Global Fashion Summit Highlighted Need to Shift Eurocentric View of Sustainability

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COPENHAGENThe warning was writ large on the walls ahead of the Global Fashion Summit: eight years to go.

Calling for speed and scale, speakers at the summit, titled “Alliances for a new era,” at the Copenhagen Opera House did not mince words to spell out what the fashion industry needs to do.

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In short: act now in a concerted effort to accelerate change ahead of the 2030 deadline or face the music as already dire consequences to humans, businesses and the planet continue to snowball.

In the face of cascading crises that could turn sustainability into an afterthought, Global Fashion Agenda chief executive officer Federica Marchionni urged attendees to “be courageous to use the power [to shape the course of change], lead with purpose to inspire stakeholders, be positive actors of humankind.”

Over the course of two days, the industry was called upon not to wait to take a first step and to leverage alliances in the pre-competitive space.

This edition also marked the introduction of the GFA Monitor Report, which presents guidance toward a net positive fashion industry with insights from partners including Higg, the Fair Labor Association and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Brands and retailers took advantage of the event to unveil their latest initiatives, including Bottega Veneta’s launch of a plan dedicated to selling past-season accessories on its e-commerce; the progressive rollout of digital IDs with traceability at Mulberry, and fast-fashion player Shein’s commitment of $50 million over five years to an EPR fund that will go toward communities that are most impacted by textile waste in partnership with The Or Foundation.

The Apparel Impact Institute also revealed Lululemon, H&M Group, H&M Foundation and The Schmidt Family Foundation as the first to commit to the new $250 million Fashion Climate Fund to support decarbonization and modernization of the industry’s supply chain.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a stronger global awareness of sustainability issues, by exposing the structural fragility in our systems and reinforcing existing social injustice, said Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, patron of Global Fashion Agenda and the summit, adding that the crisis had demanded “real-time actions and long-term thinking.”

Asked if sustainability efforts could be derailed, Puma’s head of corporate sustainability Stefan Seidel agreed with the Danish royal that the pandemic, for one, had instead brought a heightened awareness but that efforts needed to continue.

“We have crossed the stage where you can backtrack,” he added, saying that the climate crisis’ prevalence in the media and even education made it difficult to escape.

After all, “never have we had the science that tells us where we are, where we need to go…the technology and knowledge needed to actually do something about the triple planetary crisis [of pollution, loss of biodiversity and climate change]…a public understanding of what needs to happen,” said Niclas Svenningsen, manager for climate action outreach at UNFCCC.

Policy and regulations were seen as a pathway to level the field in favor of good actors and ensure fair practices across fashion’s value chain, a much-discussed topic at this year’s GFS especially in the wake of the European Commission’s textile strategy launched on March 30.

“Textiles have on average the fourth-biggest impact on the environment and climate change from a consumption perspective. Only food, housing and mobility have higher impacts and these have been regulated for years, if not decades,” commented Lars Fogh Mortensen, circular economy and textiles expert at the European Environment Agency.

Another point that came up was the need to shift perception from a “net-zero” goal toward “net positive” — in words as well as deeds — pointed out William McDonough, one of the pioneers of the “cradle to cradle” design model.

“When we’ve overshot these planetary boundaries, frankly, the only business model that should be acceptable is the one that is restorative, reparative, regenerative — and that is actually what we call net positive,” said author and former Unilever chief executive officer Paul Polman.

With fiber choices still concentrating two-thirds of the impact of a garment, Nike’s sustainability design lead Noah Murphy-Reinhertz advised peers to “step away from the tyranny of small differences” in their choices, especially given exciting developments such as biofabrics or textile-to-textile materials.

Circularity continues to be the ideal path — although we are still decades away, rued Mustafain Munir, director of Cyclo Recycled Fibers.

In the meantime, eco-design was named several times as a significant advance, as well as secondhand, which Vestiaire Collective’s CEO Max Bittner called the “only scalable solution that can avoid pollution.”

He added that a key mind-set shift would be to see items as assets rather than consumables, a situation that can only emerge if brands “do a good job” to get consumers to invest.

And the industry shouldn’t expect easy outs — not even the metaverse.

Marchionni deemed it “an opportunity, not the solution” in the quest to decouple growth from the use of natural resources, ahead of a panel discussing its potential where Evelyn Mora, founder of Helsinki Fashion Week and metaverse-oriented company Digital Village, cautioned to “be very careful of how you communicate about these words, space and tools, because very easily it can go wrong” without traceable, clear communication on the ins and outs of this new field.

Transparency and voluntary disclosure were also mentioned multiple times as antidotes to greenwashing. “If the targets are out there, it’s a lot harder to backpedal,” said Ganni cofounder Nicolaj Reffstrup, who also took part in a case study on carbon in-setting, which highlights the sustainable practices the Danish brand has put in place in its supply chain.

Asked to define what a sustainable brand is, Joy Howard, CEO and founder of modular outerwear label Early Majority, said it had to “be an activist brand, supporting its employees’ activism with executive activism.”

The same holds true for larger groups, where having top management involved in sustainable questions is the cornerstone for progress, said Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability and institutional affairs officer at Kering.

Sustainability was good for ethics and business reasons, she said as “more and more asset managers [and] financial analysts…are asking questions on sustainability — not just environmental but social — and thinking about expectations of clients, above all Millennial and Gen-Z, who are expecting and even demanding [this] from brands, especially in luxury.”

Investors will therefore have to be willing to go on that journey, said Howard. “[They] have to realize that a true alternative is going to be different…not this supply-driven model that quickly aggregates demand through a Web 2.0 platform,” she added.

But to leverage all this into tangible results, all stakeholders need be included in discussions, cautioned Shams Mahmud, managing director of Bangladesh-based textile mill Shasha Denims, quipping that “before [the pandemic], we were best friends [with brands] and once it happened, we were treated like ex-wives.”

When it comes to regulations, “Eurocentric principles and standards and talks [cannot] be pushed down onto everyone,” according to Mahmud.

Hence the Global Fashion Summit’s decision to hold an edition in Southeast Asia in the later part of the year, said Marchionni, in a bid to foster “honest conversations that come through trust” for greater representation.

“The way to ensure that workers who are less represented [in the European context of the GFS in Copenhagen] are included in a transition from the linear to circular economy has to be just, social is by putting pressure on companies to support manufacturers [engaging in good practices],” she continued.

Fashion’s outsized impact on the Global South sees human costs enmeshed with environmental consequences and a still-skewed Western worldview.

Take Ghana and its population of 32 million, which receives some 50 million garments every week that are then sold to local businesses.

“When a retailer in [Ghana’s Kantamanto Market] buys a bale, she is subsidizing a job for someone in the Global North,” said The Or Foundation cofounder and director Liz Ricketts.

Not only is seeing secondhand clothing as a source of job creation in Africa a narrative driven by a colonial mentality, but fiber-to-fiber recyclers and brands expecting to receive the material for little-to-no money is “disaster capitalism. It’s leveraging the desperation of people who’ve lost the most to try to treat waste as a free resource,” she said.

Plus “nobody wants white people’s yellow stains, seriously,” later deadpanned designer Bobby Kolade, whose brand Buzigahill aims to revitalize Uganda’s once-thriving textile industry by turning secondhand clothing into new designs.

He pointed out that the narrative about sourcing left out end-of-life management, beyond dumping cast-offs elsewhere. “At the end of the day, whatever you upcycle or any recycled fibers you make is going to end up in [Uganda], inhibiting our progress,” he continued.

Applauding Shein’s recognition of their role in the global textile waste issue, he reiterated the fact that its management was big business. “It’s 2022. Africa is not a charity box.…There is a lot of money flowing there and it’s not reaching us,” he said.

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