Simultaneous to the rising demand for circular and sustainable production solutions is the growing pressure on fashion brands to react to such significant changes. This topic was one of many discussed as part of the Copenhagen Fashion Week (CPHFW) Talk Series, in cooperation with Vogue Business, with one particular event centred around ‘Innovation in Fashion’.
Led by British Vogue’s senior sustainability and features editor Emily Chan, the panel was made up of Levi Strauss & Co’s Paul Dillinger and Marimekko creative director Rebekka Bay, as well as Renewcell’s sales manager and circular business manager Jenny Fredricsdotter and author of The World Is On Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes Alec Leach. Each of the participants spoke on the opportunities, but also the challenges that come with material innovations and sustainable integration.
The industry’s current structure prevents rapid shifts
One of the more central struggles discussed by the panel was the current financial and seasonal structure of the industry that prevents long-term commitments in the area of sustainability. Such a point was highlighted by Renewcell’s Fredricsdotter, who said that the textile recycling firm was actively seeking brands to sign up to multi-year contracts in order to establish long-term relationships and therefore help the firm scale its operations. This, however, is ultimately a challenge for brands, as noted by Levi’s Dillinger, who said that the financial structure of the industry currently wouldn’t allow for such commitments to take place. He added: “There’s structural economics that are in the way of the scale that [Fredricsdotter] needs, and the economic behaviour of companies like mine makes it reluctant to sign up for these [commitments].””
Barriers in structure were also touched upon by Marimekko’s Bay, who noted that a dramatic shift was needed in order to actually achieve substantial change. Like Dillinger, Bay said that long-term demands were difficult to weigh up for brands, with developing and enforcing policies instead being central to the Finnish label’s ongoing efforts. Bay added that it is hard to predict firstly whether customers are willing to pay the price for eco-friendly produced products, and secondly what the long-term implications of products that have been adopted will be. Furthermore, such commitments would further require the re-education of design teams, Bay explained.
“Every season we need to take a stance on where we can change and how we can commit to bringing change to the market at scale,” she said. “This is a whole shift. I know a lot of design schools are really addressing what this shift means, but we have a huge industry with a lot of history and I think there’s a lot of depth that now needs to shift into this new space. Maybe instead of thinking let’s start with trend, colour and fashion, we need to start with what is available in this space in terms of new materials or dyes. How can we introduce more circularity in our thinking or more closed-loop models? This is not something that [designers] have traditionally trained for.”
Fear of accusation and the need to feel uncomfortable
Dillinger also highlighted that the current need to order in advance makes such long-term processes uncomfortable behaviours for the fashion industry to adopt. He continued: “In order to make meaningful change, we have to start doing things that we’re uncomfortable doing – like off-takes, pre-commits on innovative materials, ensuring these innovators will have a customer for more than just the next season.
For Bay, much of the present limitations came down to the current seasonal fashion calendar, a topic she believes not many people long to talk about. “I always want to discuss the speed of fashion. In order for us to really innovate and know exactly what it is we’re bringing to market, we need more time to develop,” she noted. “It takes more than three to six months, or 12 months, to bring a new material to market and thoroughly test it and understand what the emission impact is. A little bit of the intent is not to bring more, the intent is actually to change and do better, but the current calendar that we’re working with is not really allowing us to put in all the work that it takes to truly change.”
It’s also hard not to speak on sustainable integration without discussing greenwashing, a topic that Dillinger said should be approached without ultimately disincentivising innovation. He noted that the inclusion of certification makes lawyers, designers and a brand’s sustainability team feel comfortable putting claims on a product, however with innovations that are really new, putting a stamp of approval on is often not yet possible, making it a substantial risk for a brand to then adopt it into its offering. When it comes to opting for such uncertified innovations, Dillinger said: “Do we continue using it, or do we wait until it reaches critical mass and you can try to drive it forward? If Levi’s isn’t going to get behind it, it’s not going to get to this critical mass. Although we need to be mindful of never saying anything that is not true, we must also be prepared to do things that are as yet unproven.”
He continued: “If the timidity and fear of greenwashing accusations start to impact all of our future behaviour, if we don’t act with some degree of courage or authenticity and empathy, I don’t think we’re going to make any change happen. Continue to sue away the people who you think are lying, and then try to parse out the people who you think are telling the truth.”