COPENHAGEN – Fashion executives, industry associations, solution providers and a peppering of journalists, NGO reps, activists, and influencers, descended on Copenhagen’s Royal Opera House this week, turning it into possibly Europe’s largest echo-chamber for sustainable fashion. Everyone collectively agreed we’re on a terrifying trajectory to climate disaster, with fashion’s role clearly highlighted, but with a vagueness about tangible action and accountability.
In other words, nothing that new from any of the other climate conferences held around the world this month, which climate justice activist Xiye Bastida poignantly highlighted by hanging multiple conference lanyards around her neck on stage. “I shouldn’t have to do this. I’m 20 years old”, she said.
The conference started with a reminder that the industry is on track to massively overshoot 1.5 degrees a full 50% by the end of this decade. Yet this urgency was lost in transmission throughout the rest of the event. The majority of conversations and corporate commitments focused on business as usual with added greenery rather than a harsh look at overproduction and degrowth.
And indeed, a word cloud of the event would have the word “commitment” emblazoned front and centre. It seems every brand from ultra-fast fashion to boutique ethical start-up has a slew of voluntary commitments, most of them set at a distant deadline (2030, 2040, even 2050), by which time current leadership will be long gone and the consequences of fashion rapaciousness will be our new reality.
The truth behind this commitment craze was alluded to by a representative of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with comedic timing, as she applauded the number of signatories, but said they now need to investigate what actions and on the ground change signatories are actually undertaking – the two seemed mutually exclusive.
Attendees were subjected to panel after panel after panel (my own included) with startlingly little variation in structure and content between them. By the end of day two, it was little wonder attendance had started to dwindle and people were preferring to stay outside and network. A few moments stood out, however.
In a global North centric conversation, a panel featuring Bobby Kolade, Founder of Buzigahill, was notable. This Ugandan enterprise takes clothes shipped from the Global North, redesigns them and sells them back to the same countries. “Africa is not a charity box,” noted Kolade, and his “return to sender” concept clearly demonstrates how broken and wasteful the modern fashion system is, and how much value is squandered daily by our linear model. He also noted the hypocrisy of the event organisers in issuing hundreds of single-use t-shirts for staff and for the ‘Royal Run’ held the day before, which are very likely to end up exported when discarded. This wasn’t the only organisational faux-pas in my opinion: single-use coffee cups, food containers and ‘recyclable’ Tetrapak water cartons (which are in fact rarely recycled in practice) littered the venue. Not a great look.
The shock moment of the summit came early on at the end of a panel on Radically Reframing Sustainability. After a harrowing and emotional account from OR Foundation Co-Founder, Liz Ricketts, on the daily drudgery and sometimes fatal livelihoods of those dealing with the Global North’s textile waste in Ghana’s Kantamanto market, she announced a partnership with none other than ultra-fast fashion SHEIN, to the tune of $15m over three years. An audible gasp went up in the auditorium, ironic given that the waste piling into countries like Africa is the shared responsibility of the entire fashion industry.
On a micro level this money will undoubtedly make a difference to those working on the ground in Kantamanto. But it must also be recognised that the hidden cost of taking the funding is that it may set back efforts to tackling this waste upstream, which is the ultimate solution. For SHEIN, this is a tactic straight out of the corporate greenwashing playbook written by Coca-Cola, Shell and BP with their sponsorship of beach-clean ups, oil spills and green energy projects. They saw an opportunity in the desperation, and for me that felt almost sinister. Audacious in how unsubtle it is, projects like this are a distraction from the need for regulation, such as well-designed EPR, which would make these kinds of reparations mandatory. These processes are slow, but we must not allow these moves to distract policymakers from their ultimate necessity. We cannot expect fast fashion to voluntarily fix a problem it created and continues to profit from.
While SHEIN are clearly pursuing an aggressive greenwashing agenda, possibly to allay investor ESG concerns ahead of a mooted public offering, their business model can never be sustainable, particularly given that 95.2% of their clothing contains new plastic, according to Bloomberg. Plastic fibres, made from oil and gas, are the backbone of fast fashion and SHEIN cannot exist without them. Synthetic fibres are also hugely problematic when they end up as waste, either dumped in landfills and nature where they shed toxic microplastics, or when burnt in incinerators. No matter how much money fast fashion throws at charity projects, this cannot be avoided.
It’s also worth noting that SHEIN’s existence is very convenient for the likes of H&M from a reputational perspective. While H&M, Zara and others invented the model which SHEIN has put on steroids, SHEIN’s represents a convenient boogeyman for them to point at in horror – at least we’re not as bad as them. We must remember fashion brands are part of the same intensely competitive, highly extractive and deeply inequitable system barrelling us into ecological disaster.
Back to the Global Greenwashing Fashion Summit, the self-congratulatory tone and blatant greenwashing clearly grated on a number of guests. This was something I tried to address on my panel “What even is a sustainable brand?” On stage, I chose to call out a fellow panellist, representing The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, for their role in helping Boohoo wriggle out of MP scrutiny after the Leicester slavery scandal in 2020. Uncomfortable as it is to call people out in person, rather than from the safety of a keyboard, this is what these events should be about (even if you’re then cornered backstage and at the wrap-up party because of your comments…) Debate, friction, and hard truths push tangible action as much, if not more, than alliances, pow-wows and celebration parties – of which there were three.
Given Changing Markets reputation in the fashion space of being critical and exposing brands’ failures of responsibility or ambition, I wasn’t surprised to find fashion reps eyeing me warily like you might look at a wasp in your living room. That said, inviting the critics into the room is a step in the right direction from the organisers, and the critical voices channelled a strong undercurrent of frustration from those both inside and outside the industry. The need for regulation and the recognition of the failure of voluntary sustainability was also widely recognised, with experts such as Maxine Bédat from the New Standards Institute providing a welcome level of insight into what regulation can and cannot hope to achieve.
The hypocrisy award goes to event sponsor Nike. The event’s “Wellness Partner” dominated several panels, including having one all to themselves with no critical voices, and the sponsor’s message left us in no doubt as to their great claims on greening their business. Yet I wonder what the former garment workers of Ramatex’s Violet Apparel factory in Cambodia think of Nike’s push for wellness, when they are still owed $1.4 million in unpaid wages and severance pay, with Nike their biggest buyer, after their factory was closed in 2020?
This disconnect between how the brands speak and how they behave as businesses day-to-day highlights my overarching concern about these kinds of events. Do they actually make any difference? Have ten years of fashion summits got us any closer to lessening fashion’s impact? Has Davos or COP for that matter? These vast, glittering echo-chambers hide a more sinister aspect. It’s easy to get swept up in the rhetoric that progress is inevitable because your fellow Global North sustainability elite are in agreement about the need for change, and so I believe these events can bring about a sense of complacency towards tangible action. Accountability, regulation, reparation, and scrutiny are far less glamorous than what these summits can offer, but without them we’re either left waiting for regulation, or once again reliant on voluntary change – and in an industry rife with greenwashing, that worries me.