10 Years of Rewriting Fashion – Copenhagen Fashion Summit

By Dorothy Maxwell
Saturday 18 May 2019

On 15-16 May 2019 over 1100 people including over 450 businesses from over 40 countries gathered for the 10th anniversary of The Copenhagen Fashion Summit (CFS). This is ground zero for the mainstream fashion industry to hear the latest on sustainable fashion. As ever, it was slick and a valuable gathering of friends old and new. I have been attending this conference over the last 10 years. Before that, I remember meeting with CFS co-founders, Eva Kruse and Jonas Eder-Hansen, for the first time in The Cotton Club in London. They were looking for advice on what was then their brainchild for a mainstream fashion summit on sustainability. At that time, I was Director of the Sustainable Clothing Roadmap (now SCAP) – the UK Department of the Environment (DEFRA)’s multi-stakeholder collaboration on sustainable fashion. There were forums then which were convened by sustainability stakeholders for fashion, but not led by the sector itself. 10 years on – I applaud their grit and smarts to have created what is now the “go to” fashion event on sustainability. So what are the key messages from this years forum? In a nutshell – We are running out of time and the fashion sector is still not doing enough to solve its destructive footprint on people and planet. The summit’s industry report “Pulse of the Industry” – a useful headline indicator of progress – showed while awareness is now high, sustainability improvements have stalled and slowed. The summit’s patron Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, industry leaders, through to the iconic sustainable fashion visionary Kathrine Hamnett echoed this point.

The Urgency of the Challenge – 10 years left!

Paul Paulman, previous CEO Unilever and now Chair of the International Chamber of Commerce and The B Team, spoke of the urgency of the challenge. He encapsulated the world’s sustainability challenges, solutions and inspired with a call to action. This all with no notes and was the only standing ovation of the event. He confirmed what we know to be true – the business case is clear, we know the solutions and have many available, but the fashion sector is not acting fast enough. Looking at the global content, he highlighted how much had improved in the world over recent years from poverty alleviation, health and womens rights. However, ironically we were increasingly finding ourselves in “chaos”. He cited capital markets driving short term profit maximisation and short, reactive political global governance as major drivers for this. Fashion as a sector, like others, are tied to ongoing growth with the social and environmental fallout that brings in a world of limits. Socially, income disparity is growing with unrest on the rise. The combined wealth of the world’s poorest is down by 11% for the first time in human history. The need for an economic system that works for the many and includes the “true cost” of our natural capital is clear. Looking at the business case, the cost of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals – our current receipe for sustainability success – is only 5% of global GDP. We spend over 10% on conflict prevention. We need new rules of success beyond growth and profit maximisation alone! It is clear this system is not working. He stated “We have the answers and we need purpose driven leaders and will power to take the action needed. If you want to go further you go together.” A point that really struck home with me it that all of us at the summit are the 2% of world population with the knowledge and “know how” to sort this out. We are the lucky ones. It’s our responsibility and we need to rise to the challenge. He poetically pointed out that “while we humans have eyes, we are behaving as if we cannot see”. He reminded us that “Change only happens when we are uncomfortable”. Unless you are hiding under a rock, we increasingly are.

The unfolding climate emergency and evidence of devastating loss of biodiversity were echoed throughout the event. No longer are these topics being discussed by sustainability practitioners alone, the CEO’s of fashion retailers and brands are citing the same from Kering Group to PVH. Many speakers highlighted the evidence from the latest climage change studies that we have approximately 10 years before we reach a tipping point that may prevent a 1.5 – 2 degree C temperature rise. Anything above 1.5C degrees will unlock a world we do not want to leave to the future generations. Mike Barry, Sustainability Director, Marks & Spencers urged we only have 10 years to take the action required on climate change as an industry.

Purpose driven business leaders needed to reignite the confidence of goverment as a regulator

Recognising that government as a driver of sustainabllity improvement is lagging around the world, French President Emanuel Macon, is driving key sectors and tipping point themes to form a Pact at the next G7 summit. The rationale is to form a commitment to the required transformational change needed to halt tipping points across ocean health, biodiversity and climate change. The market leaders in the largest polluting sectors are being pushed to form a Pact to meet key improvement targets quickly. This demonstration is intended to show policy makers that business is comfortable for law that actually can drive the disruptive changes needed. The fashion sector is one of these being targeted because of is size and impact. Kering Group, other major fashion brands, the French government and stakeholders like Paul Polman are driving this but the detail is still to made available in the public domain. So this is an interesting strategy and an impressive step by M. Macon, but it’s worth in practice is still to be proven.

As Francois Henry Pinault, CEO Kering Group highlighted – modern luxury fashion sector has a special responsibility. Luxury fashion is an opinion leader, influences the whole sector and often society, so can drive change. He sees “Business as a force for good and sustainability being part of the quality factor of luxury. The purpose of being a modern business is beyond profit alone.” The point was made by many that sustainability is now seen as key for business success, staying relevant to customers, maintaining trust, loyalty and retaining the best talent. At present, trust is low in CEOs and transparency builds trust and gets rewards. This is essential for fashion, where supply chain transparency is an ongoing challenge.

We have many of the solutions, we need to collaborate and to scale

We have many toolkits, supports and collaborations on sustainable fashion. Jason Kibby, ex CEO of Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and new CEO of Higg & Co, made the point that over 10,000 factories & brands are using the Higg Index benchmark, 1/3 of global apparel sector. So uptake of this and also other tools is growing by the manufacturers. The next steps are getting the designers, retailers and consumers further engaged and driving more demand. However, Roger Lee, CEO Tal Group, one of the largest fashion manufacturers pointed out they had not yet seen the business return from their sustainability improvements indicating uptake was not yet high enough.

On the technology front, blockchain and other supply chain transparency technologies are growing. Tangible examples were Avery Dennison and H&M using QR Codes with footprint data behind them targeting both B2B and B2C audiences. Google is now focusing on the fashion sector also through a trial with Stella McCartney on fashion sustainability impacts.

Changing raw materials for fashion was seen as a game changer. Materials innovations to move us away from high impact cotton, polyester , leather and plastics are key for fast improvements. The always inspiring Cyril Gutsch from Parlay for the Oceans noted that sustainabilty innovations are the business opportunity of our time. For example, the Adidas/Parlay for the Oceans sneaker has generated over $1billion dollars. Besides the moral imperative, these are environmental and business win wins not to be missed.

Connecting the solutions with finance to scale was the other key headline. Michael Koburi, Environment VP, Levi Strauss & Co showed the way with the Levis model. Having developed technology solutions like “Water>Less” they support suppliers to implement them through open sourcing and access to venture capital/low interest funds. Nike and others also flagged the importance of open sourcing solutions to fast track. A key gap highlighted was the lack of sustainability requirements from investors for businesses. If sustainability/Environmental Social Governmence (ESG) data was a formal requirement for all businesses to disclose as part of company reporting and funder due diligence, this would fast track market transformation.

The “S” word and consumers

As always we spend alot of time trying to explain the word “sustainability”, a barrier to achieving to change for so long. Vanessa Friedman, Fashion Editor, The New York Times, always nails this for the fashion sector. She advises we are overdue to stop using the “S” word and shift to “Responsibility”. She also called for an “ABCs of Responsible Fashion” to help overcome all the greenwash out there at present that confuses consumers and causes mistrust in business. However we need to be cautious of the consumers role as saviour in the sustainability tragedy. As Mike Barry pointed out, only 10% of the world’s popution are the “deep green” engaged consumers willing and able to walk the talk through what they buy. Outside of that echo chamber, views are mixed. The SAC and actress turned activist, Julia Ormond, thought differently with conscious consumer numbers raising. While this differs around the world, the so called developed world was seeing a 40 – 66% ethical consumer actively purchasing sustainable products. The Pulse of the Industry report and other recent ethical market studies concur and see strong growth in the ethical consumer market .

The end of ownership and shifting consumption models

The other major trend is the rise of resale and rental consumption models. With resale growing 30% faster than new fashion products last year in the USA, resale is becoming an important part of how we consume. Also rental subscriptions – think spotify or gym membership for your wardrobe – are growing fast. As Michael Wang at YCloset – China’s largest rental and resale fashion platform – pointed out, “Why do we need Closets”? Also, 30% of people on YCloset then buy what they rent, so really these platforms are the new retail space. Depop and other peer to peer reselling is also a growing feature especially for the much quoted millenial. Rental, resale and repair are also brand features already used by Eileen Fisher, Nudie Jeans, Patagonia, Filippa K and Ganni.

As extending a garments life can reduce environmental impact by approximately 30% compared to buying new, resale and rental have alot to offer as part of the sustainable fashion solution. Retailers and brands need to move fast least they loose their relevance. Platforms like Vestiaire Collective, Rent the Runway, YCloset, DePOP and Reflaunt look increasingly like the new norm.

For More info see:

CFS Programme, readout and Pulse of the Fashion Report 2019


CFS videos on Youtube

App CFS19