Text By Gez Barton
Photos by Victor Jones
On the 21nd of May 2014 Less Magazine hosted its first panel debate centred on the use of Green PR within the fashion and textiles industry. The debate was appropriately held at the Dome of Visions, a beautiful minimalist structure inspired by the geodesic domes popularised in the 1960´s by Buckminster Fuller, and built with the intention to house discussions and new ideas about solutions for the climate changes to come. Following the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, it is encouraging to have the opportunity to continue the discussion around the future of our industry. The panel was made up of 5 experts within their respective fields: Johan Kryger, the Senior Manager of NICE (Nordic Initiative Clean and Ethical), Charline Skovgaard, PR consultant from FairStyles, Mads Ulrik Greenfort, Co-owner of Danish based brand A Question Of as well as Lone Loklindt, representative from the Danish Social Liberal Party and environment spokeswoman, and Sarah Netter, Professor in Sustainable Fashion at CBS. With different specialisation’s across the field, it was interesting to hear their varied and informed responses to questions addressing the key issue of ´Greenwashing´, and the ensuing questions it raises about waste management, the implementation of new business models and the inextricable link between Corporate Social Responsibility and Transparency.
The debate began with the key problem of ´Greenwashing´; How can consumers quantify the extent of a company´s true efficiency and commitment to the use of environmentally sound practices? This led to the panelists discussing the need for greater Eco-Literacy and Global Industry Standards. There are many ways in which a company´s efforts can be measured, but it is often difficult to identify the strengths and weaknesses within individual businesses. The problem here, of course, is that revealing such information potentially jeopardises the profitability and livelihood of a business. Calls for more transparency are old news in the fashion industry, but it is increasingly being backed up by consumers willing to pay more for their products if, and only if, they are guaranteed their money is used responsibly. Johan Kryger outlined the new initiative co-launched by NICE , The Higg Index 2.0, an open-source, indicator based assessment tool for the apparel and footwear industry. On trial since 2012 as version 1.0, and launched in December 2013, The Higg Index 2.0 is backed by brands such as Nike, Adidas, Patagonia and Alexander McQueen. The index is able to inform organisations of their strengths and weaknesses, drive business value within the value chain by presenting opportunities for cost-savings and innovation and moreover, catalyses sustainability education and collaboration. With critical mass driving the initiative and positive profitability incentives available to those involved, it could prove to be ´a real game changer´ in influencing new business models and supply chains. Moreover, Kryger emphasised the opportunity of Scandinavian countries in particular, with strong social welfare systems and positive government involvement towards green initiatives, to be first movers in establishing and setting the standards of a sustainable apparel industry.
However, the success of setting such standards falls short when considering the difficulties brought on by differing overseas legislations towards waste management. With globalised supply chains, legal compliance is of considerable complexity within the fashion industry. An interesting question was posed by a student of CBS, where she noted the different legislation laws regarding the same high street brand operating within the UK and in Denmark. In the UK, if a garment from this particular chain had a defect it was donated to charity, however, in Denmark, the garment was shredded. Lone Loklindt expressed her frustration at the complications brought on by these differing regulations and insisted on the necessity of setting industry standards. Moreover, Loklindt insists on creating better value propositions for retailers as well as emphasising the economic viability inherent in reuse and waste management.
Mads Ulrik Greenfort, as the co-founder of independent label A Question Of, raises another interesting point about the use of Green PR and the fact that many companies, in fear of media backlash, are afraid of labelling themselves as such. In the particular case of A Question Of, Greenfort and his business partner decided to turn to the integrity of their designs and the quality of their fabrics into their USP, rather than continuing to share the core concept of the brand, which is built on sustainable and ethical business practices. ´Sustainability stories do not sell´says Greenfort. This touches upon an interesting topic; brands should maintain their focus on the essence of their business, while simultaneously being able to pride themselves on being part of the sustainability agenda. Sarah Netter insists that this should be the default means by which businesses are run, it should be a ´no brainer´. After all, profitability needs to be the main focus of a business in order to survive and Charline Skovgaard insists that this should be done responsibly. Kryger was quick to note however, that positive ´green´marketing strategies from fashion retailers make sustainable business practices more appealing to other retailers, and are also important in adding responsible voices to the market place rather than continuing the campaign for consumerism.
The debate ended with a conversation about reassessing traditional business models and supply chains. Netter highlighted the level of responsibility held by the end consumer and explained that the complexity of decision making can often be overwhelming, with many of us wanting to make the right decisions but finding it hard to implement. She explained that we need to enrich buyer experiences, emphasising quality and craftsmanship over price. Greenfort raised an interesting point about identifying touch points that aren’t currently being explored, such as better educating sales staff in the products they are selling and consequently increasing the information available to the consumer. It is all too evident that as a throw away consumer society, the current supply and demand system that fuels fast fashion houses has become a major threat to the sustainability agenda. Netter emphasised that it cannot simply be a matter of shifting the blame onto the consumer, allowing retailers to cite demand as the reason for continued and unsustainable business practices.
It was refreshing to have a platform from which to share concerns about the current state of the industry, particularly in terms of ´Greenwashing´, and above all, to listen to the informed opinions of industry experts from their respective fields. As the first of a series of panel debates hosted by Less Magazine, I look forwards to more stimulating discussions and to the continuation of a vital conversation.