the best talent, brands are already finding that they need to demonstrate that employees will have a purpose beyond increasing profits for shareholders.
This certainly resonated with conversations I had with other volunteers working at the summit. 75 volunteers were selected from 32 different countries and all from differing backgrounds, as diverse as biotechnology, business, and fashion design. Whilst we were all at various stages of our careers and from all areas of the fashion industry, we all shared high ambitions for sustainability. Whether going on to work within the most influential companies, or start up companies or research projects of our own, there was a sense of a common goal to constantly raise the bar for sustainability in fashion.
The Youth Fashion Summit also stole the show with their demanding and direct address calling for change in the industry.
3. Smart Financing
Environmental sustainability goes hand in hand with economic sustainability. To be really effective, a business has to be profitable. At the same time, it’s increasingly proven that to be profitable you also need to incorporate sustainability. Various speakers told of the significant savings they had made directly from their sustainability initiatives. For example Kering have experienced large savings thanks to greatly reduced waste in the supply chain. Similarly, Nikhil Hirdaramani of Hirdaramani Group told of reduced audit costs thanks to improved conditions in factories.
HSBCs Burcu Senel also emphasised the importance of communicating with finance teams and banking partners to make the most of available financing options, such as trade financing and green investment. Meanwhile Paul Polman pointed out that we are already incurring more long-term costs than the cost of implementing change, so the quicker companies act the better, for their finances as well as for the planet.
4. Climate Change Emergency
Where sustainability in the fashion industry has largely been about squeezing environmentally friendly materials and processes into existing business models, there was a new sense of urgency at this year’s event. Against a backdrop of climate protests, and governments declaring climate emergency, speakers and delegates alike acknowledged the gravity of the situation and the impact and influence of the fashion industry.
Most poignantly, Paul Polman’s frank opening address was a stern warning about the impact of the industry on the environment and the extent of how we need to change. However he also emphasised the potential the fashion industry has to be a leader in climate change solutions and addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals. His was a direct and grave message, emphasising that “we cannot be bystanders in the destruction of the very system that gives us life in the first place”. However he also gave a message of hope and ambition. We can aim higher in our industry, and lead in setting the standard for sustainable change in other industries.
The summit throughout had an impressively progressive and ambitious tone. The focus was weighted in innovation, technology, and disruption, which is promising not just for the future the fashion industry but also of the planet.
Whilst some of the more disruptive and technological solutions might seem out of reach for many brands, it’s important to remember that there already exist solutions that can be built into existing business models immediately. Conventional cotton can be switched to organic cotton. Virgin polyester can be switched to recycled polyester. And preferred materials such as Tencel and alpaca are commercially available to be input into product ranges. Until disruptive technologies and models become more widely available, there are already accessible and effective solutions to hand.
You can catch up on all the talks from the summit now here.