Can fashion councils accelerate the path towards a sustainable industry?
Written by Sophie Benson
The fashion industry must cut its emissions in half by 2030. It’s a non-negotiable stop on the route to net zero by 2050, and imperative to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. But despite a lot of noise, the industry remains on track to overshoot the 1.5-degree pathway by approximately 50% according to McKinsey’s special report Fashion on Climate.
Brand-led self-governing has been quite a spectacular failure, with fashion’s footprint growing to represent between 4-8% of total global emissions, while legislation has been slow to materialise and is patchy when it does, localised to specific markets. Cognizant of the urgency of the situation, Copenhagen Fashion Week (CPHFW) decided the time for waiting and watching was over, introducing a set of environmental and social minimum standards. As of AW23, if a brand or designer wants to show at CPHFW, they must meet the mark. The standards encompass six focus areas: strategic direction, design, smart material choices, working conditions, consumer engagement, and shows. Specific requirements include not destroying unsold clothes from previous collections, embedding international standards on human rights, having a preferred materials and a restricted materials list in place, educating customers on sustainability practices, and zero waste show production. ‘Additional actions’, such as offering rental and sourcing from regenerative agriculture, can earn designers extra points in their applications, which are screened by consultancy Rambøll.
“Our primary role is to execute [CPHFW] and showcase the best of Nordic designers and talent,” says Gizem Arici, head of sustainability at CPHFW. “But it also comes with a strong focus on sustainability. We have been looking intently at our own operations in terms of climate impact and we thought, how can we use our positioning within the overall fashion system to tap into other conversations? We wanted to look into the main levers of driving sustainability from a brand perspective.”
The idea for sustainability requirements coincided with the appointment of Cecilie Thorsmark as CEO in 2018. “I knew we needed to change the landscape of what a fashion week represents, moving away from an event that is purely fuelling newness and trends to an industry platform that uses its voice and leverage to drive change in the industry! To achieve that, we had to focus on sustainability from a holistic perspective, not only looking into how our event is executed but how we could accelerate the industry’s efforts around their material choices, working conditions or design practices, for example,” says Thorsmark.
Arriving at and implementing the minimum standards was no easy feat. Arici explains that the team worked closely with sustainability consultancy In Futurum and industry body Danish Fashion and Textile to gather and share the knowledge they needed to guide their brands and designers. A distinguished panel of experts in areas such as labour, climate, and biodiversity was also called upon to review the requirements, 12 brands worked on a pilot study, and 30-50 companies stress tested the framework, the surveys, and the internal mechanisms.
Fashion isn’t the only industry in which internal organisations are taking measures into their own hands. Living up to the expectations of 70% of European football who fans think UEFA has a role to play in sustainability, the football body launched its Sustainable Infrastructure Guidelines in November 2022. Everything from responsible rainwater management and renewable energy sources to seat composition is covered, as is travel. It’s estimated 80% of the total emissions from the UEFA Euro 2024 tournament will come from transport, but a report by the Oeko-Institut to uncover emissions hotspots found supporters using trains instead of planes to travel to host nation Germany has the potential to save 3 million kg CO2E. Measuring the impact of the tournament is a step towards “embedding climate criteria in UEFA regulations, policies, and guidelines.”
Broadcasting is further area of focus. In October 2022, BT Sport became the first broadcaster to successfully produce a UEFA match entirely in the cloud, reducing emissions by 25%. This was calculated using BAFTA’s Albert sustainability calculator. Albert, which supports the film and TV industry in reducing the environmental impact of production, is another industry body making changes. In the UK, all BBC, ITV, Channel 4, UKTV, Sky, TG4, and Netflix productions are required to be Albert certified or register their carbon footprint. Activities productions can undertake to reduce their impact and achieve certification span using local ingredients for catering, costume reuse, virtual location scouting, reducing flying, and using green generators. Albert, which also works on country-wide infrastructure projects and promoting the creation of sustainability-focused content, has seen yearly average emissions drop from 9.9t CO2E in 2018 to 5.7t on 2021.
Cross industry and cross sector collaboration are instrumental in achieving climate goals. In 2021, the Norwegian fashion industry announced it was implementing CPHFW’s sustainability requirements with 60 members of the Norwegian Fashion Hub and 30 brand participants of the Olso Fushion Festival. CPHFW’s standards also served as inspiration for London Fashion Week’s (LFW) Minimum and Bronze Standards for NEWGEN designer participants. “[CPHFW] kindly shared with us the work they’ve been doing to date, and we’ve used that as inspiration and married it with the work we were already doing,” says Shailja Dubé, Institute of Positive Fashion Programme Lead at the British Fashion Council. All NEWGEN applicants must meet the minimum standards, but Dubé explains they have the opportunity to develop and hit Bronze over the course of their training and mentorship. “If they’re not quite at bronze, that’s fine. By the end of the three years, they will be,” she says.
Both CPHFW and LFW have made commitments to equip designers with the tools and knowledge they need to make sustainability progress. And as this happens, standards will progress too. CPHFW plans to promote some of its additional actions to minimum standards and react to new regulations and legislation, while LFW aims to expand its requirements to all brands and designers eventually. The results of the new requirements are yet to be seen but in leaving brands and designers with no choice but to evolve, like other sectors, this top-down action could be transformational.