Copenhagen Fashion Week (CPHFW) has just wrapped while New York Fashion Week starts today. Women’s Wear Daily reports that despite Covid-19 complications, sustainability hails loud and proud from the Nordics. The WWD article announced that the 2023 Sustainable Requirements put forth by CPHFW in 2020 are being adopted by more regional organizations such as the Icelandic Fashion Council, the Norwegian Fashion Hub and Oslo Runway. Yet, for the American fashion Industry, sustainability remains the elephant in the room. Could New York adopt similar requirements?
As a “recovering” American fashion designer myself (my own wardrobe has literally pulled the closet down from the studs, twice!) I acknowledge the different challenges American mega-brands face across the value chain, from over manufacturing to over consumption. It takes a lot to steer big ships and there are many moving parts including changing consumer behavior.
An Unfashionable History of Too Much
Of course, this is not a new problem. In 1991, activist Jeff Ballinger published a report detailing sweatshop conditions in Nike’s Indonesian factories. The report activated blowback against the unethical manufacturing practices in the industry often attributed to large scale production at minimum cost of labor, but that was only the beginning.
In 1999, author and former senior special writer at the Wall Street Journal, Teri Agins, wrote The End of Fashion, a history of diminishing value brought on by fast fashion, overproduction, and over extended licensing, which has brought the fashion industry where it is today.
In 2007, Dana Thomas, contributing writer at British Vogue and former style writer for New York Times Style Magazine, described how luxury became an “off-the-rack, global commodity” in her book, Deluxe How Luxury Lost its Luster. Thomas also attributes over licensing and over production leading to diluted value, market saturation and focus on the bottom line to the detriment of high-end luxury.
And in 2015, Netflix made the mainstream public aware of The True Cost of Fashion detailing how fast fashion has cost us more than we bargained for. To summarize the elephant in the room, overproduction, over-licensing, saturation of the market, diluted market share and sameness have stagnated the industry.
As mentioned, it takes a lot to steer big ships, which is why fashion has unique problems to solve when it comes to viable sustainability across manufacturing and distribution. By implication, American brands should wield a high level of influence to set standards and make demands towards change. However, the challenge then becomes dealing with the complexity of changing a long chain system from end-to-end while it’s still in operation. Unlike Nordic companies that operate on a smaller scale in smaller markets. However, the smaller brands of the Nordics often lament the challenge to influence manufacturing practices. With small run collections and production assortment, it is hard to have much clout when it comes to setting regulation standards or making demands of factories in other countries.
Further, business by nature must be profitable in order to be sustainable. Low-cost / high volume / high return models don’t allow for the long-term investment required to adopt sustainable practices on a large scale. This is where regional policy has influence to subsidize innovation in geographical aspects of the industry. Stakeholders must consider the possibility of a new and evolved return on the investment (ROI). For example, If the industry were to adopt the triple bottom line inherent to the Nordic way of doing business and take small steps towards sustainable values, new models of business can begin to flourish.
Over the past four years I have engaged with Nordic fashion organizations in collaboration with the Norwegian and Danish Consulate General of New York. From Oslo, to Copenhagen and back to New York, I can honestly recognize that America does indeed have a unique challenge when it comes to the fashion industry. However, If NYFW and CHPFW can begin the same process CPHFW took to analyze first steps towards reducing negative impacts, innovating the business model and accelerating industry change, we could see significant improvements in 3-5 years.
Last August, I had the pleasure of attending CPHFW and joining Creative Denmark for the launch of their white paper, Sustainability by Design. Having the opportunity to see, first hand, how Danish fashion brands plan to take even the smallest steps towards responsible manufacturing was extremely inspiring. The message is clear, we need stronger industry alignment as well as partnership between government and private sector interests. Beginning with a set of standards and guidelines, NYFW can go a long way to initiating large-scale change. Taking responsibility must first occur industry wide and globally in order to truly move towards sustainability.
“… We talk about responsibility rather than sustainability because there’s really nothing sustainable about fashion,” said Barbara Potts, Co-Founder of Saks Potts (WWD).
We have to begin, and that means mapping small and achievable steps. The development of CPHFW 2023 Sustainability Requirements is a great place to start. Effective as of January 2023, the requirements stipulate that brands must achieve a minimum of 18 standards within six interlinked focus areas covering the value chain: strategic direction, design, smart material choices, working conditions, consumer engagement and shows. What if NYFW were to adopt its own version of standards within the same six focus areas?
The Six Interlinked Focus Areas:
- STRATEGIC DIRECTION
This area requires strategic action on international standards for human rights, environment and climate. From diversity and equality at the management level to not destroying unsold merchandise. This includes circular systems, investing in new technologies, optimizing logistics and knowledge sharing as part of new strategic requirements.
This area focuses on the design process to increase the quality and value of products economically and materially, and educate the consumer of these values.
- SMART MATERIAL CHOICES
Among developing innovative solutions, this area requires at least 50% of collections to be certified, organic, upcycled or recycled and have a preferred materials list in place.
- WORKING CONDITIONS
This area challenges existing social inequalities and the negative impacts of employment in the fashion industry with a call for human interaction, a sense of community and the appreciation of human life.
- CONSUMER ENGAGEMENT
This area encourages brands to rethink current business models and to inform customers of the fast consumption of fashion that is deeply rooted in societal, behavioral, psychological and economic values and urgently influences consumer engagement.
Requires zero waste or actions to offset carbon footprint while participating in shows.
While the requirements establish challenging guidelines to achieve, they are flexible enough for brands to work towards without being eliminated from fashion week participation. Keeping the requirements top of mind empowers brands to move forward. If NYFW were to adopt the requirements it could affect the industry more quickly. If big brands took small actions to fundamentally change manufacturing alone, the industry could move forward on a global scale.
Go Big on Going Small
As mentioned in my article last year at this time, President Biden would have been the first U.S. president to appoint a “fashion czar” on private sector and policy partnership for the industry. It is important that the public and private sector work together to establish a set of standards, defining action points and moving forward with protocols to affect change across supply chains, production, and working conditions.
CPHFW has identified a foundational framework that is agile and applicable. If NYFW adopts and scales a new framework, innovative companies can be both profitable and sustainable. By going big on going small NYFW and CPHFW could make significant gains towards a more sustainable fashion industry.