Photography Allessandro Raimondo. Image courtesy of Ahluwalia Studio.

our house is on fire, the fashion industry must do more than talk about the climate crisis

As we make sense of the conversations, solutions and commitments shared at Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2019, it’s clear that radical measures and collaborative action are more urgent than ever.

by Steve Salter
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22 May 2019, 8:00am

Photography Allessandro Raimondo. Image courtesy of Ahluwalia Studio.

"There is no choice here, our planet is on fire,” Dr Martin Frick of The UNFCCC secretariat’s (a special part of the UN which focuses on climate change) warned during the 10th anniversary edition of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. If not quite the panic that Swedish school strike activist and i-D’s The Voice of a Generation Issue cover star Greta Thunberg asked for during her Davos speech, this year’s summit was still marked by a greater sense of urgency than ever before. Why? Because we only have ten years left to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals and to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5C as stipulated by the Paris Agreement and we currently appear doomed to fail.

"We have to be audacious, we have less than 10 years to bend the curve of the climate crisis," Marie-Claire Daveu, Kering’s chief sustainability officer and head of International Institutional Affairs, noted during her panel discussion at the same summit. Time is running out, patiences are being stretched and anger is rising as decisive action is delayed.

Over the course of two days, last week’s summit provided a platform for companies to unveil new solutions to the growing crisis, launch new commitments, collaborate with industry peers and partake in agenda-setting discussion. From sportswear behemoth Nike launching its free manual for sustainable design to provide designers and product creators across the industry with a common language for circularity, Google announcing a partnership with Stella McCartney to measure the environmental impact of the fashion industry and Kering’s François-Henri Pinault revealing that he has been tasked by French president Emmanuel Macron to create a "coalition" of CEOs and leaders in the fashion industry to join forces and set ambitious sustainability targets together, multiple big hitters used the summit to demonstrate positive action. Despite the collection of positive action steps, we were left with the sense that the industry — from designers to CEOs to consumers — can, and must, do more.

There were moments that frustrated too. Throughout the summit, we clocked a number of turn-to-look-at-the-audience slick suit power moves, in which a CEO or executive would celebrate corporate cult-ure but fall short of any commitment to tangible action. Moments that talked about talking, talked about how great their companies are, and talked of the importance of continuing to talk amongst themselves because they're leaders. We simply don’t have time for this.

Of course, the industry has made progress. “When we held the first Summit 10 years ago, few industry leaders recognised the importance of changing the way our industry produces, markets and consumes fashion,” Eva Kruse, CEO and president of Global Fashion Agenda, declared during her address. “Fortunately, its significance is widely recognised today, and sustainability has finally found its way onto the agendas of CEOs. Not only that, more and more companies are beginning to integrate it into their business models.” More and more, but maddeningly, not enough.

The 2019 update of the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, released just before the summit and published by Global Fashion Agenda, Boston Consulting Group and Sustainable Apparel Coalition, demonstrates that while the fashion industry has improved its social and environmental performance in the past year, it’s at a slower rate than previous years and the industry as a whole is growing. There’s a sense of one step forward, ten steps back. Projections suggest that by 2030, the global apparel and footwear industry will have grown by 81%, from 61 tonnes today to 102 million tonnes of product -- the equivalent to more than 500 billion additional T-shirts -- exerting an unprecedented strain on planetary resources. Ultimately, we, both as an industry and as humans on this Earth in terminal decline, are in danger of flatlining.

The 2019 update to Pulse of the Fashion Industry shames the industry, finding that 40% of all fashion companies have not even begun to take sustainability seriously by setting targets and rethinking their supply chain. The publishers call upon industry leaders to increase their pace towards a deeper and more systemic change. “Companies seem to be reaching the limit of what they can achieve alone,” Morten Lehmann, Global Fashion Agenda’s chief sustainability officer and co-author for the report explains. “We need a new paradigm where brands actually work together to share solutions. Otherwise, things are not going to improve fast enough to avert disaster.” It was a sentiment echoed through the summit too. "We can solve the planet's and the industry's biggest issues if we work together and take action now,” Eva Kruse said. “We need bold leadership to accelerate the change and push policymakers to support this journey.”

“We’re seeing lots of people positioning themselves as leaders, wanting to be the first to introduce initiatives but we don’t have time for that. We just have to act together,” Wolfgang Blau, president of Condé Nast International, said; a mic drop that echoed loudly against the corporate speak white noise. "Sustainability is putting the interest of our children beyond our own greed," Paul Polman, Chair of the International Chamber of Commerce and The B Team, declared during his standing ovation-garnering keynote. Making the audience squirm in their seats, he continued, “You have won the lottery ticket of life and you have done nothing with it. It is our duty to serve the 98% less lucky than us. The real question is, do we really care?” he asked. “To solve the issues we face today, we don't have to send people to Mars to find the answers because we have many of the answers. What we are lacking is the right leadership and the human willpower to act.”

We should also ask ourselves, as consumers, whether we are doing enough? While there’s increasing demand for brands to operate more sustainably, it’s still not what’s driving their purchasing decisions. For the average consumer, the biggest considerations remain style and price, “everything else is way down on the scale,” PVH chief executive Emanuel Chirico noted during the summit. “We get so many questions from our customers. People are asking questions about traceability, animal welfare, carbon emissions,” Marie-Claire Daveu, Kering’s chief sustainability officer and head of International Institutional Affairs, noted. “Business people now understand it’s something very important. Even the sales clerks at our boutiques are posing questions.” Similarly, the 2019 update to Pulse of the Fashion Industry showed shoppers are increasingly interested in fashion brands’ eco responsible efforts, with 75% of consumers indicating they view sustainability as either extremely or very important to them.

“You can’t be lazy about this because the future of life on Earth is at stake,” iconic fashion designer Katharine Hamnett urged us all during her on-stage conversation with Tim Blanks. Katherine has spent her four-decade spanning career fighting to make the world a better place. So let’s all be more Katharine. Let’s all be more Greta. Continue to ask the difficult questions. Push back on talk. Demand systemic change. To paraphrase Greta's powerful Davos speech that’s still echoing across the globe and inspiring thousands of activists to join the movement, we want you to act as you would in a crisis. We want you to act as if our house is on fire because it is.