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A Source of Inspiration: Copenhagen Fashion Week


It is no secret that the fashion industry can be incredibly unsustainable. Currently, the fashion industry is responsible for producing 10% of all carbon emissions and is the second-largest consumer of the world's water supply. Within the fashion industry, fashion weeks are widely known for their unsustainability. Individuals from all over the world fly into London, Milan, Paris, or New York to watch one 15-minute runway show that took up to 6 months to create. Once the models have finished strutting their stuff, the majority of the show’s set, beverages, and invites are discarded at an instant.

 

Copenhagen Fashion Week (CPHFW) has set about re-writing the narrative surrounding sustainability at Fashion Week by introducing their Sustainability Requirements, culminating from its 2020-2022 Sustainability Action Plan.

 

What are the CPHFW Sustainability Requirements?


Cecilie Thorsmark, CEO of CPHFW claimed “Here in Denmark, fashion really is the biggest villain.” She is also quoted saying, “The government won’t touch the fashion industry, the press almost won’t write about the fashion industry. It puzzles me that other industries that are hugely challenged, from aviation to agriculture, get massive attention, support, funding—and then no one.” Instead of waiting for the Danish government to make a stand against unsustainability within the fashion industry, Thorsmark and CPHFW decided to lead the movement themselves.


The CPHFW 2020-2022 Sustainability Action Plan was the prerequisite to the CPHFW Sustainability Requirements. The Actions Plan acts as a manifesto promoting the introduction of the Sustainability Requirements. The CPHFW Sustainability Requirements were put in place as of the Copenhagen Fashion Week Autumn Winter 23 season, spanning from 31st January until 3rd February 2023.  

 

The CPHFW Sustainability Requirements acts as a minimum set of standards that designers must conform to in order to be given a show at CPHFW. The CPHFW Sustainability Requirements span 6 focus areas covering the entire value chain: strategic directions, design, smart material choices, working conditions, consumer engagement, and show. Within these 6 focus areas, there are 18 action points that designers must adhere to.

 

The 18 action points in the CPHFW Sustainability Requirements range from finding a second life for the sample garments, educating consumers on sustainable practices, and not utilising single-use plastic packaging in store or for online orders. The action points all aim to tackle contemporary issues of unsustainability within Fashion Weeks.  For instance, an action point on not destroying any unsold items of clothing is in line with the recent EU law banning the destruction of unsold textiles and footwear.

 

Fashion designers were not the only ones who had to change their ways to be more sustainable, CPHFW itself were also set targets to improve its sustainability. One objective of the CPHFW 2020-2022 Action Plan was to reduce the event’s carbon emissions by 50% in real terms compared to 2019 by 2023. The CPHFW Sustainability Requirements promoted this objective by introducing electric vehicles to shuttle around guests, ensuring that set design and show production is zero waste, and not utilising single-use plastic packaging during any events.


How does the CPHFW Minimum Requirements Work?


As it has been already established, designers must meet all 18 of the Action Points in order to be given a show at CPHFW. In 2019, before the CPHFW 2020-2022 Action Plan was published, there was not a single designer that met all 18 action points.

 

Once a year, designers looking to participate in CPHFW must submit a self-assessment regarding the 18 action points to an independent sustainable committee. The sustainable committee is led by consultancy Rambøll, and both In Futurum and the Danish Textile Association advise the committee that is responsible for making the judgement. CPHFW’s reasoning behind not being involved in judging whether a designer has met all of the 18 action points is that it ensures that the system stays fair.

 

Out of the 29 designers that applied to participate in CPHFW AW’23, 28 were approved, meaning that only 1 designer was unsuccessful in their application. In order to promote the designer to increase their sustainability and apply to future CPHFW seasons, CPHFW did not disclose the designer that was unable to meet all of the 18 action points.

 

The use of the independent sustainability committee at CPHFW is not just to permit access, it also acts as a way of tracking progress. In addition to the self-assessment regarding the 18 action points, designers answer an additional 58 questions posed by CPHFW to the independent sustainable committee who keep score. Each of the 58 questions have a score that is weighted in congruence with “how urgent and complex the specific action is”, according to Thorsmark. Questions range from do the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) guide business practices, to have you sought expert knowledge to guide your material choices, to are the transportation and logistics optimised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Thorsmark explains that part of the reasoning behind designers answering the survey on an annual basis is that “we encourage brands to increase their score from season to season.”

 

The Domestic Impact


A symbiotic relationship between CPHFW and the designers was necessary in order for the CPHFW 2020-2022 Sustainability Action Plan to successfully prepare both parties to meet all of the CPHFW Sustainability Requirements. A consequence of the CPHFW 2020-2022 Sustainability Action Plan is that the landscape of Danish fashion has been changed and it is now on a seemingly irreversible trajectory towards a more sustainable future.

 

During the years of the CPHFW 2020-2022 Sustainability Action Plan, CPHFW offered designers offered online seminars on materials sourcing, customer education, and carbon accounting tool kits to prepare them for meeting the CPHFW Sustainability Requirements in 2023. The educational journey was not a one way system as designers also had feedback for CPHFW. The action plan banning the use of animal fur came from the designers.

 

Amalie Røge Hove, founder and creative director of A. Roege Hove claimed the self-assessment forced her to reconsider the direction of her brand in a more sustainable light. As a predominantly knitwear designer for her brand, Hove made the decision to replace the nylon in her garments for more, expensive, sustainable materials. Additionally, Hove has committed to using green-certified venues for her shows in CPHFW.

 

Henrik Vibskov, founder and creative director of his avant-garde namesake label, credited the CPHFW Sustainability Requirements with helping him regain his love for creating sustainable garments. Vibskov noted the juxtaposition in Danish attitudes towards sustainability in fashion today in comparison to two decades ago. In the early 2000s, “Everything was about the design,” Vibskov continues, “Nothing was about the environment.” In order to show his commitment to sustainable practices during fashion week, Vibskov moved his shows from Paris Fashion week to CPHFW in order to shine a light on the work that is currently taking place in Copenhagen.

 

The International Impact


CPHFW is often referred to as the ‘fifth fashion week’, after the ‘big four’ consisting of London, Milan, Paris, and New York. This unofficial title places Copenhagen on the global stage with an opportunity to highlight the work of CPHFW. CPHFW is also a founding member of the European Fashion Alliance, which aims to provide “a strong common voice advocating for and accelerating the transition of European fashion towards a more sustainable, innovative, inclusive and creative future.” Thorsmark stated the ambition of CPHFW: “We hope we can inspire other fashion weeks to go in the same direction.”

 

It is not yet clear what effect the CPHFW Sustainability Requirement will have on the ‘big four’ fashion weeks.

 

Steven Kolb, the CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which operates New York Fashion week, commented “I think what Copenhagen is doing is setting an example.”

 

Alternatively, Lauren Sherman, a former Business of Fashion correspondent, is doubtful that the ‘big four’ will adopt the minimum requirements set out by CPHFW. Her reasoning is the difference in power balance between designers and the organisers of fashion weeks. “In Copenhagen, it’s important to be on the official calendar because these are all small brands that need that.” By contract, in ‘big four’ fashion weeks, designers have more leverage against the organisers due to the power balance tipping in their favour. Sceptics such as Sherman will take the position that designers will not actively make the effort to be more sustainable if they do not have to.

 

There are signs that the rest of the fashion world is taking the CPHFW Sustainability Requirements seriously. For example, Norway and Iceland have adopted the CPHFW Sustainability Requirements to their respective fashion weeks and fashion related events.

 

Criticisms


The main concern surrounding the CPHFW Sustainability Requirements has been pointed out by Professor Raz Godelnik of Parsons School of Design. Namely, CPHFW’s allowance of carbon offsets does not incentivize the individuals and businesses using them to make the radical changes necessary to effectively mitigate their climate impact. Furthermore, there has been research surrounding carbon offsets that have found that 90% of carbon offsets “are largely worthless and could make global heating worse.

 

Regardless of the improvements that CPHFW makes in regards to making fashion weeks more sustainable, “The elephant in the room is really the business model that is based on the production and consumption of new garments” according to professor Godelnik.


Conclusion: Looking into the future of fashion


After the success of CPHFW AW’23 season, CPFW has shown that it is possible to implement more sustainable practices without stifling creativity. Thorsmark remarked “It’s so important that the shows continue to focus on the creativity and the fashion because if we want to continue having an impact and a voice as a fashion week and drive the sustainability agenda, we need to hold on firmly to the fashion credibility.”

 

CPHFW has highlighted the importance of bodies such as the EU and UN in the potential to shape policies concerning sustainability in fashion. The CPHFW 2020-2022 Sustainability Action Plan repeatedly referenced the UN’s SDGs and emphasised a strict adherence to existing EU laws surrounding sustainability.

 

Despite the progress that CPHFW has made in making Danish fashion a more sustainable space, there is still more that can be done. In Futurum co-founder Frederik Larsen argues, “The minimum standards-even though they are heralded as pushing sustainability-(are) actually at quite a low level. We have to go a lot further.” Accordingly, Thorsmark concedes that “Going forward, we’re going to introduce one new standard a year.” The recent publication of the CPHFW 2023-2025 Action Plan is a good indicator as to what the subsequent year’s new standards will be.

 

Only time will tell if the ‘big four’ fashion weeks are ready to pick up the slack and start taking an active role in making sustainability their priority. As of right now, it is undeniable that CPHFW has made a good start in re-shaping the narrative surrounding the sustainability of fashion week.

 

Sources:

Morgan McFall-Johnsen, “These facts show how unsustainable the fashion industry is”, in World Economic Forum, 2020.

Daniel Penny, “Can Fashion Week’s Trash Problem be Solved?” in New York Times, 2023.

Sophia Li, “Copenhagen Fashion Week Rewrites Fashion’s Villain Era”, in Atmos, 2023.

Copenhagen Fashion Week, Copenhagen Fashion Week Sustainability Action Plan 2020-2022, 2020.

Copenhagen Fashion Week, Sustainability Requirements, 2023.

Bella Webb, “The EU is taking on fashion’s open secret: destroying unsold goods”, in Vogue Business, 2023.

European Fashion Alliance, About, 2024.

Patrick Greenfield, “Revealed: more than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets by biggest certifier are worthless, analysis shows”, in The Guardian, 2023.

Copenhagen Fashion Week, 2023-2025 Action Plan, 2023.


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