Representing the creative future

Lisa Lang teaches us how to talk politics in fashion

The policy expert had us asking about COP27… and caring about the answer

So you bought the reusable coffee cup. You stopped buying single-use plastic water bottles and started recycling your textile scraps. You even chose a train destination holiday instead of flying to that exotic location (not that you could actually afford the AirBnb in Myconos, but the thought of a reduced carbon footprint did help you come to terms with that reality).

But no matter how many replacements you find for your guilt-inducing consumerist needs, there is always that discouraging realisation ruining the party: system change comes from collective, not individual, action. What’s the point of living more sustainably if big corporations continue to prioritise profit over the well-being of our planet?

Finding an answer that is empowering rather than discouraging takes a thorough understanding of the link between the individual and the collective. In other words, it means politics. Unfortunately, policy and legislation are not languages shared by many creatives, who prefer the spontaneous and direct over the structured and diplomatic. As a result, the fashion industry still lacks the tools needed to transform our newly discovered eco-consciousness into impactful action.

Luckily, policy expert Lisa Lang knows how to translate. When we spoke, the EU Affairs Orchestrator at Climate KIC had just returned from COP27, where fashion was a hot topic for the very first time in the history of the Climate Summit. Unlike many who attended, she felt invigorated and excited by the results, a reaction that can be attributed to her experience with system change. Lisa started her career as a software engineer during the start of the internet, which means she is comfortable with uncertainty and has made mindset change a routine habit. Here, she shared her greatest insights from tech, policy, and design… all in the name of fashion.

We were supposed to speak right before you left for COP, but I’m happy our meeting was postponed. The run-up to these events can be filled with hope, while the aftermath is usually a bit more realistic, not to say disillusioned. Would you agree?

When we talk about climate change, hope and despair are very close together. The timing is great. After COP, a lot of what I predicted during my event with the Swedish Fashion Council actually happened.

For example, I predicted that the fast fashion would really be targeted by climate activists, especially on a EU legislation level. We have to be precise here, there is fashion, the fashion industry, and within that there’s fast fashion. They have been able to operate how they wanted without any regulation. This will change. A lot.

At COP, one of the climate ambassadors, Sophiea Kianni, made an opening statement targeting fast fashion, recognising it as a part of the oil industry. This is a major change. Firstly, because it was the first time fashion got discussed on the big stage, secondly, because the link with oil was made. That is very important, because the oil industry is the number one target for the united nations and this places fashion within that.

The UN also announced the loss and damage fund. This has been 30 years in the making. That is crazy. I saw grown up men cry over this, people had dedicated their lives to this. The loss and damage fund targets the oil industry, basically sending invoices to the highest polluting countries, making them pay for the damage. If I was in fast fashion, I would be very nervous.

This will happen very fast – on a policy level fast, I mean, which is two to three years. Another important change on EU level, is that the European Parliament approved the Corporate Sustainability Responsible Directive. This isn’t directly related to fashion, but it does include it. From 2024 onwards, the top 50.000 biggest companies in Europe have to report on their sustainable footprint. They have to proof that their products are sustainable and not violate human rights. If we know two things fast fashion knows how to do, it’s polluting and exploiting. If you don’t comply, you won’t be allowed to trade in Europe. Imagine that!

I know, all of the lobbyist say they’ll find a way to wiggle out of it. The high polluting industries have a lot of power. I have a lot of cynical colleagues, but what you need to keep in mind is the message: shit is getting serious.

That is why it is important to make a distinction between fashion and the fashion industry. Fashion will prevail, but what the industry made out of it might disappear. Fashion reflects and inspires social change – fashion is a statement.

“If you look at the history of innovation and change, it always happened when people of different fields started talking to each other.” – Lisa Lang

My first thought, as you’re explaining this to me, is that we’ll need very strong fashion journalists – reporters who are able to decipher and shift through this information. Even if companies become more transparent, the fashion media landscape isn’t trained to do anything with that information.

It’s the same for the brands themselves: there is a lack of knowledge on how to be really sustainable. As much as we need to acknowledge and point the finger at where it hurts, on the other hand, we also need to help create bridges and facilitate knowledge exchange between industries. For journalists I would say, hang out with journalists who are in policy. The baseline is the same. Go read policy publications, go read politico. You can find those journalists on Twitter and they have contact email addresses, just reach out! Hang out with them and talk to them. If you look at the history of innovation and change, it always happened when people of different fields started talking to each other.

It’s very unsexy, talking about the digitalization of supply change. For brands who just want to sound cool, there is nothing more boring, but it’s the blind spot from the context of sustainability. The thing is, the solutions are out there, in automotive, electric engineering, etc. There is very little overproduction in these industries. The cool thing about technology is that you can use the same technology for different products. The fashion industry doesn’t need to invent track and trace technologies, they just need to implement them.

I think fashion is struggling, and I would like your view on this too, because there is a culture of non-sharing and non-collaboration. Collaborations only happen superficially. System collaboration is really outside of the nature of this industry. What kind of industry is this, where it’s completely normal for students to sabotage each other. They’re encouraged not to work together. I come from the tech startup scene, open source and collaboration are in my blood. When you develop a new app, you put different technology layers together, so it’s totally normal to rely on others.

Would you agree with this?

I agree, and I believe it’s because of the emphasis placed on intellectual property and its recognition, because of how we understand creativity. Even though it’s an industry that is hyper-technical and brings together a lot of different skills, recognition only goes to one person, who is the creative director. This is how fashion understands talent and success. Everyone is taught to hide instead of share, because someone could steal your idea and end up the millionaire while you’re still struggling to pay rent.

I do want to acknowledge that that happens in tech too, we have Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who made billions on the back of others. Everybody wants to be the next Facebook, the next Instagram. That mechanism happens everywhere. I would say the difference is that, in terms of IP, the focus is on service and on product-base, rather than the original idea.

When Apple started it’s app store, it was enabling other people to use this framework to have their own ideas. We are building our own ecosystem, and the app store would have never been as big they are if they hadn’t done that. It’s about enabling people to use the framework, and the catalytic effect it has is second to none.

“I see fashion schools losing their relevance. Their skills are outdated. It’s incomplete. The fashion student of today can’t rely on the university anymore to get the skillsets they need to survive.” – Lisa Lang

You mentioned the competition that exists among students. Is there anything else you would like to see changed in fashion education?

At the end of the day, the main focus should be a new skillset, a new form of education. As a journalist, you have learned everything you need to know in school. In order to adapt to the change that is needed, you just need to go outside of your comfort zone and talk to other people. That is not the same for designers. Fashion design education is very incomplete.

I know that there are a lot of institutions who are working hard to change their approach. Education systems are difficult to change, they tend to be slow, but right now, I see fashion schools losing their relevance. Their skills are outdated. It’s incomplete. The fashion student of today can’t rely on the university anymore to get the skillsets they need to survive, so they need to go out and find additional sources.

When I started, twenty years ago, in software engineering, there was this new thing called the internet, and you needed a combination of a graphic designer and a software engineer to become a web designer. Traditional universities didn’t offer that. So there was an entire generation that trained themselves and each other. When I started my career and hired software engineers, the fact that you didn’t go to university was an advantage, because it signaled that you were able to educate yourself.

“Fashion designers can be total game changers: 85% of a product’s footprint is decided in the design phase. ” – Lisa Lang

I often hear fashion students say “what do you want me to do, my university doesn’t teach sustainability,” to which I say, “go out and find the information then!” There is a complacency in fashion education. It’s such an outdated approach. Everyone is looking for the next Karl Lagerfeld. This man is dead, and I mean that symbolically. There was a time for these people.

Today, you need to learn the craft, the history, aesthetics, but we also need a deep understanding of manufacturing and supply chains, and an understanding of digital tools. You need to have real sustainable skills. And of course, I would also like to add policy awareness.

Fashion designers can be total game changers: 85% of a product’s footprint is decided in the design phase. Right now, technologists and business people have a lot of say, but the designer has to become far more important. A big shift happened here when fashion became a business, a scalable and global business. We are always celebrating designers, but they actually have zero power in business. If a designer would have more say in business, we wouldn’t have that much of an issue in fast fashion.

“What more exciting for a designer than to be part of change? The coolest part of design is to go out and discover, to learn new things.” – Lisa Lang

I’m not sure I follow you there.

I want to believe that designers in their nature strife for sustainability, because design is always about creation. Let me give you an example. For the past decades, product was developed by technologists and business people whose goal was to make as much product as possible, the designer came in afterwards to make it pretty and relevant. I know a lot of designers who feel guilty for being the enablers of fast consumption. What if we turn it the other way around? Give designers the power and the skills to adapt the footprint of the product. Imagine the impact this shift would make.

But in order for that to happen, we need to reskill designers and we need to give them executive power. I want to see a new rise of the creative class. Designers are everywhere, in every industry. Imagine if there would be a riot among fashion design students who understand how much power they have. Imagine they reskill themselves outside of the industry bubble, and then go back into the bubble. In the automotive industry, one of the biggest changes happened because a new generation came in that refused to work for unsustainable companies. A huge problem we have in Europe is a lack of skilled labour. That means there is a lot of power in the refusal of work.

“If you’re uninterested in sustainable innovation, you’re a fake designer. A real designer gets utterly excited about new techniques and new materials. ” – Lisa Lang

Look at the history of innovation, there is a pattern: learn and consolidate.

I know a lot of designers who would vehemently disagree with you. Especially designers who have been working in-house for a couple of decades. They’ll tell you, “it’s not my responsibility to assure the sustainability of a product. I’m a creative, which means I bring the ideas, and there is someone else to execute them. Do not limit my creativity with technical details.” How would you respond to this?

I would just say, “I’m so sorry for you.” This is just evidence of the thesis. They were trained in an old way of thinking, they’re outdated. I feel sorry, because what more exciting for a designer than to be part of change? The coolest part of design is to go out and discover, to learn new things. Technological innovation has always driven fashion. Look at fashion luxury houses, they started as cultural innovators. They became so big because they created new systems, new techniques that responded to material and industrial innovation. It was very technical and very sustainable.

If you’re uninterested in sustainable innovation, you’re a fake designer. A real designer gets utterly excited about new techniques and new materials. Who will come up with a new draping technique for mushroom leather? That’s the new Christian Dior.

I do think a lot of people feel very overwhelmed. Both in the case of the inactive students and the ignorant designers, I think there is a sense of paralysis in the face of such massive problems. It can be hard to know where to start. Do you personally ever experience that paralysis, and how do you deal with it?  

First of all, you need to realise that you’re not alone. Everybody is scared, everybody gets frustrated, everybody feels despair. It’s not just in the fashion industry, it’s everywhere. I have this feeling on a regular basis. How I’ve learned to cope with it, is to try and accept the feeling first. We can’t change systems entirely, but we can change how we react within it. You can change with whom you work: you can change to who you go, you can change with whom you talk. It’s also okay if you’re not okay. Especially in an industry that is focused on the image.

But let me tell you, policy isn’t easier. There is a lot of frustration, the system is very broken. I deal with it through humor, talking and working with people I respect. There is this Buddhist saying I live by – you achieve full balance in life through three layers: find someone to look up to, someone you can share with, and somebody you can lift up. Again, culturally, in the fashion industry, to enable someone is such a foreign concept, when one of the biggest joys in my work is to enable other people. It’s a joy! Talking about mental health, this is one sure way to bring some joy in your life.

Then, of course, bitching and moaning is a great option. Thank god for the f-word.