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Global Fashion Summit: Sustainability in the spotlight, but ‘less talk, more action’ needed

By Huw Hughes


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Credits: Global Fashion Summit

More than 1,000 representatives from fashion brands, retailers, NGOs, policymakers, and manufacturers returned to Copenhagen this week for the 2023 edition of the Global Fashion Summit.

The event brought together some of the world’s biggest fashion conglomerates including PVH and VF Corp, luxury groups LVMH and Kering, sportswear giants Nike and Puma, and smaller innovative textile start-ups like Circulose.

The summit, first launched by Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) back in 2009, looks to tackle some of the industry's most pressing issues concerning social and environmental sustainability, with this year dominated by talk of new laws and regulation looking to crack down on bad practices across supply chains.

On the first day of the event, which took place from June 27 to 28 inside the Danish capital’s expansive Concert Hall venue, the summit’s CEO Federica Marchionni spoke with optimism against a bleak backdrop of mounting environmental disasters globally, such as wildfires and flash floods.

“We are presented with an opportunity to reimagine and innovate the entire value chain, from sustainable sourcing and manufacturing practices, to ethical labour standards and conscious consumerism, so we can subvert our current path,” she said.

Federica Marchionni Credits: Global Fashion Summit

Announcements and launches

In addition to fostering much-needed conversations about the industry’s many damaging practices, the summit also served as the launch pad for various tools and frameworks to help guide the fashion industry towards sustainability.

For example, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and UN Climate Change launched The Sustainable Fashion Communication Playbook, while Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) launched the Global Textiles Policy Forum, a platform to help companies and governments align on a sustainability pathway for the industry and global policy frameworks.

Brands also used the event to announce new sustainable initiatives, targets, and products. Footwear turned apparel brand Allbirds, for example, revealed what it claims to be a “net zero carbon shoe”, alongside a toolkit to allow rivals to draw inspiration from its innovation.

M0.0NSHOT sneaker Credits: Allbirds

This idea of sharing ideas and innovations was one of the most prevalent themes at this year’s summit amid mounting pressure from consumers, investors, and policymakers for more environmental action.

Industry collaboration is key

“In-person gatherings are essential to build relationships and further mobilise people around key topics,” Eva von Alvensleben, the executive director and secretary general of The Fashion Pact, told FashionUnited.

Launched at the G7 Summit in France in 2019, The Fashion Pact is a voluntary initiative in which brands and textile industry players commit to three key environmental goals: stopping global warming, restoring biodiversity, and protecting the oceans.

Eva von Alvensleben Credits: Global Fashion Summit

Alvensleben emphasised the need for alliances and collective actions, acknowledging the complexity of the challenges faced by the industry. She added that there is “no other way forward than through collective on-the-ground actions at industry level”.

And that idea of taking real, tangible action - rather than making yet more empty promises or vague targets - was widely discussed both on and off the stage at the Global Fashion Summit. And it needs to happen quickly.

‘Window of opportunity closing’

“Our industry is making some positive progress in recent years, but this collective work needs to be accelerated to align with the global 1.5-degree CO2 goal by 2050,” the summit’s CEO Marchionni said. We still have the opportunity to achieve that, she said, but stressed that “the window of opportunity is closing quickly. This is indeed a decisive decade in our history of humankind”.

Nicolaj Reffstrup, the founder of Danish brand Ganni, shared a similar sentiment. “I wish there would be less talk and more action,” he said, referring to the speed at which the industry is shifting to more sustainable practices.

Ganni was one of several companies showcasing innovative new materials at the summit. The brand teamed up with California-based start-up Rubi to unveil a pioneering “carbon-negative cellulosic textile”, which it said is made directly from carbon emissions through “a fully enzymatic process”.

Carbon-made yarn Credits: Ganni/Rubi

Reffstrup stressed the importance of forums like the Global Fashion Summit “as platforms bringing together C-level decision makers and trying to nudge them to make proper tangible decisions”.

Regulation - a much-needed game changer

It is increasingly evident that relying solely on the good intentions of brands is not enough to clean up the fashion industry. Tougher laws and regulation will be crucial in enforcing real change, and this imperative was a key topic at the Global Fashion Summit, succinctly summarised by this year’s theme, ‘Ambition to Action’.

And signs of real progress in the regulatory landscape are beginning to take shape, offering a glimmer of hope of true change in an industry long plagued by bad practices hidden behind glittering marketing campaigns and remedied - when exposed - by PR apologies and vapid promises of rectification.

Just this month, the European Parliament voted in favour of a draft law to ensure large companies crack down on suppliers not following certain rules in terms of their social and environmental practices. Over a dozen pieces of legislation are currently being worked on to improve the textile sector, addressing critical areas such as greenwashing and fibre-to-fiber recyclability.

Investment needed for brands to keep up

Speaking about the EU strategy for sustainable and circular textiles at the summit, environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius said: “Textiles are global, so we need to fully face the consequences of that. For too long, challenges have been ‘out of sight, out of mind’, but doing nothing is no longer an option.”

Virginijus Sinkevičius Credits: Global Fashion Summit

Of course, the advent of such sweeping new regulation will pose significant challenges for companies, necessitating substantial investments in areas such as enhanced data collection across their supply chains.

“There is an enormous data gap across the entire value chain in this industry,” said James Schaffer, the chief strategy officer at data platform Worldly. “We need new tools, new thinking. We need to be measuring the right things.”

Worldly, formerly called Higg, rebranded this year as it expanded its product range beyond the Higg Index suite of tools, which was developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). Last year, SAC paused its consumer-facing Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) after it was declared not a sufficient basis for environmental marketing claims by the Norwegian Consumer Authority (NCA). The SAC has since released updates to the MSI.

Sustainability and greenwashing have increasingly been seen to go hand in hand in recent years. After all, as environment commissioner Sinkevičius put it: “Green sells.” However, the 2023 edition of The Global Fashion Summit again emphasised that the days of superficial sustainability claims and unethical practices may be drawing to a close as policies will force businesses to clean up their act.

Eva von Alvensleben of The Fashion Pact stressed the need to embrace joint approaches and collaborative thinking across the value chain. “This means we need to include all stakeholders in the conversations from suppliers and manufacturers to retailers and brands,” she said.

“Regulation will play a key role in providing us all with a clear framework.”

Fashion Pact
Global Fashion Agenda
Global Fashion Summit
Sustainable Fashion