Key Takeaways:

  • The Global Fashion Summit 2023 focused on the need for tangible actions to tackle environmental challenges in the fashion industry.
  • Our industry must balance the mandate for sustainable development with its commitment to economic expansion. We must shift from the traditional, linear ‘take-make-dispose’ model to a circular one that emphasizes reuse and recycling.
  • The fashion industry requires decisive action, effective collaboration, robust investment, complete transparency, comprehensive education, and significant policy changes to transform sustainably.
  • While events like the Global Fashion Summit might not immediately solve every issue, they do play a crucial role in highlighting the dialogue and awareness around the necessity and urgency of sustainability goals.

As worldwide demand for environmental action and social justice intensify, fashion faces a dilemma: how can the industry balance the mandate for sustainable development with its commitment to economic expansion?

Unsurprisingly, this question is high on the agenda of every major industry event. Last week, my colleague at The Interline hosted a series of panel discussions that focused on the practical reality of deploying solutions into the design, development, and sourcing cycle in a way that delivers measurable change.

And the week prior, I took to the stage at The Global Fashion Summit, alongside a roster of industry figures, to discuss how theoretical aspirations around sustainability can be translated into collective action.

These were all timely conversations to have, and both events – among may others – were right to host them. Audiences at both shows were engaged, and the open discussions have noticeably turned from “talk” to “walk” this year.

Global Fashion Summit: Copenhagen Edition – HRH The Crown Princess of Denmark.

But with the current event season coming to an end, I want to explore what happens next, and to draw a baseline from which we can chart the progress of action. Because it will be vital to look back after the next event cycle, and the one that follows, to quantify whether the worthy conversations we’re all having on-stage are translating into the overdue systemic change that’s needed within the fashion ecosystem. And because the necessity and the morality of discussing a subject is not the same as catalysing action.

Ambition to Action: Turning Aspirations into Tangible Solutions

This year’s Global Fashion Summit- Copenhagen Edition revolved around the theme “Ambition to Action“, stressing the pressing need for tangible actions to tackle the fashion industry’s environmental challenges, and the contribution that the industry’s outsize environmental footprint is making towards climate change..

The summit was, first and foremost, a brainstorming platform for industry veterans and upcoming talents, with a diverse range of different roles, backgrounds, and spheres of expertise. The objective was to examine the interconnected issues within the industry and discuss potential solutions – something that has to be a cross-disciplinary effort by definition. The overarching aim was to guide the fashion industry towards a future that is not only profitable but also environmentally friendly. Is that an oxymoron? The answer is complicated. And it’s important to remember that – as I write in mid-2023 – there is no clear, defined direction for action, so while it can seem frustrating on the surface that the industry is still having “debates” about what to do next, those debates still need to be had. Assuming, of course, that the right people are having them and watching them, and that those people then go on to put measurable changes into action.

Global Fashion Summit: Copenhagen Edition – Textile Waste and the global circular economy.

One of the most impactful discussions, from my perspective, occurred in the “Textile Waste and The Global Circular Economy” panel. The experts on-stage here debated the unequal distribution of materials across different global regions, a factor that basically inhibits the implementation of a circular economy. Furthermore, they reviewed strategies and policies designed to combat this issue. This was a practical dissection of a big problem through more manageable pieces, and a discussion that also took account of reality to create a pragmatic perspective on what might actually be possible in the near future. By which I mean, that this was precisely the kind of conversation that ended with clear outcomes and an actionable agenda.

The panellists, including Sammy Oteng, the Senior Community Engagement Manager at The Or Foundation, strongly stressed the need for a true partnership between the Global North and South, rejecting the current exploitative practices that sit at the heart of fashion: the longstanding inequality in standards of living and working between different hemispheres. “People are dying; the local textiles industry is almost dead,” stated Oteng, referring to the ongoing fragility of the global sourcing and supply chain network – something that often flies under the radar in other industry conversations. The discussion also emphasised moving from theory to action, viewing waste as a potential resource, and fostering more equal, genuine global partnerships between consumption and production markets.

Global Fashion Summit: Copenhagen Edition – MomentS in Material Science.

Another highlight from the summit, using our criteria for actionable conclusions, was the discussion about the pivotal role of intelligent material choices in transforming fashion products and systems. In the ‘Moments in Material Science’ panel, industry leaders like Nicolaj Reffstrup, founder of Ganni, and Leila Mashouf and Neeka Mashouf, CTO and CEO respectively of Rubi Laboratories, made powerful arguments. They asserted that more than minor tweaks are needed. What’s required is a revolutionary manufacturing process, one that minimises water and land usage, truly driving meaningful change.

This is another example of where fashion has, for too long, spun its wheels – searching for easy substitutions of better versions of existing materials that do not require a full overhaul of the existing supply chain. Or, to put it another way, fashion has a fear of rocking the boat that – this discussion correctly argued – does not align with the severity of the situation the world is facing, nor fashion’s contribution to it.

Global Fashion Summit: Copenhagen Edition – Moments in Material Science.

Finally, the summit underlined the importance of transparent, responsible communication in sustainability efforts, highlighting the risks of greenwashing and the need for tools like “The Sustainable Fashion Communication Playbook: Shifting the Narrative.” When it comes to translating talk into action, this kind of documentation will be valuable – not just as a way of providing a roadmap for companies facing uncertainty, but as a set of guidelines for accountability in how action on sustainability is measured.

Is the Power of Dialogue Sufficient?

So in a lot of senses, the Global Fashion Summit was progressive in its emphasis on action. And The Interline’s post-event report on Première Vision Paris will probably reach a similar conclusion. But these two shows are just part of a much wider programme of shows and talks, grand and intimate, that aim to foster collaboration among industry leaders, innovators, and stakeholders – all with the shared goal of driving the industry towards a more sustainable, ethical future. Are they all placing the same importance on measurable progress, or are we running the risk of creating an echo chamber where virtuous ideas get discussed but nothing ever really happens?

Some examples of other events off the top of my head: Fashion Revolution Week, the Sustainable Fashion Forum, and the World Ethical Apparel Roundtable. These and many, many others all aim to be spaces for these critical conversations. They want to provide a platform where influencers can share insights, establish partnerships, and work towards actionable strategies in a sustainable fashion.

However, the question remains: Are the discussions stemming from these events powerful and innovative enough to spur substantial change?

Drawing from my experience as a host at the Global Fashion Summit this year, I can attest to these forums’ potential. I believe in the power of dialogue and innovation as a crucial stepping stone to change, but more is needed to incite a significant transformation in the industry’s operations and mindset. What’s needed is the conversion of these ideas into actionable strategies that can redefine the sector’s sustainability approach.

Global Fashion Summit: Copenhagen Edition.

Realising these solutions means navigating tough decisions, investing in sustainable technologies, setting ambitious yet realistic targets, maintaining transparency, and holding stakeholders accountable.

There’s also a pressing need to shift from the traditional, linear ‘take-make-dispose’ model to a circular one that emphasises more on reuse and recycling. Achieving this requires industry-wide commitment, consumer education, and deep engagement.

While the Global Fashion Summit and similar events are integral in sparking conversations and fostering innovation, the real work lies in the industry’s capacity to act on these ideas to drive substantial, sustainable change. And that work happens outside the event calendar, as a constant process of improvements – both iterative and radical.

It’s also crucial to remember that not everyone is represented equally on the global event stage. Some of these forums have been criticised for engaging high-profile stakeholders and speakers, who are permitted to monopolise space at the expense of grassroots workers whose perspectives could significantly enrich the dialogue.

Global Fashion Summit: Copenhagen Edition.

And it’s similarly important to remember that these are industry events – targeted at people who work in and around fashion’s orbit. But as we’ve seen recently, it is essential for fashion to begin to engage end consumers in this dialogue, since the inner workings of fashion supply chains are currently poorly-understood by the buying public, which will hamper both the ability of brands to intelligibly communicate their progress, and the ability of consumers to effectively hold the industry to account when that progress is deemed insufficient.

Simply put, these events need to be more accessible to a broader audience both in-industry and outside, not just those within geographic or financial reach. An increase in virtual access and the active engagement of a diverse range of participants could enhance their impact, and it’s encouraging to see that major events like the Global Fashion Summit and Première Vision Paris are committing to making these discussions available to watch on-demand, for everyone, once the events have concluded.

So while events can be pivotal in propelling the sustainable fashion conversation, they must champion inclusivity, promote actionable outcomes, and uphold transparency and accessibility to effect meaningful, systemic change in the industry.

Post-Event Industry Transformation: A Waiting Game

Platforms like the Global Fashion Summit undoubtedly have the power to shape the fashion industry’s future. Yet, the ultimate transformation into a sustainable future depends on the industry’s ability to convert event discussions and ideas into tangible, practical actions. After such events, ideally, the roadmap towards sustainability should be well-defined. So, what’s the post-event-season plan to ignite the industry’s sustainable transformation?

First, we need actionable policies. Strong industry, national, and international policies are vital to guarantee that businesses comply with sustainability standards. Next, collaboration is vital. The industry should create an atmosphere for sharing knowledge, resources, and best practices to boost collective sustainability progress.

Global Fashion Summit: Copenhagen Edition – The Designer Challenge.

Third, hefty financial investments are required to spark technological and infrastructural changes for a more sustainable supply chain. Transparency and accountability are also pivotal. Businesses need to be clear about their supply chains and take responsibility for their environmental and social impacts. This could be enforced through strict regulations and consumer demands for ethical products.

On a positive note, shifts in consumer behaviour are already triggering industry change. Consumers informed about sustainability and demanding ethically produced goods can drive industry-wide practice adjustments, provided the education and openness I’ve mentioned above happens as a matter of urgency.

Another element is workforce education and training in sustainability. This spans all stages, from design to retail, ensuring everyone understands and can apply sustainable practices. Finally, incentives can encourage businesses to be more sustainable. These incentives can include tax benefits or attractive loan terms.

Global Fashion Summit: Copenhagen Edition.

So, while engaging discussions and creative ideas are fundamental, transforming the fashion industry requires a multi-pronged strategy if we are going to be able to chart real progress from one event season to the next. This encompasses decisive action, effective collaboration, robust investment, complete transparency, comprehensive education, and significant policy changes.

The truth is, any event’s impact on sparking systemic change within the industry can be complex and multifaceted. On the one hand, these events can inspire change by bringing attention to critical issues, setting industry-wide standards, and providing tools and resources for implementation. They also encourage collaboration, foster knowledge-sharing, and motivate industry players to commit to sustainability goals.

On the other, events are not magic wands, and taking part in them is a voluntary exercise; nobody can force the industry’s worst offenders in pollution and human rights to show up to a conversation, mirroring the way that the industry has been largely left to self-regulate until recently. Providing airtime for the conversation, though, is likely to do a lot to present those offenders as outliers in a global fashion community that, largely, recognises the need for action on sustainability – even if not everyone necessarily agrees on the shape of that action.

Global Fashion Summit: Copenhagen Edition.

So, while these types of events might not immediately solve every issue, they do play a crucial role in highlighting the dialogue and awareness around the necessity and the urgency of sustainability goals, as well as providing some indication of how brands, retailers, producers, and partners throughout the supply chain can begin to take action to progress towards those goals now – without waiting for the next event cycle.

What fashion does with that roadmap, and with the outcome of these events, is up to the industry to decide. But what’s clear is that the collective conversation is becoming harder and harder for the industry’s bad actors to ignore. And that is a victory by itself. Let’s hope the industry follows it with more victories before the spring/summer event season begins…