5th May 2019
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.