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CPHFW is three sustainable seasons in: why more cities should follow

Anna Roos Van Wijngaarden
August 29, 2023

In Scandi we trust falls short when describing the ethical expectations of the fashion scene. All eyes are on the vast, wooded Nordic countries that began exploring ethical business practices long before other European nations. (The academic kick-off was initiated by Swedish professor Rhenman’s theories in the mid-60s). Apparel is no exception, especially since Copenhagen Fashion Week’s CEO Cecilie Thorsmark inaugurated the fashion capital’s sustainable ‘commandments’ for participating brands, solidifying the city’s position as a fashion capital committed to sustainability. This year marked the end of the trial period: those who couldn’t comply, would be scratched off the schedule. And that kind of cancel culture seems to have a motivating effect.

When legislation fails: CPHFW Sustainability Requirements

The idea is simple: since legislation in fashion moves slowly and climate change faster, someone else needs pull the strings. Hence, Thorsmark used her network and know-how to push the industry to become more sustainable. Speaking for the Danish industry, the CEO called fashion the country’s biggest villain. “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 wants to touch fashion”, she shared with Atmos Magazine.

The latest version of Copenhagen’s three-year sustainability plan for fashion week includes 18 “Sustainability Requirements” spanning six areas: strategic orientation, product design ethos, materials, labor conditions, consumer engagement, and the fashion week event’s production. Starting from the AW23 edition, compliance is obligatory for all participating brands, whether presenting through a fashion show, presentation, showroom, or trade show. Brands have already begun integrating these prerequisites. The soft launch is officially over.

Kickstarting fashion week’s ethical reform

The 18 claims brands should ideally all adhere to sound bold, given the complexity of apparel’s supply chain: for instance, to never destroy unsold clothes from previous collections and always find a second life for samples. To produce at least half of a collection with preferred or new generation sustainable materials, deadstock, remains – upcycled or recycled or certified textiles. To have a list with preferred materials, and one for restricted substances. And to make sure all staff is well informed about the sustainability route the brand is taking.

Regarding the event itself, achieving zero waste and carbon offsetting is anticipated, including for the carbon-intensive travel undertaken by attendees. And what might be the most interesting of them all: brands are expected to raise awareness about the fashion industry’s impact on beauty perceptions, which explains of Copenhagen’s relatively diverse casting and higher representation of ‘plus-size’ models.

Change in Copenhagen: the new rules seem to work

During the recent Danish show season, Saks Pott, a local favorite, demonstrated its commitment to sustainability by discontinuing the use of fur in response to the new show rules. “Time changes, we’re changing as well,” she said in an interview with Bazaar. The zero-waste standard was brought to action at Remain: Creative director Denise Christensen announced intentions to utilize textile set design elements for future collections or donate materials to design schools. For emerging designers like Amalie Røge, implementing the guidelines added communicative value. A well-defined framework enables them to discuss sustainability policies more confidently, despite having limited resources and a small team.

The CPH model works without audits, but can be improved

The process of admitting sustainability-committed participants to CPH Fashion Week relies on self-reporting. From policies and codes of conduct to certifications and related documents, brands can provide evidence to the sustainability committee. In the previous AW23 season, not a single brand met all standards. This prompted the organization to offer seminars, toolkits, and coaching sessions led by experts—a testament to the organization’s viability and a learning opportunity for brands.

According to a report by Vogue Business’ Emily Chan, only one brand failed to make it to the runway for AW23, leading to two possible conclusions: either Copenhagen was always a hub for sustainability, or brands worked fervently to meet the green standards in time. External audits are essential for thorough examination, yet currently absent. Thorsmark is dedicated to this ongoing process, as evidenced by recurrent meetings.

What we don’t know, does hurt

Since the organization behind CPH Fashion Week’s sustainability system decided to keep cancelled brands and assessments confidential, we can at least conclude that the movement is meant as a positive and encouraging, rather than shaming and frightening. Copenhagen’s approach is mild but explicit, the rather being culturally unconventional. The mission is to prompt brands to scrutinize their production methods, disclose (un)ethical behavior, and outline steps for improvement—a necessity given the latest statistics. The Fashion Transparency Index reports that only half of the major fashion brands communicate about their materials, even less about brand progress (42) or what sustainability even means to them (44). In fashion, ignorance is not bliss.

Sustainability Domino

A great start is not enough, Thorsmark made clear to Vogue India: “if we want to have a real impact globally, then it’s not just Copenhagen Fashion Week that should be doing it.” And her wishes were her neighbour’s command. In 2021 Norway joined the bandwagon when Oslo Runway implemented the CPHFW Sustainability Requirements to the Norwegian fashion industry. Brands were given a grace period to adapt to the new rules, and starting from 2024, all participating brands will need to adhere to Oslo’s proprietary Minimum Standards.

While the current self-regulated industry standard for sustainable fashion weeks remains a work in progress, the domino effect initiated by this voluntary legislation is undeniable. The hopes of the sustainable bubble are higher than heels.

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