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Recently, Heidi and I had an opportunity to attend the 2019 Copenhagen Fashion Summit, which bills itself as the world’s leading business event focused on sustainability. While it’s not a typical conference for IOVIA, we have team members passionate about fashion and the conference did provide food for thought and debate, much of it critical.

The first thing we noticed was for an industry so responsible for massive environmental pollutants – fashion is an inauspicious second in the world on that one – the conversation taking place about fashion industry sustainability was grandiose and self-placating. This industry is moving far too slowly when it comes to the environment. The industry’s calls for change in 2030 or 2050 are mind-blowing when you consider the stark messages being delivered by climate science and mother nature today.

We also noticed the industry seemed primarily interested in talking only to itself. Where were the mathematicians, physicists and scientists who could complement the artists, designers and marketers in the drive for broader sustainability? The answers we’re seeking are in the diverse collective not simply in the industry innovating in-house.

There was one speaker in particular that stood out as an antidote to the industry’s myopic approach. Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, delivered a series of hard truths about what needed to happen, based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. He finished by announcing the planet has handed us it’s invoice. The room went quiet. It was true.

Paul leaned in and reminded all of us in the room that we are now holding the bill. You can watch the standing ovation that his speech received right here.

Moving beyond the darker aspects of the summit. We did get great value in learning about many of the emerging (and established) companies that were amplified at the event. They presented their pitches on innovation within sustainability, like directing waste out of landfills to produce alternative textiles to leather.

Here are a few of the companies that inspired us:

Nature Coatings – transforming wood waste into high performing black pigments

VEGEA – turning wine industry biomass oils into bio-based technical textiles

Reflaunt – providing brands the technology to build and reclaim the secondary market

It was refreshing to hear of action being taken by High Street brands in their approaches to create open source sustainable solutions. The competitive marketing splash didn’t appear to overshadow the genuine need to do something about being more sustainable and make those solutions accessible.

In addition, we appreciated straight talking Katharine Hamnett, CBE, designer and activist, who held the audience captive with her frank statements regarding governmental action and the lack of responsibility being held at the top (access that footage here).

There is some hope in the next generation. As stated at the conference, Generation Z have a no bullshit filter. Sustainability to them doesn’t translate to a sparkly marketing campaign but something integral to a brand, product and culture. They design sustainably because it’s the right thing to do. Why aren’t big shot money-making brands amplifying the voices of this generation and putting their passions into action?

Through all of this, Heidi and I were left disappointed, confused and baffled as to why the last talk of the two days was about the consumer, and the title of the talk was – Born to Shop (!), and while rightly arguing that government regulation of the industry is a must (note that it’s the largest unregulated industry on our planet), we stood back and saw things differently. We think it’s up to us, the consumers, to drive this change and to start making the necessary choices framed around ethical, responsible and sustainable. That means NOT buying from brands that are driven by values unaligned with our own. Consumers need to look at themselves as ‘investors’ of these brands and ask, do I want to invest in this brand or should I look elsewhere? We are the engine of this industry – not the brands, not governments. It’s up to us.

How do we create a consumer-powered movement for fashion consumption, transparency and innovation? One that doesn’t support brands powered by greed, or that takes advantage of those less fortunate, or that relentlessly pollutes our planet.

We have some ideas. So if you attended the event and are ready to truly empower your consumers, we’d love to talk to you. We have reached out to some of you at the conference who expressed a desire and intent to do just this. For those of you learning about us just now, reach out and let’s talk. We are very willing and motivated partners.