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Can Fashion Weeks Be Sustainable? Copenhagen Sets the Standard


WORDS BY HANNAH ERNST

COVER BY JAMES COCHRANE


In January 2023, the organisers of Copenhagen Fashion Week introduced a catalogue of sustainability standards that brands have to meet in order to show their collections. Our writer Hannah delves into what the criteria were, how likely it is that other fashion weeks will follow and how sustainable the concept of biannual fashion shows can ever really be.


Guided by a love for nature and a minimalist mindset, Scandinavian heritage is characterised by a genuine and humble notion of sustainability. After spending half a year in Copenhagen, I felt like living in a progressive metropolis disguised as a small village: Standing next to people commuting with their bikes, seeing impromptu dinner setups on sidewalks and passing shop windows with world-renowned wood furniture inside of them. With this impression it didn’t necessarily come as a surprise when the organisers of Copenhagen Fashion Week (CPHFW) announced that brands have to comply with a catalogue of 18 sustainability standards to partake in this season’s Fashion Week.


What sustainability standards did CPHFW introduce?

CPHFW’s CEO Cecilie Thorsmark states this season “marks a milestone” after three years of developing the standards with help from international experts and consultants and later assisting brands in achieving the ambitious goals after none of them met the criteria back in 2020. Standards include but are not limited to the prohibition of destroying unsold clothes, declaring to pay special attention to animal welfare when choosing materials and using at least 50% certified deadstock, upcycled, recycled or organic materials. Brands must also exercise due diligence in their supply chains to ensure fair working conditions for their garment workers. Whether they meet the criteria is based upon brands’ self-report that is later assessed by a committee of the CPHFW, an external consultancy and other advisers.


For now, the brands’ self-report is the only – arguably not the best – basis to assess their sustainability practices, as CPHFW organisers claim they don’t yet have the capacity to conduct external audits. Still, brands partaking in CPHFW are undoubtedly among the most innovative and generally also seem to appreciate the new strive for sustainability rather than feel restricted by it.





How did brands react to the new regulations?

Danish knitwear designer Amalie Røge Hove, who creates intricate pleated pieces with cotton and 30% recycled nylon, shares her satisfaction about being part of a conscious collective of Danish brands, for instance when demanding more sustainable options from their suppliers: “If everyone talks to these manufacturers, it becomes a more resonant choir in their ears, asking for these things; it doesn’t seem like you’re the only one fighting for it.“ Nanna Wick, co-founder of the upcycling label (Di)vision, also states her contentment about being challenged by standards surrounding labour rights. After working mostly with deadstock materials, she adds: “It’s a big part of our DNA to dive into the limitations of creating fashion.“





What changes happen during the event?

Next to big problems like addressing the sourcing of raw materials – according to Thorsmark that’s where 90% of brands’ impact currently lies – the organisers further focus on addressing issues during CPHFW itself: brands’ presentations must be zero waste by limiting garbage and reusing sets, catering is vegan, invitations are digital or recycled and guests are driven in electric vehicles. CPHFW organisers also pledge to offset carbon emissions amounting to 45 tonnes caused by international guests’ flights, hotel stays, outdoor advertising, staff uniforms and more aspects during the event. While some critics shared their opinion on the insufficiency of offsetting carbon emissions as opposed to introducing more radical measures, it’s worth remembering that the impact of the event itself is minuscule compared to the industry’s. With these colossal emissions in mind, the organisers decided to add one new standard every year going forward to continuously keep brands on their toes.


Can fashion weeks really be sustainable?

While Copenhagen’s sustainability criteria are the most ambitious compared to other fashion weeks, it might still seem excessive to some to hold a biannual event perpetuating the need for constant novelty. Even though all of these efforts – minimising, recycling, offsetting – are undoubtedly honourable mentions, they don’t deserve to be put on a pedestal when they don’t tackle problems like overproduction at their roots. So, can fashion weeks ever really be sustainable considering the concept relies on producing and selling new trends?





In a recent event held by Business of Fashion in collaboration with CPHFW attendees discussed systemic change in the industry. The role and purpose of fashion weeks were questioned by a number of delegates stating they “[...] are feeding the need for newness, and we are telling the consumer constantly that there is such a thing as aesthetic seasonality, not just the seasonality of winter from summer”. Another attendee added: “Fashion weeks don’t need to be focused on seasonal overproduction. They could be powerful cultural spotlights that support young talent without driving waste and overconsumption”.


It’s also worth keeping in mind that fashion weeks are likely the most prominent event for brands where press, customers and buyers pay attention to whatever message they want to portray. As such, why not use it to showcase new ideas: the use of an innovative material, the creation of pieces exclusively available made-to-order or showing archive pieces instead of producing new garments? Not using fashion shows as a medium for sustainability messages seems like a missed creative opportunity.


So, whether or not fashion weeks can ever be sustainable ultimately depends on all stakeholders involved. The efforts made by CPHFW can act as a roadmap to work towards a more sustainable future and inspire to pave the way and overcome the relentless cycle fashion finds itself trapped in.





Why do emerging designers rely on fashion weeks?

Leaving the traditional show calendar behind could also be a powerful tool to show a counter trend to the rushed biannual commitment. But while big brands do have enough power to hold their shows whenever, wherever and will get millions of views regardless, fashion shows are one of the most important instruments among emerging designers for visibility and community building. The special attention towards young designers is also one reason why London Fashion Week (coming up 17-21 February) won’t follow Copenhagen’s framework as Caroline Rush, CEO of the British Fashion Council, shares: London Fashion Week “hosts a mixture of established and emerging brands and as result of this setting a one-size-fits-all sustainability standard is not feasible without alienating the smaller businesses”. While it might not work to implement a universal solution for all brands, it also seems like a wasted opportunity to let new businesses enter the fashion space without paying commitments to sustainability. But according to Rush, the British Fashion Council sees their main role as “bringing businesses together to collaborate and share resources to tackle the challenges ahead”.





Of course, there are emerging designers at London Fashion Week that have an inherent focus on sustainability: Among them are Conner Ives (specialising in elegant upcycled and deadstock designs), Chopova Lowena (known for their recycled Folklore skirts) or Di Petsa (viral dresses that look wet because of the intricate draping).


How likely is future international cooperation with more profit-driven players?

In the big fashion capitals Paris, New York and Milan, organisers may provide electric vehicles for guests and share venues occasionally to minimise waste – but the power balance is clearly in favour of the brands, resulting in much less leverage for organisations to implement sustainability regulation. According to the CEO of the American Fashion Council (CFDA), Steven Kolb, Copenhagen “is creating a case study“ and something to “be inspired by”. Meanwhile, CPHFW’s CEO Thorsmark states that international cooperation is already in the works: “I am optimistic as we are having very fruitful dialogues with other organisations in other parts of the world”. How and when such cooperation will be realised is unclear yet but initiatives like the newly formed European Fashion Alliance might help to adopt sustainability frameworks globally.


CPHFW sees potential in their role as a fashion week host to drive change in the industry and didn’t shy away from introducing regulations – not only to the event itself, but also to the production and manufacturing of the clothes being shown. And while CPHFW serves as a sustainability role model first and foremost, the new standards still don't distract from the high aspiration to design among Danish brands. Thorsmark confirms: “It’s so important that the shows continue to focus on the creativity and the fashion because if we want to continue having an impact and a voice as a fashion week and drive the sustainability agenda, we need to hold on firmly to the fashion credibility”.


 

What inspires Hannah:


Article “How Can the Fashion Industry Accelerate Systems Change?”


Video about the responsibility fashion councils have in regulating sustainability


Podcast episode “The role of circularity in sustainability with Emily Chan, Lauren Bartley and Laura Coppen” hosted by CPHFW



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