For decades, the global fashion industry has been left alone without political regulation, but politicians are now coming to put an end to the anarchy. It’s going to be a battle for survival, and not all companies will survive.
People are gathering under a highway bridge in Frederiksberg, Denmark, a formerly conservative municipality which is – like the Vatican in Rome – surrounded by the city of Copenhagen. Electronic music is pumping heavy beats with that generic fashion sound of mainstream house. I’m here for a fashion show looking for a place to hide in the crowd before it begins, but it’s not the type of show you might expect.
After more than 110 years under conservative rule the demography in the neighborhood has now changed into a younger and more modern population wanting something else. Something new. This year they elected the lawyer Michael Vindfeldt to office, the first social-democrat to wear the mayoral chain in the history of Frederiksberg. He is here tonight. Not to talk about politics, but to serve us looks on the catwalk.
First on stage comes the host and organizer of the show, the prominent politician Ida Auken, also a social-democrat, campaigning to re-win her seat in the Danish parliament. She’s in an orange secondhand suit, it is after all a so-called ‘sustainable fashion show’, and with a big smile and both arms stretched out to the sides she welcomes the audience. But it’s not all joy and laughter, this event is also a call for action. Something has to be done about the polluting fashion industry which she calls “provocative”.
“When a brand like Shein pumps out 6,000 styles a day, we're dealing with fast fashion on speed. If you can buy a dress for 10 euro, it’s probably not made under the best conditions. Today, the models will showcase brands with better business models,” Auken says from the stage.
A politician talking about fashion is, believe it or not, hard to find, but a politician hosting her own fashion show is completely unexpected. But like in Frederiksberg times are changing.
"The fashion industry is interesting, because it tackles one of the things that can change people the fastest, namely our norms, habits and self-perception."
These are the facts
Even though the global fashion industry accounts for up to 10 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions – more than air traffic and shipping combined – the industry has managed to fly under the political radar for decades avoiding regulation unlike most other polluting industries. An increasing demand from the Global South means that the UN expects the fashion industry's emissions to increase by more than 60 percent towards 2030. A devastating bomb during the World's efforts to get the climate under control. For too long fashion has been a blind spot in the political debate, but politicians have finally realised they have to take back control. For the fashion industry it means that the status quo is over, and that there’s no way around the elephant in the room anymore: we need to produce less. Research shows that if the fashion industry is to become sustainable, the industry must reduce all new production by 75-95 percent, which means that the industry needs to rethink its entire system and build completely new business models. The industry basically has to make a profit on something else than selling new clothes. The following decades will therefore – for many companies – be an evolutionary battle for survival. Only the fittest will be able to adapt.
There’s no such thing as sustainable fashion
Auken has been running a busy campaign. Besides fitting a fashion show into her schedule she also found the time to sell some of her old clothes at a flea market.
“I think we can have clothes circulating between us, more than we already do, so that you can keep experiencing getting new things. For example, I went to a flea market yesterday and came home with three new blazers, and of course they only have to hang in my closet as long as I use them. But it can only be done as long as no one is telling other people that it is now ugly to wear a blazer,” she says.
Therefore, she thinks we need to stop talking about sustainable fashion.
“Instead we have to talk about sustainable style, because fashion is really about making us think something that was cool yesterday is ugly today. Therefore, we must look at clothes differently as something that enriches our lives, but doesn’t have to be newly produced,” she says and continues: “When we talk about sustainable style, you open your closet in a different way, where you don't have to be so concerned about whether the clothes are fashionable or not, but instead, whether you think your style is cool. The most sustainable is to use what you already have in the closet and make sure that what you don't use gets passed on to others. The next step is to buy secondhand.”
Can you really ask an industry to shut itself down or at least show negative growth?
“I’m not. The industry must find other ways to create value by making new business models.They don't have to sell new textiles all the time, but maybe sell and resell the clothes, rent them out, make subscription models and work with recycled textiles in their production.”
"Imagine if the industry could use that power to create more responsible and intelligent consumption."
A revolution starts with 25%
Under the highway bridge Auken is putting on a show to a cheering audience.
On the catwalk the models, most of them politicians, showcase brands with different business models, like only using deadstock or turning old fabric that has already had a full life as bed linen and tablecloths into dresses and jackets.
Besides Michael Vindfeldt, the mayor of Frederiksberg, and others, we get to see the political superstar Mogens Lykketoft, former minister of foreign affairs in Denmark and former President of the United Nations General Assembly. That is all in the past, and now he is dancing down the catwalk in new designs of old fabrics.
It does feel a bit like kids dressing up and playing in their room, more so than an actual fashion show, and it makes me think how weird it is that a politician hosts her own fashion show. But it’s difficult not to see it as a sign of a weakened industry not so much in control anymore. Now, others, the politicians, are taking over.
Auken is determined to take ownership of the field and to spread awareness about the cause. She is here to start a revolution.
"The fashion industry is interesting because it tackles one of the things that can change people the fastest, namely our norms, habits and self-perception. So if you could get the fashion industry to turn the idea of the good life upside down, then it could become a force that contributes to solving the problems instead of being the problem itself,” she says.
According to the American professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania Damon Centola only 25 percent of a community has to advocate for a certain decision or set of behaviours to start a revolution and to change the norm in the larger group.
“The fashion industry is a front runner in many areas that aim to influence consumers. Imagine if the industry could use that power to create more responsible and intelligent consumption,” Auken argues.
Will fashion be a permanent focus for you?
“I rarely let go of a focus once I've set my mind on it. So until a lot of people work to bring the fashion industry in the right direction, you can count on me to continue the fight.”
NEXT UP: The politicians are coming – Part 2: Member of the European Parliament Alice Kuhnke warns that the next decade will be a battle for survival for many clothing companies and that not all companies will survive the change that lies ahead.