Photo by Nordic Fashion Association

While governmental leaders from all around the world met in Copenhagen last week to hash out a new climate-change treaty, the fashion industry convened at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit (the “most important fashion event of the year,” according to organizers) to discuss the role it must take to promote sustainability and social responsibility in a shifting clime, both literally and figuratively. Below, we’ve rounded up some of the game-changing ideas that were presented, ones that could alter the way we perceive fashion, as well as plot a new course for an entire industry.

NICE goody bags at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit

Photo by Nordic Fashion Association

IT’S GOOD TO BE NICE

The Fashion Summit also set the stage for the launch of Nordic Initiative Clean and Ethical, or NICE, a joint initiative by the Nordic fashion industry to address socio-environmental issues while steering it toward responsible, ethical, and sustainable production. “Politicians cannot lift this task alone,” said Eva Kruse, CEO of the Danish Fashion Institute and co-organizer of NICE, as she addressed the audience. “They need the fashion industry, and we have a big responsibility. What we do, people will follow.”

Fashion has a big responsibility. What it does, people will follow.

Based on a 10-year plan for “fashion to take action,” NICE brings together the five Nordic countries to help designers and textile companies to align their values with the environment. Or in other words, be NICE.

GREEN CAN BE PROFITABLE

Becoming a sustainable company is not always easy, acknowledged Kruse. Fashion, after all, is a for-profit venture, but it’s possible to be motivated by a triple bottom line that also takes people and planet in account. “Obviously this is an industry,” she said. “This is not philanthropy, we believe this can become a business and we can do what we do at the right cost and the right quality but still preserve the earth and take care of people while we do it.”

Integrating social issues into your business plan not only benefits society, but it can also improve profitability.

Social responsibility can even offer a competitive business advantage, said Mads Øvlisen, a UN Global Compact board member and chairman of the Danish Council of Corporate Social Responsibility. “By integrating social issues into the way you do business,” he said, “you not only do something good for society, but experience shows you can actually improve your own business: Customers ask for this attitude, employees seek places to work where they see a deeper opinion about what they do, and investors increasingly invest in businesses that are managed on a sustainable basis.”

Peder Michael Pruzan-Jørgensen, Managing Director of BSR Europe

Photo by Nordic Fashion Association

ENVIRONMENTALISM IS SELF-PRESERVATION

Change has to be on the cards if we wish to avoid a “version of Armageddon,” said Peder Michael Pruzan-Jørgensen, managing director of BSR Europe, a corporate-responsibility consultancy. Part of the reason why our planet is worse for wear has to do with the frenzied rate we produce products—and the way we consume them. “The fundamental challenge for this industry is its current production model, as well as consumption model,” he said. “We’re depleting our planet of the resources we need for future consumption: our own and the consumption of our children and our grandchildren,”

Climate change will impact everything from cotton yields to the placement of manufacturing plants.

Climate change’s impact on the supply chain won’t be minimal, either, affecting everything from cotton yields to the placement of manufacturing plants. Another emerging issue with far-ranging consequences: Water, which is set to become an even hotter commodity than oil. “Blue is the new black,” Pruzan-Jørgensen, adding that while we have found substitutes for oil, there is no known substitute for water. “We’re seeing growing local conflicts between business and consumers about access to water,” he said. “You will see that in your supply chains and that will affect the availability of raw materials to your production processes.”

Laurent Claquin of PPR Group, at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit

Photo by Nordic Fashion Association

LUXURY CAN BE SUSTAINABLE

When spoken in the same breath, luxury and sustainability are usually seen as contradictions, according to Laurent Claquin, senior vice president of corporate social responsibility at PPR Group, which manages such high-end brands as Stella McCartney, Gucci, and Yves St. Laurent. “For most, luxury is associated with pleasure, individualism, and reasonable enjoyment,” he said, a far cry from sustainable development, which is synonymous with ethics, collectivity, and restraint.

Both luxury and sustainability share common values, including quality and longevity.

But luxury and sustainability share common values, Claquin said, including the “timelessness of lasting worth.” Buyers of luxury goods, he said, expect the best of everything, from design to working conditions. “Everything must be a model of transparency and integrity,” he said. “Luxury should be exemplary in that it should set an example—the best example.”

The luxury industry is stepping up its own pro-planet efforts, from PUMA committing to reducing its carbon footprint to Gucci joining forces with the Rainforest Action Network to eliminate paper sourced from Indonesian rainforests. “Profit alone is not enough,” Claquin said. “It’s the company’s task to make sure that doing business has fuller meaning—to remind people that the company is a human venture.”

Ros Harvey, Global Programme Manager of the Better Work Programme, at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit

Photo by Nordic Fashion Association

PEOPLE MATTER

Just like you can’t consider people without the planet, separating the planet from its people is next to impossible. Although globalization offers the opportunity to lift developing countries out of poverty, it can only deliver that promise if labor standards are upheld and workers are not exploited in the supply chain, said Ros Harvey, the global programme manager of the Better Work Programme. “It’s important to remember that is is about people,” she said. “It’s about the millions of people who are working around the world and have hopes for themselves and their families for a better life.”

Codes of conduct and competitiveness are not mutually exclusive.

Codes of conduct and competitiveness are not mutually exclusive and, in fact, improving labor standards goes together with improving business performance, Harvey said, indicating a case study in Cambodia that saw a correlation between better factories and a doubling of employment—a good proxy, she said, for how the economy is performing.

“You can have a improvement in labor standards,” Harvey said. “You can have an improvement in employment and economic growth. And you can see greater returns to workers in the supply chain. These three things can go together.”

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