Following the statement by the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion on the Copenhagen Fashion Summit starting tomorrow, the Union would like to pose three questions to the CFS. They are available as a PDF, as well as below:
May 6th, 2019
We, the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion, recognize that the response of the fashion sector to the intensifying ecological crisis has been – and continues to be – over-simplified, fragmented and obstructed by the growth logic of extractive business models as they are currently realized and practiced.
As a group of concerned researchers, supported by 300 signees from institutions around the world, our view is that textile and clothing researchers can no longer remain uninvolved or complacent, and we need to conduct ourselves in new ways. The Union’s founding members have more than a century of combined research experience and see uncritical research findings, duplication of research, reduction and misuse of scientific and technical knowledge as obstructing the sustainability transformation of the sector. We thus wish to ask the following questions of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit:
Circular fashion systems as they exist today do nothing to tackle consumption – the elephant in the room. Instead they perpetuate the repeated replacement of fashion products with new ones, wrongly suggesting that this has no impact on resource levels or people’s expectations about how to act. We see circularity as one of many transition strategies; useful while we transition to something better. We would like to ask the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, what you see this other, better future to be?
Within the discourse on sustainable fashion, there is an explicit tendency of countries in the wealthy north preaching abstinence and austerity to the global south. How are the organizers of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit listening to diverse voices, including those of workers and the socially disadvantaged?
The Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion advocates for whole systems and paradigm change, beyond current norms and business-as-usual. The fashion industry is very far away from true sustainability, and the measures of progress currently used are based on reducing impacts, to “do less harm.” This risks measuring insignificant changes, putting the whole endeavor of transparency at risk. How can the Copenhagen Fashion Summit champion action towards exposing the real usage and waste of resources, and its direct link to the business side, to prices, salaries and profit margins? This form of transparency would at least reveal how far away we are from true sustainability.
On 5th June 2019, the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion is holding its first Local Assembly in Arnhem, the Netherlands, and we invite you to come and take part.
The Local Assembly will take place within a ‘Community Event’ of the ArtEZ Fashion Professorship and MA Fashion Held in Common. It will be organised using open space methodology and will discuss urgent questions and issues around fashion and sustainability. Our intention is to draft a communiqué from the Arnhem Assembly to share will the rest of the Union.
The event runs from 13:00 – 18:30 CET.
Location: Musis | Velperbinnensingel 15 | 6811 BP Arnhem
PROGRAMME: 13.00: Welcome | 13.30-15.30: Assembly of the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion – with Kate Fletcher | 16.00-17.15: In conversation with Kate Fletcher, Otto von Busch and Timo Rissanen | 17.15-17.45: Launch of the APRIA journal on the Fashion Colloquium | 17.45: Drinks and bites.
As the programme for the 2019 Copenhagen Fashion Summit has now been published, the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion issues the following public comments on the programme. In particular, the Union wishes to highlight the paradoxical or even misleading use of language in describing “sustainable fashion” activity.
With regard to the panel “The Power of Creatives”, the programme suggests the participants will address the statement that “Fashion designers hold the power, but how are they leveraging that power in their creative process to make items that we all fall in love with and that make sustainability cool?”
While the statement may be laudable, it is also severely misleading as across the industry fashion designers do not necessarily have power, and the influence they have is diminishing. The statement of the “power” of designer’s decisions originated in the industrial design discipline, where it is noted that designers make important choices about materials, production processes, energy use, etc. at the beginning of the product’s life. This also gave rise to the oft-quoted statistic that 90% of a product’s environmental impact originates in design (Graedel, T. E., Reaves Comrie, P. and Sekutowski, J.C. (1995), Green product design, AT&T Technical Journal., November/December, pp18-25). Also, in industrial design, designers themselves “tool up” with industry to make the product and have great insight in production, and getting a deep understanding of the processes of mass production is often also an important part in industrial design education. But fashion designers, particularly those in large companies, are not the ones to tool up or make decisions about material sourcing, production processes and supply chains. Instead, many of such decisions are made with heavy influence from supply chain management and marketing where the real power is located. This is an important distinction, as continually stating that designers have the power to create systems change not only paralyzes designers, but it takes business leadership and management off the hook. While it is important to highlight the influence design has, we want to stress that the system they are working in doesn’t easily yield to their suggestions and efforts. We wish the panel would acknowledge this misuse of language and help start to change the thinking and actions within the fashion industry.
In the panel “Hidden Supply Chains” the participants will discuss “The complexity of fashion supply chains is vast. Securing traceability and basic human rights beyond factories and into local communities is tricky, especially for informal workers such as children”.
Yes, we all know this, and over the last 30 years of fashion and sustainability efforts, the supply chain has become even more complex and globalized. The UCRF would like to challenge the industry to admit finally that it is not capable of making this overly complex system traceable in a way that truly matters on a systemic level. Yes, it is nice to read on the garment label the address of your factory and how many people work there, but what can we know about the salaries and living conditions of the workers in a way that can affect consumer decisions or in any way make real change? What can we know about the factory’s subcontracting practices? It is time to see that the discourse on this topic in almost all cases fails to give any real information that can facilitate real systemic impact or addressing power relations within the industry. Instead companies pick and choose what data to reveal, often misleading consumers about real working conditions and environmental impacts, while continuously increasing the number of goods produced, wasted and incinerated/destroyed. What has become obvious is that traceability does not necessarily transform into action. While the agenda of transparency is honourable and important, it is toothless if not paired with real improvements and holding people in power responsible.
While acknowledging that it is important to recognise milestones and achievements in complex and challenging work, including celebrating Copenhagen Fashion Summit’s 10-year anniversary, the UCRF also wishes to remind the participants at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit that the history of fashion and sustainability did not start 10 years ago. Its origins are found in work undertaken more than 30 years ago. That we are still discussing the same ideas as were originally mooted in the late 1980s and early 1990s is not a great cause for celebration. Indeed when we take the long view and examine fashion and sustainability progress over the last 30 years, we see that we have not come far at all. Certainly today there are more players and more organizations, more spectacles and celebrations, but not actual advances in ecological terms. So far, the mission has been an utter failure and all small and incremental changes have been drowned by an explosive economy of extraction, consumption, waste and continuous labour abuse.
We would encourage people engaging with the agenda of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit to pay attention to terms such as “sustainable growth”, which in almost all cases is an oxymoron. While it is a term favoured by investors and asset managers, it is important to stress that the industry has spent 30 years trying to fix the old system, and it is getting worse, not better. Investments are better directed to new systems. Yet, we also ask people concerned about the planet to be careful about prophets promising to “disrupt the industry,” as the last decade of Silicon Valley driven “radical change of business” has neither greatly improved the environmental conditions of the planet, nor has it empowered workers or increased the living standards of the general populations. We would encourage the Copenhagen Fashion Summit to create spaces for discussing the disruptions that are actually necessary, the disruptions that would actually make a difference, which are disruptions that are necessarily challenging to discuss, because they also disrupt the dynamics of power in the fashion system.
Finally, the UCRF entreats attendees at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit to think critically and to continuously ask questions. We believe this will sow the seeds of change.
The Sustainable Fashion Research Agenda conference (SFRA) is a Danish initiative driven by the urgent need for providing a more public and extrovert voice for research, as current industry claims about progress towards sustainable fashion are often anecdotal in nature and not supported by scientific evidence. In effect, the messages about the current state of sustainable fashion are aspirational at best and greenwashing at worst. Small-scale projects are elevated into global trends even though it is questionable whether these niche initiatives will ever have an impact on the social and environmental footprint of the industry as a whole. Actually, quite a few trends point in the opposite direction.
of the SFRA conference is to provide an evidence-based platform for discussing the
current state of affairs when it comes to sustainable fashion. SFRA invites
international experts (researchers, NGO’s and companies) to share knowledge on
what we actually KNOW today about sustainable fashion, whether it comes to
circularity, sustainable fibers, or sustainability and use. The ambition is
also to set an agenda for future research on sustainable fashion, which will be
shared internally and externally.
The conference will take place two days before the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, on the 13th of May 2019 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Find a tentative programme and information about registration here