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.
In Stockholm, I find myself once again listening to a representative from the H&M Group blathering on about how democratic cheap clothes are, and that we – in the transition of the fashion industry – need to listen to the consumer demands (a strategy which hasn’t proven very effective so far). Meanwhile, the fast fashion giant is being sued for greenwashing in one country after another.
A panel discussion has been set up to debate the industry’s biggest challenges at the launch of the Swedish Fashion Council’s new report, Fashion Transformation, as part of the organisation’s newly established event, SFC [X]perience it’s called, taking place over three days in November.
Swedish Fashion Council, a branch of the Swedish Trade Federation, wants to “promote, educate and innovate the fashion industry for it to become competitive, sustainable and relevant in our changing world”, and with the reoccurring SFC [X]perience event they want to do things differently. Most noticeable, the organisation made the strategic decision to get rid of the endless runway shows with models walking up and down a podium like they’ve done for over a century. Instead, it’s been decided to try something new: an experience mixing fashion with art, politics and actionable data.
The panel discussion comes to an end, and though H&M’s contribution doesn’t support the vision of staying relevant, the next thing does: a woman in a red dress goes on stage and changes the vibe in the room completely. Her name is Lisa Lang, Director of Legislation and EU Affairs, EIT Climate KIC, and she’s a High-Level Expert Advisor on the creative industries to the European Commission. She electrifies the audience with fierce honesty and a clear message: fashion is fucked!
“We don’t have time, and we don’t have any marginals. We need to act now, and this industry plays a big role in the change that is needed."
According to her, the industry has failed in due diligence by not embarking on the green journey decades ago. Therefore, it will already be too late for many companies, she states. But there’s still hope for some:
“The industry players, especially the big fashion brands, have to work together,” she says.
According to her, all the big brands such as H&M, Louis Vuitton and Chanel have to agree to specific industry standards in order to get through the next decade that in terms of fashion has become an existential turningpoint.
“If they don’t, we will come and do it for you,” she says and warns that EU legislation is already underway and that more will follow, if the industry doesn’t start transitioning itself.
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.
It’s time to step up the game
If you’ve read ‘The Politicians are Coming – Part 1’, you might remember Ida Auken, a Danish politician hosting her own fashion show with politicians as models, only showcasing brands with sustainable solutions. A sign that fashion is now on the political agenda.
It’s not only in Denmark though that politicians have started to take the fashion industry seriously from an environmental point of view. It’s happening all over Europe, in Sweden as well.
Alice Kuhnke is a member of the European Parliament for the Swedish Green Party (Miljöpartiet). According to her, it has been naive to believe for so many years that the industry would be capable of regulating itself.
“It’s clear that it hasn't been enough,” she begins on a phone call from Brussels. “So it’s definitely time for politicians like me to step up the game.”
This Spring the European Commission released its textile strategy setting a new direction for the industry. Eventually, the strategy will be turned into European law with immediate effect in all member states over the years to come.
In short, it aims to make “fast fashion out of fashion”, it says in the strategy. One initiative is to extend the eco-design directive that today, mostly regulates energy related products, like TVs and fridges. In the future, it could also include textiles for better quality and longer lasting garments. Another initiative is to introduce a so-called producer responsibility, so that the product is the producer’s problem in all of its lifetime, even after it has been sold, meaning that producers will have to map the full life cycle of their products all the way to the transformation into new ones.
Not all companies will survive
So what does the new political focus mean to the industry? According to Kuhnke the analysis is clear: it’s going to be a battle for survival.
“Not all companies will survive the change that will come sooner or later, that is something we know. Some of them will, and those are the smartest, the ones ready to change and willing to take the risks that you need to take to be one of the winners,” she says.
“And some of them will try to earn as much money as possible during the shortest time possible with a big consequence,” she warns and stresses that this could happen within the next 10 years.
What will happen to the industry, if it fails to transition?
“If we were to continue with this situation, there wouldn’t be an industry for long,” she replies promptly and goes on:
“Everyday, we can read stories in the newspapers about the catastrophic situation that the world is in. We don’t have time, and we don’t have any marginals. We need to act now, and this industry plays a big role in the change that is needed,” she says and underlines that the industry is asking for regulation itself.
“Industry players want the politicians to make sure they are not outcompeted by someone like the Chinese fast fashion giant Shein. So we also need a tax on garments imported to the EU, because our efforts won’t help much, if the [fast fashion] market just gets taken over by others,” Kuhnke states.
This way of thinking also dominates the textile strategy that sees the EU, the world’s biggest market for textiles, playing a strategic key role in changing the global market.
“Of course the industry is looking out for their interests to make sure they come out as good as possible. Still, too many companies do not have the wide and long perspective needed."
An imperfect strategy
With the textile strategy, the European Commission has laid out the framework. In the process of turning the visions into law, Alice Kuhnke is hoping to be able to make some noise; she’s not completely satisfied with the level of ambition presented in the strategy.
“The worst thing – a failure actually – is that it doesn’t have enough focus on the textile workers and on equality. I see a big lack of human rights in the strategy. It seems like the European Commission doesn’t understand that ecological and social sustainability are two sides of the same coin,” she says.
Some studies show that 75 percent, others say more than 85 percent, of the people working in the global textile industry are women.
“We could make a difference from an equality perspective between men and women on a global scale, but they (the European Commission, ed.) are not taking this chance with the strategy,” she argues.
A love for bad fibers
When first published in Spring this year, the textile strategy was well received, but shortly after, critical voices started to emerge in the Scandinavian research community. Critical of the strategy’s big focus on the circulation of fibers. Like when brands collect old clothes to turn them into new ones. Not by repairing the damages or adjusting the design, but by blending the textiles into shorter fibers of a lower quality, but good enough to produce new, not as good fabrics. This technique is often mistaken for upcycling, when it’s actually downcycling and therefore should be the very last resort. Today, good fiber-to-fiber systems don’t exist.
The thing is, that this way of regarding circularity fits perfectly into a linear business model, but it will never make the industry sustainable. According to research, we need to disrupt the linear business models to fix the problems.
Back then, I started reaching out to my sources within the EU system. I needed to know where the big focus on circulation of fibers came from; it had to be from someone with other interests than fighting climate change – but who? The answer I got was: Global Fashion Agenda.
A lobby organisation previously accused of deliberate greenwashing and funded by fast fashion giants like ASOS, Bestseller, H&M, Nike and Target.
If you ask Kuhnke, lobbying is just a part of the game.
“Of course the industry is looking out for their interests to make sure they come out as good as possible. Still, too many companies do not have the wide and long perspective needed,” she says.
So it’s not a problem, if the legislation being shaped these years ends up too vague or worse: leading the industry in the wrong direction?
“It’s more of a neglect among politicians. We (politicians, ed.) need to make sure that we put the planet’s interests first. If we are responsible politicians, we also make sure that there is an industry in 30 or 50 years, even though it has to change a lot.”
H&M is getting sued for greenwashing in one country after another, and it seems like they’ll never stop lobbying the old ways. Is that a problem?
“I’ve had meetings with the H&M management, and they are smart. They know they need to change.”
Are you sure fast fashion isn’t an area of conflict for Sweden?
“I hope not!” Kuhnke ends.