"We hold a responsibility to rethink the fashion industry — some in respect to social aspects, others the environmental and others the economical aspects, but we must do it together." Those were the first remarks made at this month's Copenhagen Fashion Summit, and they came from Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark, who told the packed audience for the sold-out event in the Nordic capital that there was a need to move forward.
Livia Firth, founder and creative director of Eco-Age Ltd, was even more vocal in a speech she called "Cutting Through the Noise". "Fashion is certainly not a special case," Firth insisted, as she described how little has changed in the production of cheap clothes in poor countries since the Rana Plaza tragedy of 2013, when a factory building collapsed and killed more than 1,000 workers in Bangladesh.
But for all the powerful speeches from Rick Ridgeway, Vice President of Environmental Affairs at eco-friendly brand Patagonia, and the overall conviction and commitment of Eva Kruse, CEO of the Danish Fashion Institute and Copenhagen Fashion Week as well as the founder of her country's Fashion Summit, it was one small event that touched me the most deeply.
Five Millenials stopped me as I wended my way through the lunch tables of raw carrots, chickpeas, apples, and water offered in containers that were a world away from sea-bed-polluting plastic bottles. One by one, the youth panel stared me right in the eye, and asked in chorus, "Can we ask you for one day when you do not buy clothes, nothing at all - one day free of shopping for fashion?"
Is that resolution going to ricochet around the world? Is it the beginning of a Millennial swipe against materialism? Could what they said be as significant as the words of Shubhankar Ray, Global Brand Director of G-Star, explaining in a break-out session on fashion and technology what his organisation is doing to save the world's sea beds? Will Anna Gedda, the Head of Sustainability at H & M or Sylvie Bénard, Corporate Environment Director at LVMH, be able, between them, to change the fashion world we live in?
There are no clear answers as to whether thoughtful initiatives can improve the situation across the world. But Copenhagen is certainly a green oasis. At a dinner hosted by HRH Crown Prince Frederik VIII and Princess Mary, in the first royal palace I have seen with children's toys in the garden, Kristian Jensen, Minister For Foreign Affairs, said that Denmark's wind farms made it so energy efficient that it was able to sell power to other countries.
Kristian Jensen, Denmark’s Minister for Foreign Affairs
An installation for the "Green Carpet Challenge" set by the Copenhagen Fashion Summit for cleaner production practices in the textile industry
I came back from the Copenhagen Summit, held under a preternaturally blue sky in this city of churches and construction in equal measure, wondering how much of the passionate discussion would develop into action. Particularly when sustainability is not "sexy", in the words of Vanessa Friedman, Fashion Director and Chief Fashion Critic of The New York Times.
My task was to question Renzo Rosso, President of Only The Brave, about his attempts to take a firm sustainable position for his fashion empire, from the mighty Diesel through the designer brands of DSquared2, Maison Margiela, Marni and Viktor & Rolf. With an estimated net worth of $3.5 billion according to Forbes, the entrepreneur has developed a range of good practices, including a surplus food distribution programme, a social impact and sustainability programme in Africa, and a farm in Italy that employs young disabled people.
There are many individuals within the fashion business who have introduced game-changing practices. But can their work, along with the kind of initiatives discussed by Hannah Jones, Chief Sustainability Officer of Nike Inc, really be enough to stop even the most glaringly obvious problems, such as the unending flow of water needed for denim? That situation is drastic, given that most low-cost jeans are made in countries where water is already polluted or in short supply. Many of these questions were raised and discussed, yet throughout the summit, I had a feeling of frustration that there was no division between fashion and clothing.
"Fashion is for everybody" has become the mantra since the turn of the millennium, yet there is a difference between sweatshop-factory dresses sold for the price of a hamburger and outfits made by crafts people with a personal involvement. That is why it was good to hear about a new initiative from Carlo Capasa, President of the Camera Nazionale Della Moda Italiana (the National Chamber for Italian Fashion): Italy, which creates 45 per cent of international designer clothing, is introducing "Chemical Substance Guidelines". The aim is to reduce the use of chemicals to benefit consumers and the environment.
Cynics might say that it is easier to consider the state of the planet when you are selling an outfit for a decent profit than when you are cutting down to the lowest profit margins on dirt-cheap T-shirts. But I applaud the idea that shoppers should know where and how clothes are made, just as campaigners for healthy food have traced the state of the hen that produces an egg and the carbon footprint of fruit flown across the globe. "A trending topic throughout the day was transparency," said Eva Kruse in her summary. "People now dare to acknowledge that sustainability is extremely complex and they are being more humble when speaking about their work."
Kruse also talked about the three days prior to the Summit, when a Youth Fashion Summit of 116 students representing 40 nationalities from six continents had discussed how to integrate the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals into the fashion industry. A group from that forum appeared at the Fashion Summit and their presence was both moving and exhilarating. And, in spite of so many informative and dedicated speakers, the words that rang in my ears were those of the young people who asked me to call STOP! to careless purchases — if just for one day.