Fashion Weeks are Unsustainable. Can Strict Rules Fix That?
Organizers of Copenhagen Fashion Week have created sustainability requirements for participating designers with the goal of setting a new industry standard.
Fashion weeks are wasteful. One 15-minute runway presentation in Paris, London, Milan or New York can take six months to create, and moments after the lights come up and the music stops, much gets tossed into the garbage: the paper invites, plastic water bottles, leftover food and a lot more.
And then there is the travel. Researchers measured the impact of buyers and designers traveling to attend international shows during four major fashion seasons and found the amount of carbon emitted in one year was about 241,000 tons — or equivalent to the energy used to light up the Eiffel Tower for 3,060 years.
But the organizers of Copenhagen Fashion Week, which begins this week, are trying to set a new industry standard in a business that is largely self-governed.
After a decade of positioning itself as a fashion week and community that advocated sustainability, organizers of the small Danish fashion week are making concrete attempts to require it. These reforms apply to both the event itself (including carbon credits to offset the travel of attendees), as well as to the 28 brands that are participating in the official schedule, such as Ganni, Helmstedt and Stine Goya. Beyond the runway, designers must meet 18 requirements around materials, labor and business practices. Brands that do not meet the requirements are not allowed to participate.
“We don’t want guidelines. We need to ultimately, at some point, say ‘no’ to someone because they don’t live up to our standards,” said Nicolaj Reffstrup, the former chief executive officer of the Danish fashion brand Ganni and a member of Copenhagen Fashion Week’s sustainability advisory board. “That’s when you prove that you’re serious about it.”
Copenhagen’s standards are based on the United Nations’ sustainable development goals and were created with input from a panel of international experts and consultants. They include a promise to use textiles made from at least 50 percent certified, deadstock, upcycled, recycled, preferred or new-generation materials. Designers must not destroy unsold clothes, as brands like Burberry and H&M have been criticized for doing in the past, and they must commit to exercising due diligence in their supply chains to ensure that factories are safe and free of child labor.
On top of these minimums, there are more suggested actions incorporating broader definitions of sustainability and reforms including designs that promote body inclusivity, materials that consider animal welfare and shows that use digital instead of paper invitations.
However, all of these pledges are essentially on the honor system. Copenhagen organizers said their consulting partner, Ramboll, reviews and validates the information submitted by brands, but they do not yet have the ability to conduct external audits.
The effort to overhaul Copenhagen Fashion Week took about three years and came on the heels of sobering reports on the continuing threat of global warming.
“We are in the middle of a climate crisis,” said Cecilie Thorsmark, the chief executive officer of Copenhagen Fashion Week.
“Our industry has been really challenged by a lack of legislation and also so many different agendas and tools and certifications — a jungle of ‘What is sustainability?’” she said.
Ms. Thorsmark said she felt a moral responsibility to act, and if necessary, lead by example. “We needed a common direction,” she said.
To implement the changes, organizers first focused on the operations of Copenhagen Fashion Week itself. They measured the event’s 2019 carbon emissions and set out to reduce this number by half by 2023, with the remainder offset by buying carbon credits. There are now electric vehicles to shuttle around guests and presentations must be “zero waste” by limiting garbage and reusing props and sets. (Plastic hangers have been banned.)
Organizers then focused on the designers and gathered self-reported data from each participating brand. None were meeting all of the 18 standards organizers had outlined. In response, organizers offered online seminars on materials sourcing and customer education, carbon accounting tool kits and one-on-one coaching sessions from experts.
“It was a very long and intensive but also super-thorough process,” Ms. Thorsmark said.
Brands also had input. After a pilot test of the self-assessment, one of the brands suggested banning fur, and the organizers agreed. Each year going forward, organizers said they plan to add requirements and update existing rules to be more stringent.
Some designers said the self-assessment forced them to consider their practices more closely. The knitwear designer Amalie Roge Hove said the process helped her to clarify approaches to sustainability that she had already been practicing at her brand, A Roege Hove.
She said taking steps like finding a green-certified venue and looking for a sustainable (and more expensive) replacement for the nylon in her sweaters was frustrating at times, but she recognized the value of making the changes. She said it made her think about the future of the brand in definite, measurable ways.
“For so long sustainability has been a fluffy term,” she said. “We really need something quite specific.”
Henrik Vibskov, a Danish designer celebrated for his avant-garde sensibility, said working with organizers helped him remain committed to his own sustainability efforts, despite setbacks.
Mr. Vibskov said when he began his career in the early 2000s, “Everything was about the design,” he said. “Nothing was about the environment.” But by 2016, he started to embrace sustainability, using organic or recycled materials.
Yet, he found that some customers were resistant to paying more, and he had to be very careful in how he communicated these efforts to avoid being critiqued for greenwashing.
“I got a little bit demotivated,” he said.
Working with Copenhagen Fashion Week has helped him maintain his commitment to use recycled and organic materials. Mr. Vibskov has even shifted his big show from Paris — where he has historically presented his men’s collection — to the Danish capital, in part because of Copenhagen’s emphasis on sustainability.
“We are not finished at all,” he said of the process to revamp his brand. “This is just the beginning.”
Eszter Áron, the founder of the Hungarian brand Aeron, said she wanted to show in Copenhagen because of the city’s emphasis on sustainability.
“It felt so good that we could be part of a fashion week that takes this seriously,” Ms. Áron said.
Before showing at Copenhagen Fashion Week, she was focused on sustainable design, with an emphasis on producing zero-waste knitwear locally with organic or certified fibers, but she said, “the standards of the committee furthers our ambition.”
Despite these steps, Copenhagen’s efforts still have critics.
“It’s not perfect,” said Raz Godelnik, a professor at Parsons and the author of “Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis.”
In particular, Copenhagen Fashion Week’s allowance of carbon offsets for the production of runway shows sent the wrong message, he said. Some scientists question the impact of offsets and believe they allow businesses to avoid making radical changes that will truly mitigate their climate impact.
“The elephant in the room is really the business model that is based on the production and consumption of new garments,” Mr. Godelnik said.
But some fashion week locations have already begun to emulate Copenhagen’s sustainability strategy, and Norway and Iceland have used the requirements for their own events.
Steven Kolb, the chief executive officer of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which operates New York Fashion week, was very familiar with the measures and said he found them inspiring.
“I think what Copenhagen is doing is setting an example,” he said.
But he said it would be unlikely that New York Fashion Week, which is much larger than Copenhagen, would place similar sustainability requirements on participating designers.
“It is creating a case study,” he said of the Danish fashion week.
“We can all learn from that, be inspired by that and incorporate that,” he said, “in our own communities if it makes sense.”
Copenhagen has much more leverage in requiring brands to meet their standards than the C.F.D.A., said Lauren Sherman, a former Business of Fashion correspondent.
“In Copenhagen, it’s important to be on the official calendar because these are all small brands that need that,” Ms. Sherman said.
But in the big four fashion capitals — New York, Paris, London and Milan — the power balance is in favor of the brands, which have the option to show outside the official calendar without financial repercussions, she said.
And unless the major fashion weeks with giant global brands adopt these changes, the net effect will probably be pretty small.
Still, some feel cautiously optimistic that Copenhagen could be a trendsetter. If other fashion weeks wish to remain relevant in an era of climate crisis, Mr. Godelnik thinks there is a good chance they will take similar measures.
“The future is already here,” he said, “just not evenly distributed.”
Katie Van Syckle contributed reporting.