10 tips from the Super Bowl of sustainable fashion

May is an important month in fashion. During the Met gala, often described as the Super Bowl of fashion, celebrities arrive at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in outfits so elaborate that climbing the stairs often requires assistance. The Global Fashion Summit, taking place later in May, will see sustainable fashion experts and designers descend on Copenhagen for what could be called the Super Bowl of sustainable fashion. At the three-day conference, delegates’ outfits receive far less scrutiny than ideas, innovations and new technologies aimed at reducing fashion’s ever-growing carbon, waste and water footprint.

This year, on its fifteenth anniversary, the lack of progress towards change across the sector dampened spirits. But there was a lot to discuss, from fast fashion brands committing to circular business models to advice on how to decouple carbon emissions from sales growth. Here are 10 key insights:

1. It’s time for legislation

Fashion emissions are still growing. “The global goals are not on track,” said Eva Kruse, founder and former CEO of the Global Fashion Summit (GFS). She spoke on a panel that moderator Vanessa Friedman, chief fashion critic of the New York Times, described as “the OG top gang.”

“I had no idea how slow this would go,” Kruse continued. “I thought we would become redundant at some point, but we’re still talking about the same things here.” Her conclusion: “We need to bring in legislation. It’s up to us.”

Her call for regulation was echoed during the sessions. The European Union’s extended producer responsibility scheme, which comes into effect on January 1, 2025, will likely be the first of several steps towards legal responsibility. The legislation will have an industry-wide impact due to the global nature of fashion supply chains. Moreover, it is clear that a line is being drawn, with legislative acts also being discussed in France, California, New York and Australia. Regulations will be introduced and companies will have to figure out how this will affect them.

2. Primark and H&M commit to part of the rental, resale and repair

There was some hope in the form of the Fashion ReModel project, launched by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) at the summit. It sees a coalition of fashion companies, including Primark, Reformation and the H&M Group (which owns Arket, Cos and Weekday), commit to replacing part of their revenue stream from the sale of new goods with income from circular business models: rental , resale and repair. Currently, these models make up 3.5% of the global fashion market, but the EMF says that by 2030 there is the potential for these models to account for 23% of the market and be worth $700 billion.

3. It is possible to grow a business and reduce carbon emissions

This may sound too good to be true, but Ganni, the favorite brand of the Danish It-girls, announced to the audience at home that it had achieved an absolute reduction in CO2 emissions of 7% compared to 2021, while achieving a saw annual revenue growth of 18%, proving it is possible to decouple revenues from carbon.

It is a formula that, with the right expertise, can apparently be adopted by other companies. Ganni co-founder Nicolaj Reffstrup co-authored the Ganni Playbook with journalist Brooke Roberts-Islam and explains how. While he was full of detail about the challenges and financial costs, he kept things more manageable at the summit. When asked what advice he had for other companies looking to decarbonize their supply chains, he simply said, “Just do it.”

4. Brands need to put their money where their mouth is

The slow progress of change is due to a lack of financial commitment to sustainable solutions from brands, according to Peder Michael Anker-Jorgensen, member of the board of the Global Fashion Agenda, which organizes the summit. He said: “1.5% to 2% of operating revenue goes to research and development.” Despite paying lip service to sustainability: “The money is not what it’s about.”

According to Christine Goulay, the founder of consultancy firm Sustainabelle, investment in fashion pales in comparison to that of other sectors. A recent report shows that electronics companies spend 10% to 15% of their revenue on research and development, while pharmaceutical and biotech companies spend 20% to 30%.

5. Brands must be more transparent

The fashion industry is known for working behind closed doors and guarding its secrets. The consensus at the forums was that these isolationist trends have hindered progress toward sustainability, which depends on rethinking interconnected supply chains. “If everyone just takes care of their own little garden without collaboration with the industry, we will never achieve the results,” said Attila Kiss, the CEO of Gruppo Florence, a group that represents luxury manufacturing facilities in Italy.

6. The perspectives of garment workers from the Global South are still missing

Panels often consisted of people representing the business or consumer side of the fashion companies, rather than the farmers and manufacturers who produced fiber and clothing. There is talk about who gets to sit at the table. “When we talk about garment workers, farmers and tannery workers, we need these people to be in the conversation – not just talking about them in the abstract,” says Emma Hakansson, the founder and director of Collective Fashion Justice. In one case, a representative of the Cambodian workforce, Adil Rehman, joined a panel via video due to difficulties obtaining a visa to travel to Copenhagen. “The [summit] must take proactive steps to engage worker communities and representatives and, where appropriate, provide sponsorship and support with visas,” said Olivia Windham Stewart, an independent business and human rights consultant, who moderated the panel. “Otherwise it just becomes a forum for the industry to tell their side of the story.”

7. AI is not the solution

One of the factors determining fashion’s impact on the environment is the enormous number of products that are never worn, due to the time difference between orders, production and retail. Artificial intelligence is often cited as a solution, but Dr. Ahmed Zaidi, the CEO of AI platform Hyran Technologies, said that without overhauling fashion production processes to be more agile and responsive to consumer demand, “the use of AI [as a solution] is like connecting a jet engine to a broken process.” So if anyone thought AI could fix our broken system, think again.

8. Cooperation with indigenous communities is progressing

Despite fashion’s dependence on nature for its most luxurious materials, indigenous and local communities, which are responsible for 80% of the world’s biodiversity, have long been excluded from conversations about corporate sustainability. But there is hope in the form of a new guide. A collaboration between NGO Conservation International and luxury group Kering to help brands collaborate with indigenous communities. This was prompted by a 2022 study by Textile Exchange that found that only 5% of 252 fashion brands surveyed consult indigenous people on their biodiversity plans.

According to Dayana Molina, an activist and indigenous designer at fashion brand Nalimo, it is a first step to “strive forward to create fashion that is cooperative, collaborative and fair.”

On a separate panel, Naiomi Glasses, a seventh-generation Diné (Navajo) textile artist and designer who collaborated with Polo Ralph Lauren on a collection, said she would like to see “more brands embrace telling more stories like mine… The power of collaboration is really beautiful because there are so many stories in crafts and it shows us how indigenous cultures are still here and still thriving.

9. Another next-generation material is here to rival synthetics

By 2023, more than $500 million will be invested in next-generation materials. From mushroom leather to spider silk and viscose made from coconut water: innovations in materials are often heralded as the future of fashion. But the challenges of mass producing them at a competitive price often come as a cold shock to innovators. Yet there is a newcomer on the block. New York-based Bloom Labs makes materials that feel like cotton and silk yet are as functional as polyester, all from protein-rich biomass waste, including pre-consumer discarded wool upcycled from the bedding industry.

10. Fashion must lead or be led

“No one in their right mind would design a system like this,” former Unilever CEO Paul Polman said of the fashion industry’s take, make, waste model. He described making fashion sustainable as “the greatest business opportunity of the century,” and concluded his keynote speech with a phrase that would be repeated by speakers at many upcoming panels: lead or be led.

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