Dispelling the Sustainable Fashion Myth
It’s not a reset, but more a transformation. In conversation with Professor Esben Pedersen, we learn more about fashion, sustainability, greenwashing and how Covid-19 changed the game.
As we make our way into 2021 and vaccines start getting distributed, many seem to anticipate, or better said hope, a deep change in society and the world. Optimistically, we can look at this past year as a violent wave that left behind a clean state. A second chance to build something better, in tune with everything we’ve learned. Eyes are fixed on sustainability and finding ways to live that are not as detrimental to the environment as our past routines.
Fashion is currently at the forefront of the environmentalist debate, as one of the most polluting industries in the world. We met up with Professor Esben Pedersen to discuss everything fashion and sustainability.
An industry willing to change
Pedersen is the coordinator of the Sustainable Business Minor at Copenhagen Business School and his research focuses mainly on sustainability in organizations, especially in fashion.
“I had been working for years in CSR for many industries. In 2010, I was approached by the Danish Fashion Institute (now known as the Global Fashion Agenda) and that sparked my interest in the area,” he recalls.
Pedersen points out that many of his Ph.D. students are now working as sustainability consultants for fashion brands, a sign that shows the industry is ready to change.
“We’ve witnessed a big shift since the start of our research. Consumers care more about the sustainability of their garments, and many companies are taking more steps to address social and environmental matters.”
COVID-19: What’s the New Normal
There’s no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has hit the fashion industry hard, but many, like McKinsey, see it as the start of a big reset, where sustainable and ethical practices become the new standard. Professor Pedersen disagrees:
“I don’t believe in radical change,” he says. “Using the word reset is a bit of a communication exercise. I think there will be an adaptation, but not a complete turnover.”
If anything, sustainability took a step back in the big brands’ agenda, something the professor cannot blame them on. In a time when companies are struggling, they shouldn’t be criticised for putting their survival first.
“We’ve recently done a survey with Danish Fashion and Textile, were we looked at fashion after the Covid-19 crisis”’, explains Pedersen. “Even though the industry has been through a major crisis, we can see sustainability has not disappeared. It might be on hold, but it’s still on the agenda.”
The pandemic has shaken the very foundations of the fashion industry. To address it, companies are inclining to two recurring solutions: digitalization and sustainability.
The 2021 Copenhagen Fashion Week was completely online, thus they strive to reduce their carbon footprint by 50% in the next three years. Zalando and online marketplaces are getting increasingly popular, and they are continuously releasing new environmental standards to comply with.
Pedersen affirms that both trends are here to stay: “Covid-19 showed how susceptible the market is to change. Digitalization has become more important on the agenda and it has shown how vulnerable the supply chain could be. All the changes will have to do with digital technology which should make it more attractive to work with sustainability.”
Is a reset necessary?
So the Covid reset might be a bit of a pipe dream, a way to look at a catastrophic situation with hopeful eyes. But is a reset even necessary?
It seems that companies get caught in the definition of the perfect sustainable fashion, which prevents them from taking any steps at all. “With the existing technology you could make a difference in the environmental impact of fashion, even before considering more radical approaches,” affirms Pedersen, highlighting that going back to basics could be all that’s needed. “There is so much you can do in the current system. Only then you can be more ambitious and look at the circular economy, smarter recycling, and so on.”
Maybe if everyone accepted that in an industry like fashion, where there are so many interests at play, achieving the perfect tomorrow is simply impossible, we’d be able to focus on a better today. Certification and labels seem to be the first action for many brands trying to make clarity in their production chain. Programs like PLM software can help companies keep track of them, as more and more online retailers ask for minimum compliance to their sustainable goals.
It’s also important to note that not all companies can be held to the same standards.
“There’s no one way to do sustainable fashion. And we can’t expect all companies to do everything.”
Despite everyone’s best intention, sustainability in the fashion industry is often not more than a PR and marketing stunt for many companies. This makes greenwashing – the act of claiming that something is eco-friendly when it isn’t – a rampant issue many consider dangerous for consumers who are ready to put their money where their values are.
However, the matter might be more complicated than it seems. “Where are the boundaries surrounding greenwashing?” asks the professor. He condemns the liberal use of the term:
“I believe we can only talk about greenwashing when something stated isn’t true. If a company claims they are using organic cotton for example, but they aren’t, that is greenwashing.”
However, the lines seem blurry when companies are telling the truth, but do not provide the full picture. If a huge corporation comes up with an organic clothing line, is it greenwashing to communicate about it considering the other, more polluting collections? The question is especially relevant now that many big brands are jumping on the sustainability trend, while still holding on to some of their less eco-friendly practices.
Pedersen affirms that starting small could be a good way to test the waters. If the organic clothes sold better than the regular ones, he claims, corporations would change in the blink of an eye. “It’s supply and demand, after all.”
What even is sustainability?
The avenues to achieve a less intensive carbon footprint are diverse for the fashion industry. From faux leather made from apple peels to scrunchies made of fabric scraps – innovation is unstoppable. However, what we are missing is one definition everyone can agree on.
“Companies are very selective in their definition of sustainability,” says Pedersen. “It would be good to have standardized measures of some sustainability areas, but I also know that it’s a very technical exercise to do and get consensus about. It’s difficult to have one number that tells everything”.
The professor recognised the potential of carbon-footprint and similar measurements, but he also believes it would be valuable to link sustainability to the quality of the garments. “Having a quality measure would work great: I think that would be valued more by the consumer instead of some abstract measures of sustainability.”
Shifting buying habits to better lasting products could ultimately mean less waste and less consumption. Higher price tags that discourage compulsive shopping and guarantee living wages. Materials made to last and are well-taken care of. Reaching a place where the fashion industry does not account for more carbon emissions than all international flights and maritime shopping combined is a difficult task, but one that might begin with a very simple idea: make better products.