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Copenhagen Fashion Summit explores the need for sustainable future

New forms of raw materials, the circular economy and effective recycling methods were all key themes at the 2018 Copenhagen Fashion Summit on 15-16 May.

The event, which focuses on sustainability in fashion, brought together retailers including Asos, Burberry and Nike alongside sustainability experts such as Ellen MacArthur, Stella McCartney and Orsola de Castro, founder of campaigning body Fashion Revolution.

MacArthur said: “There are three key elements [to sustainable fashion]. First are the inputs – we need safe, non-toxic renewable materials. Secondly, when making garments we need to keep them in the system for longer – making better-quality clothes and repairing them. Third, clothing at the end of the system can be recycled and turned into new clothing.”

MacArthur’s charity, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, released a report on the circular economy in fashion in November 2017, and Nike is one of the 93 brands who have pledged to invest in and create a circular fashion system. Its ultimate aim is to only use recycled materials in new products – at the moment, 75% of all Nike footwear and apparel products incorporate recycled materials.

Nike’s chief operating officer Eric Sprunk said: “Nike has taken a bit of a journey to get here. In the late 90s, the headlines were about our labour practices and not much else. We were appropriately criticised for not listening and not caring. At that time, we saw compliance only as a risk.”

In 2005 Nike disclosed the location of all its factories, and, in 2009, it made sourcing and manufacturing teams responsible for the environmental impact of their decisions, including the well-being of workers. It has also increased its use of renewable energy and by the end of 2019 will be powered entirely by renewable energy across North America. By 2025 this will be the case across all Nike-owned or Nike-operated facilities worldwide.

Sprunk said: “Sustainability has to be the new frame through which to view every innovation and every business model.”

Mapping and auditing

The first step towards a sustainable future for many brands is to audit their supply chain to discover where the environmental problems are. Pamela Batty, vice-president for corporate responsibility at Burberry, said the luxury fashion designer started an assessment of its supply chain in 2012, which led to its first sustainability strategy. It is now working on using more sustainable raw materials, and in 2017 the Burberry Foundation made a £3m grant to the Royal College of Art to establish the Burberry Materials Futures Research Group, aimed at developing new sustainable materials.

Batty said: “Innovation is going to be the key to helping our industry move to a more sustainable model.”

Culture of secrecy

Orsola de Castro, founder of campaigning body Fashion Revolution, said there is a cultural barrier around fashion’s sustainability problem: “The fashion supply chain is built on secrecy. It’s inefficient and opaque. The entire culture of fashion is built on elitism and closed doors, and we are disrupting that.”

Fashion Revolution tracks the transparency of the world’s 150 biggest brands and says, of those, 55% disclose their environmental goals but only 37% share their human rights goals. Of those who share their environmental goals, only half disclose their progress.

Paul Dillinger, vice-president and head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss, said brands are unlikely to share meaningful and comparable information unless they are required to: “There’s a regulatory consideration. We need to make it an expectation that everyone lives up to the standard. We need real collaboration around a clear vision, so everybody is working in the same direction.”

Dillinger added that fashion needs to rethink its approach to throw-away products: “Six out of ten products end up in landfill within the first year of production. Should we have made those six?”

Cecilia Strömblad-Brännsten, environmental sustainability manager at H&M, said one key element of success is to set ambitious goals: “By 2030 we will only use recycled materials. Setting big, ambitious goals is a way to gain momentum internally and show a strong signal to our supply chain. It’s also a good way to engage with our customers.”

Speakers at the summit agreed that sustainability needs to be spread throughout the business. Bill McRaith, chief supply chain officer at PVH, which owns brands including Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, said it is the “bad and shameful” behaviour of brands that needs to be put under the spotlight, rather than suppliers.

“It’s too easy to blame suppliers when something goes wrong – we need to look in the mirror. The supply base looks like what we created,” he said, adding that the focus for PVH is internal KPIs and metrics: “We’re looking internally at KPIs that measure how good a job we’re doing. You can’t hold your suppliers to a higher standard than you.”

He said teams including, design, planning, merchandise and sourcing all need to be incentivised on sustainability.

Importance of storytelling

Model Amber Valletta, who co-hosted the conference, said that brands are too often shy of speaking out about their achievements around sustainability: “There’s too much perfectionist paralysis to speak about little things. They’re afraid they’re going to get backlash because they’re not doing enough. We’re hurting ourselves by being too black and white.”

She added storytelling is the best way to both educate people and change the way they think.

Stella McCartney said during the conference that becoming sustainable is both costly and time-consuming: “It takes up more time in my company than creating product… [we’re] just being decent human beings and having a decent label practice, [but] it’s a big problem because there are very few people that are doing that.”

The designer uses no animal products in her products (including glue), no PVC because of the cancerous chemicals it requires workers to handle, and no viscose, because it uses material from the 150 million trees that the fashion industry chops down every year.The answer to the sustainability issue, she said, is collaboration.

This was echoed by several speakers – as Target’s vice-president of responsible sourcing, Amanda Nusz, said: “The problem is too big to solve alone.”

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