Clean Clothes is a series examining the fashion industry’s impact on our planet, and the brands, technologies, and people helping us toward a cleaner, more environmentally conscious future.
It's no secret that clothing production is harming the planet, but spend a bit of time thinking about how clothes are actually made, and you can't help but feel like the world is completely doomed. The inner workings of the fashion industry are so complex, murky and harmful for the environment that it's easy to think that the problem is pretty much unsolvable.
That's the reason that the Copenhagen Fashion Summit exists. Held once a year in Copenhagen's spectacular Koncerthuset, it's an annual gathering of industry heavyweights that aims to discuss, analyze, and ultimately solve the fashion industry's many harmful practices.
The problem isn't just that making clothes is killing the planet, it's that nobody can agree on a solution. In among all the Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives and transparency campaigns, there's two conflicting philosophies. There's the "sustainable" school of thought, which aims to minimize the impact that our consumption habits have on the environment. It's based on less waste, increased recycling and fewer harmful chemicals.
Then there's award-winning architect and thinker William McDonough, author of the seminal Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. A must-read for anyone who's interested in the impact we're having on this planet, McDonough believes that the solution isn't in sustainability, it's in completely re-thinking the way we design products. Rather than minimizing our impact, McDonough argues, we should be completely overhauling the way we approach consumption, so that we're designing products that actually benefit planet earth.
"Being less bad is not being good, it's being bad by definition, just less so" he told a packed concert hall during one of the Summit's panel talks. "What is the right thing to do, not just the right way to do something? Because if we're doing the wrong thing perfectly, we're becoming perfectly wrong."
On the first day of the Summit, the Boston Consultancy Group and Global Fashion Agenda presented their co-authored report, The Pulse of the Fashion Industry, which measured the progress that's being made in the field of sustainability. The report concluded that while steps are being made at the top of the industry — i.e. the Nikes and H&Ms of this world — the smaller, independent companies are lagging behind.
That's hardly surprising — the biggest apparel manufacturers out there are able to hire entire teams to think about the issue, and have the clout to steer their supply chain in new directions. In contrast, the smaller brands out there have fewer resources, and have less sway over their factories and fabric suppliers. Many also feel like they're unable to talk about sustainability, even if they're making moves behind the scenes to change things.
Independent brands are Highsnobiety's bread and butter — we've been supporting niche labels since we started — so on day two of the Summit, we hosted our very own panel talk, titled "Don't Mention the S-Word." Moderated by Highsnobiety founder and CEO David Fischer, we invited a few friends of ours — namely Norse Projects founder Tobia Sloth, Soulland co-founder Jacob Kampp-Berliner and Dio Kurazawa, from sustainable production consultancy The Bear Scouts — to find out how they are dealing with the issue, and if they were planning on communicating their efforts to the end consumer.
"We don't try to market it, but we have some customers that really care" explained Norse founder Tobia Sloth. "There's a feeling from the consumer side that when brands come with a hang tag that something's ecological, there's mistrust because they're trying to sell you something."
There's so many corporate responsibility projects out there — which have given rise to the term "greenwashing" — and it's hard not to be cynical when a billion-dollar corporation says it cares about the environment. The issue is compounded when you remember that independent brands thrive on authenticity, which means that many feel like they don't want to talk about the issue, even if they're working on it behind the scenes.
"It's on our shoulders to make it cool" argued Soulland co-founder Jacob Kampp-Berliner. "Somehow we need to find a way so that we can scream about it, and be a part of the change." Soulland has started using recycled fibers — polyester especially — in its production but for the brand, and so many others like it, it's hard to change direction when you have to do everything yourself.
Clothing production is an extremely complicated process, and it takes years for young brands to master it. It's also become increasingly globalized process (it's speculated that an average garment travels the world twice before it's even sold), which means that governments are unwilling — or just powerless — to take action.
For Kampp-Berliner, the solution is bigger than any one brand: it lies in strong policy. "There needs to be some international standards pushing us. There needs to be something that's not only owned by the big corporations...something on the United Nations level that changes the world."
There's a lot of conflicting ideas being expressed in the industry, but for the experts speaking at our panel talk, the most important thing is just getting started. Dio Kurazawa founded The Bear Scouts for this exact reason — his company helps influential, leading brands get started in the complicated process of overhauling their production. "It's crawling before you walk" he explained. "It's not overnight change...we have to open our doors and say, we know we're not where we want to be, but the fact that we're having this discussion is already a lot."
Perhaps the most interesting move in the sustainability space has come not from industry-leading mega-brands, but from Swedish startup ASKET. In lieu of the traditional "made in" tag, which masks just how complicated making clothes is, the brand described every single stage of their production process on the tag, from cotton grown in the USA to the cut-and-sew process in Portugal. It's a low-key way to encourage customers to think more about where their clothes are coming from, and allows brands to talk about their efforts in sustainability without really saying anything.
That sort of transparent labelling is industry standard when it comes to food and drink, so why can't it be the same for clothing?
For more on the future of clothing consumption, here's how in the future, we won't own clothes — we'll rent them.