Words by Sophia Li
This season, Copenhagen Fashion Week implemented minimum sustainability criteria that brands must adhere to in order to show their collections. But can regulation be enough?
There’s this growing sentiment that, of all the art forms, the fashion industry has become the common enemy in the climate movement. One does not need to know that the current fashion system produces 10% of all carbon emissions, is the second largest consumer of the world’s water supply, or that 85% of all textiles go to landfills every year to be sure that this industry is a controversial topic.
“Here in Denmark, fashion really is the biggest villain,” says Cecilie Thorsmark, CEO of Copenhagen Fashion Week. “The government won’t touch the fashion industry, the press almost won’t write about the fashion industry. It puzzles me that other industries that are hugely challenged, from aviation to agriculture, get massive attention, support, funding—and then no one wants to touch fashion.” Thorsmark, whose father worked at the Danish Ministry of Environment for over 30 years and had spent four years growing up in Cairo, Egypt, understands firsthand the importance of regulation and policy when it comes to change.
Thus, this past Copenhagen Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2023, Thorsmark put to test their most progressive action plan yet: every brand who shows at CPHFW is required to meet 18 minimum sustainability requirements covering six focus areas: strategic direction, design, smart material choices, labor and working conditions, consumer engagement, and show production.
After becoming CEO of Copenhagen Fashion Week in 2018, Thorsmark enlisted sustainability and social justice consulting agency In Futurum, co-founded by Frederik Larsen and Moussa Mchangama, to develop an internal strategy on sustainability and the practical measures of how CPHFW could operate. The two organizations soon realized it would be more impactful to look outside the event itself. “Copenhagen Fashion Week is a symbolic center of the industry,” Larsen explains. “Instead of just saying, We will have a zero waste event that takes place two times a year, why not use this platform and leverage our impact year-round?”
Larsen notes that, while fashion weeks historically were used to drive sales with buyers, now they act more as a group of cultural gatherings. And though fashion weeks across the board technically have no legislative power, there is immense cultural power concentrated at these events.
A Guiding Roadmap
When the plan to enforce sustainability requirements was first announced in 2020, the conversation around sustainable fashion revolved primarily around materials and emissions. With CPHFW’s 18 minimum standards, the goal was to help brands understand the full spectrum of their impact—even as a smaller to medium sized business that outsources production. The entire process is a self-assessment honor system. “It was the best structure we could create without having a lot of funding and sending out someone to audit everything,” Larsen explains.
Of the 18 requirements, most are straightforward and qualitative. For instance, a brand wanting to show at CPHFW will have to prove that at least 50% of its collection is made from certified, preferred, upcycled or recycled materials with a commitment to due diligence across its supply chain. Other requirements are harder to measure. For instance, “designing to increase the quality and value of products economically” is a requirement implemented to help brands rethink the value and price point of their products.
The self assessment is followed by an additional 58 questions the brands must also answer, which include, “what is the role of regenerative agriculture in your company?” The idea is to start planting seeds to show brands the multitude of choices they can make to improve all levels of their supply chains. The rest of the questions are seen as a roadmap for brands to hone in on their own sustainability efforts, while prompting them to reflect on areas where they’re still lacking.
“Instead of just saying, We will have a zero waste event that takes place two times a year, why not use this platform and leverage our impact year-round?”
Everything is on a weighted points system and the hope is that each brand will increase its score anually. Once a year, they are required to fill out the assessment to track their own progress—essentially building a database for the brands. To ensure checks and balances, and a division of power is in place, CPHFW is in charge of the whole system. Consultancy Rambøll leads the verification of the brands’ scores, and both In Futurum and the Danish Textile Association advise the committee that oversees the verification. This builds legitimacy and trust in the system so no one has executive power or is involved in a conflict of interest.
Beyond fairness, it was strategically positioned as the “cool” thing to do—no brand wanted to be left out of this public narrative. “The fundamental issue is that, in theory, fashion week has no real power over the brands. A lot of the emphasis has been on educating, on bringing brands along, on making this process a very public thing that is happening, so [that brands] don’t want to be left behind.” Larsen shares.
Chasing Sustainability, Not Trends
Of all the brands that applied, there was only one brand that did not meet all 18 minimum requirements and was not allowed to show—marking the official CPHFW show schedule this season at 28 brands including notables like Ganni, Saks Potts, and Stine Goya.
Thorsmark explains that, when the screening process took place in the Fall, there were three groups of categories. She shares, “one category of brands were immediately approved by Rambøll [because] they had sufficient documentation. There was a second category in which Rambøll had to ask for follow-ups. And then the third category, which happened to be only one brand, had to [be] declined because the brand was unable to provide the sufficient level of documentation in one of the minimum standards.” The dialogue between this particular brand and Rambøll was described as constructive and they are motivated to come back next season after doing due diligence in the one standard they did not meet.
To be fair, CPHFW introduced these 18 minimum standards in 2020 allowing the brands three years to ensure they were met. After the announcement, all the requirements were immediately available on the website and seminars were available to explain all 58 points in depth. There was also the pilot testing program that brands could voluntarily sign onto. The webinars are continuous every season so that anyone interested can deep dive into each point—be it brand or student.
“The minimum standards are really helping us to have a common language,” says newcomer Amalie Røge Hove, founder and creative director of A. Roge Hove and International Woolmark Prize finalist this season. Hove showed her fourth show this season, and her designs are said to be reminiscent of a modern-day Issey Miyake Pleats Please with her signature ribbed knitwear made from cotton and 30% recycled nylon. Hove appreciated the three-year timeline that brands were given to meet the minimum requirements. She shares, “What these minimum standards have helped us to do is to organize [our businesses] and find the language to speak more about how we [become more responsible].”
The changes made by brands include long term shifts, like auditing supply chains, to short term shifts, like Hove investing more time in securing a venue location that was zero-waste and solar-powered. She describes finding comfort in knowing that this was an industry-wide initiative. “When you are talking to these manufacturers—instead of just being one voice, one whisper—if everyone does it, then it becomes a more resonant choir in their ears, asking for these things,” Hove said. “It doesn’t seem like you’re the only one fighting for it.”
Hove’s primary feedback on the standards would be to amend the requirements depending on how much volume you produce or the stage the brand is currently in for them to be continue being relevant as brands grow.
Nanna Wick, co-founder of fashion label (Di)vision, shares that they probably would not have forged their own sustainability standards as a small brand although their practices are rooted in deadstock, recycled, and upcycled materials. “None of us have experience or education working in the fashion industry. Simon [Wick’s brother and co-founder] is self-taught and didn’t go to university,” she said. When it comes to a topic as nuanced as sustainability, it’s not a matter of choice, but rather of resources and education. The siblings’ biggest lesson from adapting to the standards was to incorporate code of conduct contracts with their suppliers. “We get too familiar with our factories. These contracts can ensure we’re on the same page on labor rights,” Wick said.
“If everyone talks to these manufacturers, it becomes a more resonant choir in their ears, asking for these things; it doesn’t seem like you’re the only one fighting for it.”
The splashiest show this season was ROTATE Birger Christensen, whose party dresses reap in millions of dollars in profit each year. Party-wear made from synthetics and sequins typically has a shorter life cycle due to the fast-paced one-outfit-per-occasion trend cycles fuelled by influencer culture. Most models on their runway were influencers themselves, including Lisa Rinna who strutted down the runway in a faux fur leopard print coat. This brand identity can seemingly be at odds with sustainability as a whole, but Rambøll confirms they met all 18 minimum standards. A reminder that there needs to be a sustainably-minded option for every audience.
Since the minimum standards, ROTATE’s focus has been in advancing innovation strategy, with a focus on using 3D technology like CLO3D to design their collections, which in turn minimizes sample production. A representative confirmed that, for their Autumn/Winter 2023 collection, they were able to meet more than 60% of preferred materials for their sequins. Last year also saw ROTATE launch research projects with Danish and Dutch universities to identify innovative ways for the brand to incorporate new materials and manufacturing techniques into its production line.
Fashion Lives On, With or Without Us
It’s important to remember that anything we put on our bodies—from burlap sack to artistic creation—is technically wasteful as it would eventually disintegrate and need to be discarded. “I’m happy we didn’t all of a sudden turn into just sustainability week,” states Thorsmark. “It’s so important that the shows continue to focus on the creativity and the fashion because if we want to continue having an impact and a voice as a fashion week and drive the sustainability agenda, we need to hold on firmly to the fashion credibility.”
When brands were asked whether they felt the minimum requirements limited their creativity as designers, the answer was a resounding no. “Craft is an art form. And at the end of the day, it’s actually just really good to have frameworks,” Hove shares.
Wick says that having limitations is a crucial part of exercising creativity, one that also makes up the foundations of (Di)vision’s brand identity. “It’s a big part of our DNA to dive into the limitations of creating fashion,” she said. “We have this saying, We create from what already is. Within these limitations, we often discover new stuff that we haven’t done before, especially when working with deadstock [materials].”
CPHFW is widely considered to be home to some of the most forward-thinking and innovative brands, yet it’s worth noting that not one brand had met all 18 minimum requirements when they first started. And while the organizers agree the action plan was ambitious, the finding serves as a reflection on the industry’s status quo.
“What this is doing is simply creating regulation that should be a public matter but isn’t,” said In Futurum’s Larsen. “The minimum standards—even though they are heralded as pushing sustainability—[are] actually at quite a low level. We have to go a lot further.” With a lofty goal like reversing the climate crisis industry by industry, there must be universal standards that hold global players accountable for their wasteful, carbon-intensive practices.
And there are pre-existing frameworks brands can work with, such as the United Nations Global Business Standards. But there’s more solidarity and strength in abiding by standards made specifically for individual brands and their peers. “We all get dressed in the morning, we all want to feel part of something,” said Hove. “Why view fashion as the enemy when it can be our greatest unifier?”
“Copenhagen Fashion Week is a fashion week that was able to rethink its role in the fashion system, and rethink its purpose.”
A question that was—in Larsen’s words—“snuck into” the assessment focuses on degrowth, which encourages shrinking rather than scaling economies. “The biggest change is not necessarily eliminating profitability, it’s about how we distribute the revenues. It’s about where we put our emphasis in terms of value,” explains Larsen. “As a brand, think about the benefit of not having to grow all the time, [but instead] create something that is meaningful to the people who work there, where you can control your production, and have a steady income for everyone involved.” And isn’t that true sustainability: a pace that sustains the brand, the employees, and our shared resources?
On the last day of CPHFW, Thorsmark shared that she hopes “for Copenhagen Fashion Week [to] be a fashion week that was able to rethink its role in the fashion system, and rethink its purpose. [That it can] go from a passive event platform that gives spotlights to any and all brands to [one] that actually pushes for industry change.” It’s important not to underestimate the significance of said change, especially when that change strives towards a more sustainable and responsible future. After all, we engage with fashion everyday when we choose how to present ourselves to the world. And so it’s almost too simplistic to pit fashion as the enemy.
For centuries, fashion has been a companion, an extension of self—our relationship has been meddled but alas, this season, CPHFW took us one step closer to repairing what has for so long been broken.