As clothes have never been more accessible, the need for a sustainable industry becomes more and more urgent. Going to Copenhagen Fashion Summit, our expectations were high. A conference aiming to make the global fashion industry sustainable, it almost sounds too good to be true.

Hearing the Summit slogan “Commitment to Change” evoked something in us. It was clearly a call to action. However, for an industry that centres around change, fashion can be surprisingly conventional and it takes more than a catchy slogan to make an industry sustainable.
The reason for the industry’s enormously destructive footprint is today’s linear economic model – “take, make, dispose” – which is fundamentally unbalanced. Imagine if we could switch to a circular system that took every single link in the supply chain into consideration, like a closed loop.

This was one of the main themes at the Summit, with no regard to the size of the company. Actually, The Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report revealed that the big players are performing best on sustainability compared to the small and medium-sized companies. That said, they also create the most damage which is why they must carry more responsibility.

Big companies have the power to influence the beginning of a supply chain, and can thus ensure that both working conditions and sourced materials reach a high ethical standard. “When you are on the luxury side you need to be sure that you have the highest standard of quality,” said Marie-Claire Deveu, Sustainability Officer at Kering. Though luxury brands offer high quality, fast delivery services and increasing product lines affect the end user’s perception of value. Even luxury items become throw away goods.

The consumer too has an obligation to be sustainably aware. New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman addressed the issue when speaking to 1 Granary: “I think we should all talk about how people don’t need so many things…We should reinforce the value proposition and talk about the value of the clothes that is being produced.”

“The elephant is still here today,” said Livia Firth about the fast fashion brands present at the Summit. Influential companies such as Li & Fung, H&M and Target were invited to speak at the Summit.
An impressive and powerful lineup. However, overall the energy stayed politely diplomatic, and it felt like some action was missing. Except for the conversation between Vanessa Friedman and Tiffany and Co.’s Michael Kowalski, none of the companies were challenged much and with such heavyweights, we feel a discussion could have pushed some of the topics even further.
In addition to the big corporate players, a group of young international design students who participated in last year’s Youth Fashion Summit were invited back to draft the first-ever UN resolution on fashion. The design students presented the result for the industry at Copenhagen Fashion Summit in which they “insist on making sustainability the primary norm of the fashion industry” as the young student Katharina Stöhr opened her speech saying. “There is a lot of interest and the possibilities to make change are really there, but the kick in the ass needs to come from somewhere… so hopefully it’s us, the next generation, that is able to provide this,” said Nea Pakarinen, a Finnish student.

To the younger generation sustainability seems more crucial, as they have grown up with a greater awareness about environmental issues. This was underlined in the conversation between Julie Gilhart and Eileen Fisher, where the young Parsons graduate Teslin Doud spoke about the sustainability effort as one of the main reasons why she chose to work for Eileen Fisher: “Any graduate going into fashion these days, any young employee, is going to have to have an understanding of the exigencies of sustainability to be hireable, that’s the new workforce,” Vanessa Friedman told us.

“Any graduate going into fashion these days, any young employee, is going to have to have an understanding of the exigencies of sustainability to be hireable, that’s the new workforce” – Vanessa Friedman

Listening to the young students speaking exuded optimism and relief in us. Perhaps because they don’t need revenue as an incitement for working sustainably, they just do it! In the future, it will be interesting to see how more brands will work with sustainability as part of their core identity and how it will affect the overall fashion industry. It was great to see that Global Fashion Agenda had allowed the young voice space in the Summit.
The understanding of sustainability the young designers gained will make them game changers and possibly transform the industry over the next decade. “It is a quantum easier to start a brand with sustainability as part of its platform and its identity than it is to incorporate it into an already existing brand,”, Vanessa Friedman said.
This year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit wanted companies to put words into action. While the big companies are working on their social and environmental footprint, the young generation of designers are ready to change the industry.

Words Ottilie Landmark Images Anna Antropova