The Global Fashion Summit Unlocked

Earlier this week I attended the Global Fashion Summit 2024: Copenhagen Edition. It was a joy to be invited to one of the biggest events in sustainable fashion! I went along as press, for my role as a fashion blogger and contributor to Sustainably Influenced. For my part, I wanted to go along and be a sponge; to soak everything up. And there was a lot to drink in! I’ve now distilled my thoughts on the event overall, and shared the running themes here for you to absorb. There’s highlights, lowlights, and progress to be made. Let me know what you thought of the event – or my summary – in the comments. Oh and thank you to Organic Basics for dressing me for the event!

Global Fashion Summit 2024: My Thoughts

Fashion Talks The Talk

The theme for this year’s Global Fashion Summit was ‘Unlocking solutions to fashion’s biggest sustainability barriers’. Many of the keynotes began with the usual introductions, puff-piece case studies, and then wider discussions around unlocking new solutions. It felt very corporate, very polite, and surprisingly, very status quo. Most talks were centred around progressive topics – ending oversupply, elevating the consumer-citizen role, indigenous partnership – and yet many barely scratched the surface. I would have loved some longer conversations, or deep-dives into certain topics, and there was a palpable time pressure throughout the event. In fact, it often came down to the stages’ hosts – Nadir Nahdi and Sophia Li – to pull out a key moment or concept after the talks concluded.

To further ‘unlock’ these topics, most panels would end with calls for more collaboration, or better legislation. I felt this fell short of such a progressive event – are we really not there yet? As Eva Kruse, Executive at Pangaia, said on the refreshingly frank 15 Years of Activating Impact panel: “That’s not what we meant with circularity. It wasn’t the idea that we were going to talk about the same things, 15 years in!”

At both the Global Fashion Summit, and the British Fashion Council’s Institute of Positive Fashion Forum, I listened to speeches from men with job titles like “future thinker”, “fashion luminary”, “regenerative wizard” (I may have made that last one up). And I think that tells you how out of touch some of the big fashion businesses are. These magical men will sit on stages and tell you about all the cool things they’ve talked about at their respective companies. But when they represent a brand that hasn’t signed the International Accord, or their CEO is a literal billionaire, that talk isn’t quite as meaningful. Not when we’re talking about ethics, equality, parity, community, and how progress is slow, 15 years after this event first started.

What’s The Bigger Picture?

I think this ‘bigger picture’ reframing needed to be applied to much of the event. At Tipping the Scale on Circular Material Adoption, big brands wheeled out small circular enterprises to show off tokenistic collaborations. Amanda Nusz, Senior VP of Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability at Target, waxed lyrical about their Car Seat Trade-in Program, which has saved 17,690 tonnes of waste going to landfill in its 8 years of operation. This sounds great, until you compare it to the 1,100,000+ tonnes of waste Target produces annually.

On the Tackling Transparency: From Farms to Fabric panel, Tara Luckman of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, reeled off statistics that framed cotton production by Trust Protocol growers in a positive light: reduction in soil loss of 79%, water efficiency up 14%, energy use down by 20%, greenhouse gas emissions down 21%, etc. Yet on another panel, a panellist simply said, “We haven’t even solved cotton yet! Less than 1% is organic. Less than 1% is recycled. Only 20% is Better Cotton Initiative certified.” (And even BCI certification has its issues, with links to deforestation and human rights abuses).

And that was what was missing from the event – cross-pollination on panels, with voices representing different players in industry, with different approaches, and different perspectives. The one refreshingly different panel was Luxury, Leather and Land, where Emma Håkansson of Collective Fashion Justice argued for a just transition away from cattle rearing for leather production, while Kering refused to budge on its choice of leather over bio-leather. It made me ask of the rest of the event – how can we expect to make progress without challenging the status quo?

Overproduction Is The Enemy

A consistent theme that cropped up across the two days of the Global Fashion Summit was the fashion industry’s need to “rule out bad actors”. In almost all discussions, the finger was pointed at fast fashion (save for Dr. Ahmed Zaidi of Hyran Technologies, who unashamedly denied the existence of fast fashion during the Ending Oversupply panel, much to the chagrin of other panellists).

Despite the presence of H&M, Mango, and Nike at the event, it seemed most speakers hailed from independent, high end, or luxury fashion, and would happily call out fast fashion businesses – or in two cases, reference the viral SNL Fast Fashion skit that came out the same week.

Despite actively campaigning against fast fashion, it left me feeling conflicted. Kering ranks at #9 in the world’s biggest clothing companies by market cap. In fact, three of the top 10 are luxury fashion businesses. In order to grow to this size, these brands are operating well past planetary limits. And even worse – many are profiting from the fast fashion business model. Look at the high street brand collabs, the outlet store ranges. Look at viral fashion moments – so many of them are centred around luxury.

I agree that fast fashion has to stop. As I said in my guide to fast fashion, it will never be sustainable. But I don’t think we should hold an “us vs. them” mentality. Everyone needs to do better, to produce less, and realise value in better practices.

Luxury Fashion Is Scared Of Change

Luxury fashion isn’t inherently sustainable. So why aren’t all high end fashion brands elevating sustainable practices to a degree that would align them with quality and luxury? We did hear from a few brands that are doing this – Another Tomorrow, Cecilie Bahnsen, Pangaia – but I believe many of the established luxury fashion houses know they stand to make more money from not doing so, and so, don’t.

At this event, I began to see how luxury fashion emulates its own customers, shying away from making a fashion faux pas by simply not trying to do anything differently. So many brands are so very comfortable with the status quo, and despite the progressively-titled conversations being had at Global Fashion Summit, this still rang true.

Why are we not using fashion’s very persuasive value-add marketing and applying it to sustainable fashion? Because it’s cheaper and less scary not to. It simply costs less to keep things as they are. This stagnant, conservative approach needs to be reframed as exactly what it is: Gross. Uncool. From a boomer generation. And it’s condemning future generations to an unliveable existence.

More Seats At The (Global Fashion Summit) Table

And that leads me onto access and representation. Global Fashion Summit did well in representing some lesser-visible members of the fashion community, while also missing key voices and entire demographics across its attendees. I think the Global Fashion Agenda team did a brilliant job in providing a platform to different players on-stage, with representatives from different countries, sectors, and backgrounds, alongside members of indigenous communities, farmers, and Danish creatives. But I still felt the event lacked diversity, especially people with disabilities, those in the LGBTQ+ community, and youth voices.

One area I was pleased to see at Global Fashion Summit was the opportunity for influencers to join the discussion. I was invited to be part of the Impactful Influence Roundtable, hosted by Global Fashion Agenda and UNEP. The aim? To translate the Sustainable Fashion Communications Playbook into a tool that will encourage the average influencer to take a more sustainable approach to fashion.

How do we get the average influencer engaged? While there was much discussion on the topics of fair compensation, unsustainable social media marketing, and thirst trapping (!), I believe this question was actually answered the day prior, at the Elevating The Consumer-Citizen Role discussion.

In response to the question “How do we get the average consumer engaged in sustainable fashion?”, Daphne Seybold of Sky High Farm Universe listed three points:

  • Be as good as the alternative;
  • Appeal to mainstream wants, and;
  • Make bold connections.

And I think this is truly the way. If sustainable fashion is to succeed, it has to be as good as mainstream, to appeal to the same wants and needs that traditional fashion answers, and to be bold in its approach. I also think influencers hold the key with influencing positive behaviour change – look at the WHO and their use of influencers at the start of the covid-19 pandemic. Influencers speak to that same appeal, provide a boldness in their content, and embody the power of word-of-mouth marketing while speaking to thousands of followers.

Experiences > Stuff

Finally, one positive through-line I discovered at this year’s Global Fashion Summit had to be the values shift from new product to new experiences.

In Ending Oversupply, Eva Karlsson of Houdini Sportswear touted “moving back from a transactional way of doing business to a relational way” as the answer to slowing down the fast fashion model. It seems altruistic, but I think she’s right. People like people. I like watching jewellery makers on TikTok, and going behind the scenes to showcase how socks are made. And if we can find a way to better harness this to encourage positive behaviour change, there may well be a better chance for fashion to fall in line with the Global Goals.

Vanessa Friedman, Fashion Director at The New York Times, rounded this out, telling the fashion brands in the room: “There are other ways to make money than simply producing more and selling more. You can leverage your position as a tastemaker. You can give access to experiences. We need to free ourselves from the shackles of stuff, and use our creativity, to get somewhere else.”

My Key Takeaways From Global Fashion Summit

I came away from the two days of back-to-back talks feeling a little overwhelmed. It’s taken a day to read over my notes, rewatch a few talks, and write the best part of this post to realise that the answers are all there – they just need someone to hold the big players to account.

Better legislation is coming. Extended Producer Responsibility is coming. Digital Product Passports are coming. The Green Claims Code is coming. (More here.) And while their roll-out is still patchy, costly, and likely inefficient, it’s a damn sight more than what we got with the UK Government’s response to the Fixing Fashion Report.

More investment in R&D is possible. The money is there. Peder Michael Jorgensen of Global Fashion Agenda noted that 1-2% operating income is invested in R&D, and it’s not enough to make change happen. “You need to make 20 bets knowing 19 will fail.” he put bluntly.

Carbon needs to be accounted for. And I mean accounted for, as in, have a monetary figure attributed to it. We need to frame carbon as a business cost, alongside its general environmental impact. I’d go as far as saying we need a carbon tax. However, we do also need to decouple saving money and saving the planet. Money isn’t everything.

Fashion should own their products, across their lifecycles. Vanessa Friedman very astutely pointed out that fashion brands shouldn’t just “stand behind your product until it leaves the store”, but instead take a vested interest into fashion rental, resale, and recycling, adding value to new and old products alike. And bigger than this – fashion shouldn’t just sell products. It should find value in experiences.

Fashion needs to apply its best creativity to sustainability. “You might buy an ugly carrot, you won’t buy an ugly jacket” said Eva Kruse. And she’s right. The same sentiment was echoed by the discussion had on the Elevating The Consumer-Citizen Role panel, and I hope big brands can see past the risk of doing things differently to better try new ideas.

Everyone deserves a seat at the table. I understand that Global Fashion Summit is a business-led event. That doesn’t mean that certain people working within fashion should be excluded. I would love to see pay-what-you-can tickets, student tickets, and invites to fringe members of the fashion community in the future.

What’s the bigger picture? We need a just transition. While compiling this post, I read Ruth MacGilp’s newsletter, Threadbare, sharing her experience at Global Fashion Summit. And it brought me back to the importance of reframing again. What’s the bigger picture? Put simply, fashion needs to pay its workers fairly, vastly reduce its production levels, and transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. It’s surprising how little was said on these points, considering the progress these would bring. We need to unlock the shackles of exploitation on people and planet ahead of all else.

Disclaimer: I was provided press accreditation to attend Global Fashion Summit 2024: Copenhagen Edition. All views and opinions shared remain my own.


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