Has the Global Fashion Agenda succeeded in making the fashion industry more sustainable?

It has been one year since the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA), a leadership forum aiming to drive the change towards a more sustainable fashion industry, initiated its Call to Action during the 2017 Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the world's largest sustainability conference. The GFA encouraged every single fashion brand and retailer present to begin taking more concrete steps towards sustainable fashion future by signing a commitment to accelerate the transition to a circular system. Since then 93 fashion companies, representing 207 brands, or 12 percent of the global fashion market. Within this commitment, the GFA has outlined four immediate actions points needed to speed up the shift to a circular fashion system and signatories set voluntary targets in one or more of these points to reach by 2020. The companies have set more than 200 goals, which range from implementing design strategies for recyclability to increasing the share of garments made from recycled post-consumer textile fibres, and will annually report on the progress made towards achieving their goals.

Has the Global Fashion Agenda succeeded in making the fashion industry more sustainable?

Following the 2018 edition of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, which took place from May 15 to 16 and ahead of the release of the first 2020 Circular Fashion Commitment progress report, FashionUnited asks if the Global Fashion Agenda has succeeded in making the fashion industry more sustainable and what effect its Call to Action has had so far.

"We went on stage last year to address the commitment to change,” said Eva Kruse, CEO of Global Fashion Agenda during the second day of Copenhagen Fashion Summit. “We were addressing how do we take this event from talk and words and put it into action and we put forward a call to action for the industry. A call for circular fashion.” That call to action marked the launch of the 2020 Circular Fashion Commitment, which saw leading fashion companies such as H&M, Inditex and Kering sign up. In addition, a number of smaller fashion players, such as The R Collective, also signed the commitment. “I think I am in a unique position to be able to view the initiative through two lenses,” mused Dr. Christina Dean, founder and board chair of NGO Redress and co-founder and CEO of The R Collective to FashionUnited over the phone. Although Dean was unable to attend the Summit in person this year, she followed the event and surrounding discussions closely online. “I really think it is a good overarching initiative,” said Dean on the 2020 Commitment. “I can honestly rave about it for days, as it encourages brands to set voluntary targets and submit progress reports on how they are progressing on their goals.”

Has the Global Fashion Agenda succeeded in making the fashion industry more sustainable?

The fashion industry is taking "baby steps" towards bringing around systematic change

While some may argue these goals are only voluntary and that there are no consequences so-to-speak if companies do not reach their targets by 2020, Dean noted that taking small steps is the best way forward. “You have to take baby steps when bringing around a whole systematic change to an industry, as big as the fashion industry. Change like this does not happen overnight.” In addition, after companies have set their circular goals, which vary from designing for circularity, garment collection, reselling apparel, or recycling fibres, the Global Fashion Agenda can then spot any trends set by the retailers and support them by offering solutions. "It is more apparent now which brands what to start where and how they can work together to achieve this change." Jonas Eder-Hansen, Summit Program Director of the Global Fashion Agenda, also revealed during the Summit that the GFA aims to increase its collaborations with policies makers and like-minded organisations, such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the C&A Foundation, and the H&M Foundation, to help create the right framework for a circular economy. "Now may be the right time for a circular textile strategy," stated Eder-Hansen. "The European Commission is currently working on this and we are here to help. We are really proud to have helped so many fashion brands and retailers take the right steps in the right direction towards a circular economy."

According to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2018, an annual report created by the Boston Consulting Group and the Global Fashion Agenda, last year was a great turning point for the fashion industry, as overall 75 percent of fashion companies managed to improve their score when it comes to sustainability. Over the past year, the Pulse Score of the global fashion industry improved from 32 points out of 100 to 38, confirming the growing interest in sustainable practices. “I’m excited that sustainability finally has been taken out of the lab and into the boardroom,” said Morten Lehmann, chief sustainability officer at GFA in a statement. ​ ​ However, the report also stressed that the rate of change concerning sustainability is still not happening fast enough, or reaching far enough. Small and mid-sized companies in the entry-price segment hardly showed any signs of improvement when it came to addressing sustainability and larger companies struggled to make significant progress, underlining the road the fashion industry has to go before it takes on a circular system.

Has the Global Fashion Agenda succeeded in making the fashion industry more sustainable?

The fashion industry has moved beyond discussing circular fashion and is taking action

Nevertheless, attendees from the Summit agreed that an increasing number of fashion brands and retailers are taking the steps needed to become more sustainable following the Global Fashion Agenda Call To Action. “In terms of progress, we have moved beyond the stage of discussing the problems and aligning on the vision of circular fashion," said Katrin Ley, Managing Director of Fashion for Good, who moderated a panel on reshaping fashion during the event, to FashionUnited. "There was far more interest in innovations and piloting those innovations and solutions this year, which is a very good step in the right direction." Fashion for Good was a Knowledge Partner at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit this year, which meant that a large number of the start-ups presenting their solutions for the industry at the Innovation Forum, such as BioGlitz, Software Automation, Circular System and Colorifix, came from its network. “There are many discussions going on regarding the problems in the fashion industry, so we were happy to provide a broad mix of solutions across the supply chain. These ranged from early-stage solutions, which are in early development, as well as ones which are ready to be implemented,” noted Ley.

"We need to see new business models associated with the circular economy and rethink the way we produce across the supply and value chain. If the bottom line does not follow and deliver, change will be difficult in the future"

Mostafiz Uddin, Managing Director, Denim Expert, founder & CEO of Bangladesh Apparel Exchange

Has the Global Fashion Agenda succeeded in making the fashion industry more sustainable?

"I feel like there were sufficient innovations present at the Summit which offered different solutions for different areas of the supply chain," she continued, while pointing out there a number of solutions to help fashion companies shift to a closed-loop-system already on the market like peer to peer reselling platforms, which ensure clothing is kept in use as long as possible. "These solutions are these, but fashion brands have not stepped in to fill this gap, so e-commerce players are capturing the need." The holy grail to achieving true circularity lies in textile recycling, in her opinion. "We work with 50 startups who offer very promising solutions for different material recycling, all of which are in the last stages of development or starting pilot projects. While Ley maintains that the real challenge lies in ensuring companies are able to work out the logistics linked to clothing recycling, such as garment collecting, Dean believes the fashion industry still lacks sufficient scalable innovations to help accelerate the shift to a circular, sustainable system.

"I think we are missing scalable innovations to really fill the gaps when it comes to recycling and circularity," she said. "Innovation is also a tricky term. It all sounds great on paper but remains extremely challenging in reality and it can give people false hope that a solution to the issue is just around the corner, but then it turns out that it is a really long, long corner." Mostafiz Uddin, Managing Director, Denim Expert, founder & CEO of Bangladesh Apparel Exchange, who attend the Summit and spoke on a panel concerning transparency in the fashion industry, agreed with Dean. "I feel that the GFA still can share examples of positive change models – and then the industry needs to take on the responsibility for change," added Uddin, noting that the fashion industry is still lacking true leaders highlight the best steps towards a circular economy.

Has the Global Fashion Agenda succeeded in making the fashion industry more sustainable?

The fashion industry is lacking 'true leaders' leading the way towards a circular economy

"We need to see some real change agents demonstrating and sharing clear steps across the entire value chain, from fiber to consumer, with a clear business model that will demonstrate impact. It will take years, but the good news is that awareness is created and commitments are signed by leading brands who will inspire the rest of the industry over time," said Uddin. Both Dean and Ley noted that there was a lot emphasis on collaboration between fashion companies, NGOs, and other organisations to share knowledge following the Copenhagen Fashion Summit last year as well. "You see players working together now that in the past may have not necessarily come together and work on solutions. So this is very promising to see," said Ley.

"The GFA could not do any more than it is already doing to drive change. They are already collaborating with all the industry key players and having the right discussions," added Dean. However, the founder of Redress noted that it is truly time to move past buzzwords like collaboration, sustainability, and circularity and focus on driving real change. ”I know life is a journey, and sustainability is a journey, but can we just please get on with it?" While Dean acknowledges that collaboration is key to any change, one of the biggest challenges linked to making sustainable fashion the norm remains changing peoples and companies mindsets, which is not an easy task. But change is coming.

Has the Global Fashion Agenda succeeded in making the fashion industry more sustainable?

Disruptive business models needed to drive real change towards sustainability

"Change is rooted in culture," stressed Uddin. "Culture is changed daily and culture is related to values. Change in values belongs to every new generation and a new generation only appears every 10 to 15 years. We need to inspire the next generation to take on the leadership of change and with the improvement of new values, new technology, and new consumer awareness – then change will come. Change is the one constant but also profound change takes time. Disruptive business models like Uber and Airbnb provided alternative offers to the consumer. So we need to drive disruptive business models into the fashion industry with the consumer at heart. Then change will happen faster." Dean also pointed out that it is still early days for the GFA 2020 commitment, and there is unlikely to be any "groundbreaking changes" when it comes to the progress brands have made on their targets, as they had until November 2017 to set their target and February 2018 to submit their ​ ​ progress reports.

"Once the progress report has been released it will make it very clear just what progress has been made and how far we are from achieving these goals, which will really showcase how the Global Fashion Agenda is turning its words into actions," she added. Uddin agreed, adding that it is too early to really gauge the full impact of the 2020 Commitment. "In my opinion, we cannot yet see the impact of these steps as the fashion industry is like an oil tanker," he said. "It takes time for it to shift direction."

​Photo credit: Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2018​